Knoxville's Lonetones are deeply rooted to East Tennessee. With jobs and families cementing the band to mostly local outings, the group seems to embrace home, performing music that is Appalachian at its core.
The inherently traditional aura of its sound, however, in no way limits its massive absorption of influences from around the world, drawing comparisons to bands of other genres in other hemispheres. Tonight the socially conscious act will perform for a global cause, benefitting the children of Haiti.
There is no denying the folk base of The Lonetone's sound, with musical renaissance man Sean McCollough employing an arsenal of traditional instruments and the band's front porch-vocal harmonies. Despite its mountain-folk heritage, the group has been likened to a number of indie-rock outfits, the most abstract of which being the key-heavy Scottish act Belle and Sebastian. Perhaps more noticeably, the Lonetones are reminiscent of Swedish indie-poppers Acid House Kings had they been reared in Melungeon territory.
Ever open to listener interpretation, the group is accessible to a wide array of fans and comfortably fits nearly any venue Knoxville can offer.
"I love to drone," McCollough points out. "I drone on the banjo, the mandolin, the guitar and keyboards. I love finding one or two notes that I can play through an entire song and then build layers on top of that. One band I associate with this idea is The Velvet Underground. Their music has heavily influenced what we think of as indie-rock. So perhaps this is related to where the term indie-folk has come from.
"Of course, the demographic draw at different venues is a reality - younger folks come to an 11 o'clock show at the (Preservation) Pub; older folks come to an 8 o'clock show at Barley's. But, as musical styles continue to mix and create this wonderful mish-mash that we call American music, I really think that the distance between what can happen at the WDVX Blue Plate Special at noon and what goes on at the Pilot Light at midnight is really not as far as some people might think."
"I marvel at the diverse fan base The Lonetones gather," adds vocalist/guitarist Steph Gunnoe. "All ages, all persuasions - festivals are usually a good fit for us for this reason. We have played at the Pilot Light only once before, and I would rate it highly as a stage to be free on. We have probably played the most shows on WDVX and have a real home there, a welcoming audience that permits our experimentation. We kind of tailor our sound to the venue - clean it or dirty it up musically."
With two albums to their credit since 2003, The Lonetones are gradually accumulating tracks for a third they hope to release later this year. Due to the band's low-pressure, DIY approach to recording, albums tend to sprawl a lengthy period of time, which may account for the discernible evolution between and within each record.
"We're slowly beginning to record our next album," McCollough notes. "We have recorded our last two at home and will do so again. It gives us the luxury of taking our time and experimenting."
For tonight's gig, The Lonetones will be joined by Kevin Abernathy, a familiar face bringing an unfamiliar aspect to the group's dynamic, adding his electric guitar to the band's earthy sound.
The Lonetones will perform at Pilot Light in a benefit for the Haitian Pedagogy Institute. Co-founders Sara Elizabeth Malley and Kymberle Kaser put HPI together with the mission of funding and establishing self-sustaining schools and free secondary education for the children of Haiti.
The story of the LoneTones is a love story with three main characters: Steph Gunnoe, Sean McCollough, and the music that brought them together.
As adorable as any movie meet-cute, their first encounter took place at Barley’s Taproom in the Old City in 2000. Gunnoe was still new in town—fresh from her native West Virginia after spending 10 years in the Pacific Northwest—and had read about McCollough in this newspaper, so her impression was positive before her housemate, another musician, introduced them one night over a game of darts.
“We went back to Meg’s and my house and played music,” Gunnoe says, looking across the kitchen table at McCollough, who is now her husband. “We played music that first night, right?”
McCollough nods. “Then we just kept playing music, I guess,” he says. “Is that what happened?”
Playing music soon turned into dating, then one thing led to another, and they had their first gig.
The duo played the regular WDVX Local Licks at 6 in-studio performance series. Back then, the studio was a small camper parked in the Fox Campground off the Norris interstate exit, and station manager Tony Lawson had tuned in for their radio debut.
“Tony called me that night and invited us to come play at Camperfest, like, that weekend,” says McCollough. Enter gig number two: performing during the Sunday morning gospel-music part of the festival. The timing caused them to re-evaluate their set list for any uncouth content and be hyper-aware of the audience. Gunnoe says that when she started to sing, the men glazed over. “They wondered how this fit into the bluegrass festival,” McCollough says. He jokes that women, however, perked up to hear the first female voice of the weekend—and a band not playing at breakneck speed. “At least we knew that the WDVX women in the campers making potato salad liked us,” Gunnoe says.
Their early sets featured Steph’s songs and a healthy serving of covers, in which the duo explored their common musical ground. Non-musicians flirt via mixtapes; musicians do it with covers.
