At the end of the day, when Sean McCollough and his wife, Steph Gunnoe, gather around the dinner table with their daughter, Willa, the conversation inevitably takes a darker turn.
Gunnoe, who works in palliative care at a Knoxville hospital, sees it on a daily basis. They’re caring for elderly parents, one of whom — Gunnoe’s mother — has slowly slipped away as dementia has ravaged her mind. On their way to a gig with their band, The Lonetones, they survived a devastating car crash a few years back that left Gunnoe hospitalized for almost a week with broken ribs, a fractured sternum and a punctured liver and lung. They’re not as young as they were when they started this musical journey, and they’ve seen death claim close friends, including the late Phil Pollard, a musical force of nature in the Knoxville scene and a frequent collaborator with the couple.
It’s little wonder, then, that some of that darkness makes its way onto “Dumbing It All Down,” the new Lonetones record that the band will celebrate with a Saturday night release show at The Open Chord in West Knoxville.
“I do think there are songs that are a total reaction to the preciousness of life and the realization of death,” McCollough told The Daily Times this week. “Aging parents, aging ourselves, car wrecks ... those things give us a new perspective on life, and they played a part, for sure. It’s like the song ‘Sweet Sinners’ — that’s kind of about our dinner conversations. We’re all here, ultimately, for a short time. We’re all sweet, and we’re all sinners, and we’re all doing the best we can, and we haven’t figured it all out.”
Here’s the thing about “Dumbing It All Down,” though: It’s not a dark record. Yes, it touches on some metaphysical themes, but the intricate instrumentation, combined with McCollough’s soothing baritone and Gunnoe’s lilting alto, manage to package up melancholy and depression and turn them into a rumination on the yin and yang of life on Planet Earth. Yes, bad things happen; yes, there is pain. But misery is optional, and the sun will indeed rise every morning. A Lonetones record, in other words, sums up the bottom line: No matter what happens, it’s going to be OK, one way or another. Life may not work out to the expectations of those who experience it, but solace and comfort can be found when the shadows descend, if one knows where to look.
And music, they said, is as good of a place as any to start.
“It’s like, you show yourself, through your inner child, that the follow-through is really powerful,” Gunnoe told The Daily Times. “It sends a message to these really scared parts of yourself that it’s OK, that it’s worth it, that you’re worth it. Really, it helps you move on.”
“I think there’s a a value in writing a song or a poem or painting a painting just for yourself, and we both sometimes do that,” McCollough added. “But there is also value in putting it out into the world, and a vulnerability that comes with that, that’s powerful and healing.”
The Lonetones grew out of a chance encounter between Gunnoe and McCollough at Barley’s Knoxville in the Old City in 2000; a West Virginia native, Gunnoe had recently moved to Knoxville for graduate school and quickly became a fan of the local roots music scene. McCollough was a part of that scene, having played in the band Evergreen Street with Geol Greenlee and Pollard, and after connecting romantically and musically, they formed a duo. (Their first public gig was at a wedding at The Palace Theater in downtown Maryville.)
Over time, they filled out the lineup, one that’s changed a number of times over the years, and released a handful of records: “Useful” in 2004, “Nature Hatin’ Blues” in 2006, “Canaries” in 2009 and “Modern Victims” in 2012. That record was released in late 2012, so while it hasn’t been quite five years since the last Lonetones album, both McCollough and Gunnoe acknowledge that the wait has been longer than expected.
“That car wreck happened right on the heels of us buying and renovating a new house, and part of that meant creating a new recording studio in the house,” McCollough said. “We were kind of ready to record an album when we did all of that, but it pushed it back by about a year and a half. But we ended up with a nice space in our house to record.”
At their former home, the studio was located in the basement, where a wood stove made winter recording sessions impossible because of the heat. In addition, the acoustics were often so difficult that McCollough spent more time cleaning up recordings on the computer than his bandmates did laying the recordings down.
“With ‘Dumbing It All Down,’ I didn’t have to sit there and work on them to make them sound nice,” he said. “The space has been a real added benefit.”
Another benefit — new players in the Lonetones lineup. Jamie Cook, formerly of the Black Lillies, is the band’s new drummer, and Vince Ilagan and Bryn Davies are splitting duties on bass. Cecilia Miller is the lone holdover from “Modern Victims”-era Lonetones, but her expanded role on the new album adds a sweeping sense of majesty to many of the songs. And when all of the members contribute to the arrangements of certain songs, the results are sublime. Local jazz man Will Boyd pitched in for the song “Of Course,” which Gunnoe initially brought to her husband as a song she was unsure belonged on the album.
“It was this sad song that was really super raw that I brought to Sean, and he’s like this benevolent, wonderful dad, and you know it’s not going to be too much for him,” Gunnoe said. “He said something like, ‘It’s going to be OK. We can work with this.’ And I said, ‘We can work with that? It feels so dark and heavy!’”
“It’s a heavy song, lyrically, and Steph was pretty set on the fact that this was maybe a song we couldn’t ever perform or do with the band,” McCollough added. “But the band came together and played around with it, and we put it to a sort of disco, roller-skating vibe, and it surprisingly came out sounding like it sounds. It was a community effort that turned it into what it is, and you come away from it feeling hopeful, even though the lyrics are heavy.”