“The instant she played a Carter Family song and I chipped in, it was like, ‘This works,’” McCollough says.
They grew as a band, adding percussionist Steve Corrigan and bass player Maria Williams, whom McCollough and Gunnoe give credit for helping develop their sound from straight-up folk to something extra.
“Maria is really eclectic in her taste in music,” he says. “So as we’ve wanted to change, she’s really been right there with us. She’s been very willing to go from more of the country style to adding more pop and rock elements.”
Their first album, 2004’s Useful, is folky sweet, infused with Gunnoe’s honeysuckle voice paired with McCollough and Williams’ warm and lilting harmonies, atop “Wildwood Flower”-style strumming. Her early songs paved a thematic path for the sound Gunnoe describes as “a weird tension” between “loving where you’re from and kind of hating it, too.”
By the time of their second album, Nature Hatin’ Blues (2006), the LoneTones had evolved to incorporate more sonic layers and unique instrumentation—a preview of things to come on 2009’s Canaries, which approaches acoustic folk with touches of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Fuzzy radio static launches the title track, which then slips to an acoustic guitar, a drum beat, and then Gunnoe’s honeyed voice. McCollough’s fingerpicking solo sounds like flamenco. Other effects on the album—birdsong, rain, crickets—evoke a haunted forest.
Band names rarely hold up to much scrutiny, but in the LoneTones’ case, the compound moniker suits the way McCollough and Gunnoe approach writing.
“I have a more fragile ego,” McCollough says. “So I totally write alone and bring [songs] finished to the table. She tends to bring them a little earlier.”
“You have more to offer an unformed song,” Gunnoe replies, saying later that she frequently asks him to help “dirty the sound up in some way.”
Husband-and-wife musical collaboration sounds decidedly non-dramatic as described by these two, who have a daughter and maintain two careers. Gunnoe is a nurse practitioner, and McCollough teaches musicology at the University of Tennessee (hundreds of students per year have had him for the history of rock). He’s also a member of the John Myers Band and recently released This Is Our House, an album of family music. McCollough says playing and recording in his home studio so frequently over the past few years has made him more comfortable with the process and means they’ll probably start making a new LoneTones disc soon. It will most certainly sound like the sum of their influences and inspirations—folk and the rest of it.
“One of the best compliments we get is when people tell us we don’t sound like anything else they’ve ever heard before,” McCollough says. “I always love that. We’re just trying to be true to who we are and it comes out sounding like we sound, instead of bluegrass or other styles of folk. It’s just whatever it is. Whatever we are.”
The relationship between place and music is profound and complicated. Musicians often find a voice that expresses the aspirations, anxieties, and ambiguities of their region and their people. The members of the LoneTones certainly do. Their music rings from the mountains of Appalachia with a reverent, enduring and, at times, conflicted spirit. The band mates shoulder their geography with craft and care. They’re comfortable describing their songs as “fragile little things…kind of like souls” – songs sometimes possessing a quality of “healing.” Their music evokes place, but the LoneTones are anything but complacent. They create light-hearted music for the heavy-hearted, charming music for those charged to act.
WHO NEEDS "BIG TIME" WITH FANS AND FRIENDS RIGHT HERE?
The Lonetones are anything but lonely.
The folk music quartet is flush with friends and loaded with family. The band's sophomore CD, "Nature Hatin' Blues," is ready for release, and the band members know that, in Knoxville, they'll have local radio support and a waiting audience....
The LoneTones use a xylophone, and that’s pretty neat. But that’s not the only reason they’re cool. It could also have something to do with the sweet harmonies, and eco-friendly lyrics such as, They say they’ll protect us with technology’s grace/
But these mountains are state of the art. The Tones used to describe their sound as “timeless mountain pop,” but we think they’re better than that. Timeless mountain music is much more descriptive, because there isn’t anything pop-y about this group.
LONETONES HAVE A THING FOR NATURE
....It's more than just a statement about Mother Nature; it's a treatise on human nature as well: "I've got the nature hatin' blues / each time we win we surely lose / the signs and symptoms can be found / disharmony bringing us down / I wanna bring it back, I wanna fit back in / I wanna be a part of nature again ..."
"We spent a lot of time thinking about what we do to the environment and ourselves," Gunnoe told The Daily Times this week. "I just think we kind of hate our own nature, and when we sort of deny ourselves, we deny nature at the same time. It's meant to look at both, because it's hard to separate them."
FROM SEATTLE TO DOWN SOUTH, GUNNOE'S LONETONE JOURNEY A HAPPY ONE
But for a few fateful turn of events, Stephanie Gunnoe might be playing electric guitar and screaming into a microphone as part of a riot-grrl group out of the Northwest.
Instead, Gunnoe picks sweet acoustic guitar and sings gently as part of The LoneTones, the band she fronts with her husband, singer-songwriter Sean McCollough (who also fronts the local band Evergreen Street). The band plays gentle acoustic music rooted in Gunnoe's Appalachian heritage ... but hearing her story, it's not a stretch to see how she might have ended up signed to Kill Rock Stars along with the label's star band, Sleater-Kinney.
``I was so happy to discover the riot-grrl scene, and it really, really inspired me,'' Gunnoe said recently of the time she spent in Portland, Ore., Sleater-Kinney's hometown. ``I might very well have ended up in one of those types of bands, but I didn't have the riot-grrl kind of voice and the aggression. I just don't have it, but the whole do-it-yourself attitude inspired me.''
Gunnoe's roundabout path to East Tennessee began in West Virginia, where, growing up, she was immersed in music. Her mother sang opera, and her father played the banjo. At the time, she disliked both styles of music, and when she left for college, she chose a place about as far from the West Virginia mountains as she could get -- Washington State.
``I hated bluegrass music, and opera for that matter, until I went to college out there,'' she said. ``I guess seeing all these young people enjoy it made me realize how much I loved it.''
Eventually, she followed a boyfriend and a best friend to Portland, where she began performing with a fellow singer-songwriter named Little Sue.
``We played just kind of raw harmonies, a Hazel-and-Alice type of music,'' she said.
At the time, the grunge movement had just exploded out of Seattle, and the riot-grrl movement arose from that scene. But Gunnoe drifted toward the emerging Eastside Sound, an acoustic revival led by former members of the Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs.
``It was sort of an acoustic revival, and those guys sort of grandfathered a whole scene,'' Gunnoe said.
Shortly thereafter, homesickness led her back east -- but she wasn't so overcome with it that she wanted to settle back in West Virginia. She settled on graduate school in Knoxville, based in part on its proximity to the mountains that she loved.
``I heard WDVX when I was coming down here to visit the college, and just driving through the mountains, listening to some of the songs, was powerful,'' she said.
Realizing she'd found a spiritual as well as a geographical connection to her childhood, Gunnoe threw herself into studies at the University of Tennessee and the local roots music scene. Her high, melodic voice seems cut from rough mountain fabric, a thick flannel worn to sweet softness that's warm and comforting at the same time.
A chance encounter at Barley's Taproom altered her life when she was introduced to McCollough.
``We came back to our house -- my roommate was his friend, so we came home and played some music that night, and we've been playing ever since,'' she said.
That was back in 2000, and the two were soon known as Steph Gunnoe and Sean McCollough. Their first public gig was a wedding at The Palace Theater in downtown Maryville, and eventually, the two added Maria Williams on harmony vocals and bass and McCollough's Evergreen Street bandmate, Phil Pollard, on drums.
``We were kind of hoping the bigger sound might help us stand up to the noise in a bar,'' she said with a chuckle. ``But it started with just me and Sean. I thought he had just a deep love and understanding of folk music, and somebody said this about him -- and it made a lot of sense -- they said he's kind of a rock 'n' roller but he sort of channels it all into folk music. To me, that's very valuable in the folk music world.''
McCollough and Gunnoe were married about two years ago, she said, and The LoneTones began work on their debut album -- ``Useful,'' a collection of songs that's full of mirth, gentle energy and excellent musicianship -- about a year ago.
``We started a year ago, and we'd had a baby, so it seemed like a pipe dream at the time to make this record,'' said Gunnoe, whose stepchildren attend school in Alcoa. ``We were pretty deliberate that we wanted to try and keep it true to our sound. It's pretty tempting to make your vocals better and add a bunch of instruments, because Sean can play anything, but we tried to keep it toned down to keep from disappointing people live.''
Their success is self-evident, and anyone who listens will most certainly agree -- Gunnoe sounds much more at home singing and playing Americana than she would have been raging through a raucous set of girl-punk.
KNOXVILLE: FROM COUNTRY ROOTS TO SLUDGE METAL
"The LoneTones specialize in a singular approach to Appalachian pop that's almost unimaginably sweet and certain to please even the most discerning fan of Americana, alt-country and old-time string ensembles. Soulful songwriting and elegant arrangements abound on the band's two full-lengths, especially 2006's "Nature Hatin' Blues," which at moments evokes the sense of an Appalachian Belle and Sebastian — only better. The band is composed of Steph Gunnoe on guitar and vocals, Sean McCollough on guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals, bass player Maria Williams, Steve Corrigan on drums and glockenspiel, and drummer emeritus Phil Pollard. This group is a true musical gem.