And that cuts to the core of The Lonetones sound. Life happens, and it’s not always a pleasant experience. But with albums like “Dumbing It All Down” to get us through, we’re going to be OK.
“I’m pretty busy, and I’ve got a lot of nice parts to my life, and I don’t want to mess around with the art unless it’s going to serve a purpose,” Gunnoe said. “Sometimes, I kind of wish I didn’t have to do it. It’s a lot of work, it doesn’t pay any money, and it takes you away from other things. But there’s nothing else quite like it to serve its purpose, and because of that, we can’t not do it.”
At the end of the day, when Sean McCollough and his wife, Steph Gunnoe, gather around the dinner table with their daughter, Willa, the conversation inevitably takes a darker turn.
It would be hard to miss the political overtones of The Lonetones' new album, "Dumbing It All Down." While co-lead singer-songwriters and husband and wife Sean McCollough and Steph Gunnoe have always addressed topical and cultural issues, they seem particularly pointed in the new album.
"It struck us that we tend to write about big themes, and some of those themes seem to have a little more focus all of a sudden, and they maybe have more meaning than they did before," says McCollough.
"Yeah, everything feels really different," says Gunnoe. "I feel like I’ve been living with that tension a long time. I’m a little relieved having it out in the open. I’ve been traveling between coal country and elite bubbles like Seattle, Wash. I’ve been trying to incorporate both worlds."
The two sit in their South Knoxville home to talk about the group's first new album in four years. With each release the duo has seemed more comfortable within their music.
There's probably no better example than Gunnoe's new song "Depressed Area USA," which opens with a 1963 clip from a report by legendary newsman Walter Cronkite on poverty in Appalachia. Gunnoe, who grew up in West Virginia, knew that while much of the report was true, people in the area felt the image presented was demeaning and shallow. Gunnoe grew up in a progressive family with a mother who sang opera, but definitely had her roots deep in the culture around her. Gunnoe and McCollough have participated in projects to fight mountaintop removal mining, but know well what mining jobs mean to the people in those areas. It's a dichotomy that runs through many of the group's songs.
"There’s definitely bubbles, and a lot of the things that I write about and care about come from those themes. I come from a blue state that went to very red, and I can’t deny those forces that led people there. I feel like I have a little insight, just from life. I don’t know how to start healing the rift. I don’t know what it is, digitization or whatever, but we should’ve looked deeper and we should’ve looked sooner. … It’s stuff that comes back to bite you later. It’s kind of like my family; liberals don’t understand where electricity comes from. It’s a problem. It’s hard for people to respect that. I come from the land where fuel comes from."
Gunnoe and McCollough met in 2000 at a show at Barley’s and ended the night playing music with some mutual friends. Gunnoe, a nurse practitioner, had settled in town a few months before after being charmed by the local music scene. McCullough grew up in Minnesota and Middle Tennessee before moving to Knoxville in 1985 to attend the University of Tennessee, where he now teaches. He has been active in the Knoxville music scene since the 1990s.
Both had backgrounds in folk and rock music, but when they first formed The Lonetones, they were wary of straying too far from the folk mold.
"When we first started writing I thought, ‘Well, only these types of songs that I write can be Lonetones songs and if I write other kinds of songs I’ll have to find another venue,' " says McCollough. "At this point I feel like I can write whatever kinds of songs that I like and we’ll make it work with the Lonetones."
"I guess you just realized that you could show your true colors," says Gunnoe. "Sean played me some things by his high school band, The Imposers, and it was just like ‘What?’ They were playing really cool original psychedelic sci-fi. ‘You were doing that at 16?’ Well, we don’t have to stick with Flatt and Scruggs! We got places to go!’"
McCollough points to the songs "Poor for My Art" and "Too Much Space" on the new album:
"They seem fairly far out there for The Lonetones, but the instant you put Steph’s voice on it, it’s The Lonetones."
The two agree that having a good group of musicians makes it easy to present songs that don't hone too close to any boundaries. The original Lonetones included the late Phil Pollard, bassist Maria Williams and drummer Steve Corrigan. The current lineup includes cellist Cecila Miller, bassists Vince Ilagan and Bryn Davies (a married couple who swap out Lonetones gigs with other gigs) and drummer Jamie Cook.
While the two say one reason for the length of time between albums is not being particularly prolific writers, a car wreck on the way to a gig in which Gunnoe was seriously injured also waylaid the project for awhile. The couple also moved and set up a new studio a little over a year ago.
There's a respect and appreciation for each other's abilities that is apparent both in their work and their partnership. While Gunnoe says she admires and is inspired by McCollough's vocal range and instrumental abilities, McCollough says he envies his wife's vocal character.
"She has a voice that sounds like her, and I’ve struggled to find my own voice," says McCollough. "We’ve tried in our arranging to figure out how our voices balance out."
Both say they are stretched by the other and depend on each other's particular talents.
"We’re like an old couple who compensate for each other when our minds fail!"
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.