WPOC Sunday in the Country
Gary Allan, Brantley Gilbert, Florida Georgia Line, Randy Houser, Maggie Rose, The Henningsens, No Lawn Chairs!
10475 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, Maryland, 21044
This event is all ages
"I think the fans are gonna feel that this record is different," he says, "but the most important thing is that what I do is authentic. I've never pushed for a certain image. I've just always done my own thing."
This time around, Allan says, that includes letting listeners ride along through his personal landscape over the past year. "The record has taken about a year to make," he says, "and I think the whole thing reflects change. I think every record sort of reflects where I'm at, and I've made a ton of changes this year, just mentally and in how I'm approaching everything. "Oh," he adds with a grin, "and I think it's much more rockin' than anything I've done."
Allan decided to crank it up musically. "I just felt like I was growing so much and wanted the music to reflect that. I think the result has more of an edge." More edge, from the man who's already got a reputation as a bit of a Nashville outsider? "Hopefully country music feels like they need somebody like me in the fold just to shake things up," he laughs.
Not that this was all his idea - Allan feels some of the changes come from the fans themselves. "It's not like I was trying for a new direction, it's almost audience driven, too. l feel like I've got this young crowd with me now, I've got these rocker kids in my audience. And I grew up with that music, too," says the California-bred singer, "so to me that stuff is right alongside Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. The people really dictate the music, too. I feed off the audience, whatever they're really wanting is what they drag out of me. I've got the edgy side of the country crowd -- and I want to keep them."
No danger of losing them - "Living Hard" is an all-out rocker with a heavy Rolling Stones influence, and in "Like It's a Bad Thing" he lets it rip with a song that reads like a Gary Allan bad boy manifesto. "That song does sound like me, doesn't it" he says. "I think if anything that sort of renegade spirit is even more prevalent on this album. We've always danced to our own tune."
Allan, whose life is a whirlwind of hard-driving touring, also made a conscious decision to carve out more songwriting time for this album than ever before. "It's the most I've written on any album," he says. "I usually only write on my time off because I'm going so much that I hardly have time to ponder and sit around enough to want to write. Last year I sort of forced myself into it early so that I could write more for the record."
He was pleased with the result: "I'm usually more critical on my stuff," he says, "but I feel like I'm writing better, and obviously the more you've been through, the more you've got to say and the deeper you can express those emotions."
If you've been to his shows, Allan says, you know that when he sings about "baring my soul for the price of your ticket," he's not just blowing smoke. Since his last studio album, 2005's TOUGH ALL OVER, which drew on his experiences coping with the death-by-suicide of his wife, Angela, in 2004, Allan has become known for putting all his emotions on the line in his songs. "I'm exactly the same on the stage as I am off the stage," he says, "and what I found is, the bigger the arena, the more you're standing in the middle of those people, the more transparent you are. You can tell when somebody's not authentic or they're trying to be something they're not."
In songs like "Learning How to Bend," he admits he's still exploring some rough terrain as he makes his way back into everyday life and the possibility of a new relationship. "I think my favorite song that I wrote on this album is 'Learning How to Bend'," he says. "I woke up one day with that title. And it's me, you know -- I'm still learning, learning how to bend."
And in "We Touched the Sun" he moves forward while looking back at the beautiful times he shared with Angela. "There's a small circle of us that write songs together, and it's like group therapy," he says with a chuckle. "And the result is it's real. We rented a house in Costa Rica just to write, and 'We Touched the Sun' is one of the songs that came out of that session. It's a very reflective song, looking back at Angela. But it could be anybody you loved, just all the fond memories."
Thanks in part to all of that musical therapy, says Allan, these days "I'm in a good place, definitely happy."
And, he assures his fans, if you've been through tough times yourself, or you're just wondering how he's coping these days, all you have to do is listen to his music. "I don't really talk to people about my situation," he says, "but I feel like since I do write about my life and where I am, you can watch me heal through my music. It's lots easier on me, and I do hope that the music speaks to you."
With LIVING HARD, Allan is sure to find his music speaking to an ever-growing number of fans. "I want to reach even bigger audiences," he says. "I feel like I've got so much to say and so much to do right now and things are moving so fast. It's great to have something new to throw at people."
Most of all, he says, he just wants people to come along for the ride -- and hear the sounds of a life in progress. "It's a good listen, I think," he says. "I'm excited for people to hear it. It'll take you through a whole range of emotions, and I think it's going to take you on a journey. That's my goal."
Stop and listen to any of Brantley Gilbert’s lyrics and you know a little about him. Listen to his albums and you will feel like family.
Brantley Gilbert was born and raised in the small town of Jefferson, Georgia, just outside of Athens city limits. It is that upbringing and small town influence that Gilbert credits toward allowing him to cultivate his unique sound. Gilbert’s taste in music always swayed toward a southern country rock feel, but his true-to-life testimony of heartache, trials, triumph, and success found a home in country music.
Gilbert’s career began on the stage: Night after night, he played acoustic sets at various venues in his hometown and slowly
began to notice familiar faces in the crowds. Gilbert soon realized that his acoustic shows — however intimate — didn’t satisfy his audience’s thirst for his rock-infused country music. “We went from these acoustic shows to a bona fide Country- Rock-Soul show that is wide open,” says Gilbert. “Even when we play a ballad, it’s high energy.”
While on the road the past five years, Gilbert has built his brand through his compelling lyrics and dynamic live show – a combination that attracted a strong underground band of believers who shared Gilbert’s passion for life and music; pretty soon his following had taken on a life of its own. As Gilbert tells it, “[W]e don’t have fans, we have friends. I like to think that those people in the crowd are just like me. They listen to the songs, they get the meaning and get the purpose and they get something out of it.” It is this rabid fan base that became the first members of what is now known as the BG Nation. These dedicated fans and their insistence on new music from Gilbert encouraged him to bring his unique style to Nashville, Tennessee where he soon signed with Warner/Chappell Publishing and began to develop music for a debut album release on an independent record label.
On March 16, 2010, the rising star released his sophomore album, HALFWAY TO HEAVEN, the follow-up to his debut national
release, A MODERN DAY PRODIGAL SON. The sophomore effort peaked at #2 on iTunes Country Album Charts, and at #1 on the Billboard Heatseekers Album Chart for all genres. “The Best of Me,” a song from Gilbert’s first album was recorded by Country superstar Jason Aldean and earned a spot on his iTunes release WIDE OPEN. Then, in August 2010, Brantley’s song “My Kinda Party,” became a #1 smash for Aldean, as well as the title track to Aldean’s platinum-selling album. The superstar’s latest single, “Dirt Road Anthem,” was also written by
Gilbert. “It’s an honor that someone like Jason would want to record one of my songs,” says Gilbert. “It’s a big step for me as a songwriter and I couldn’t have asked for a better artist to perform the song. After all, he is a Georgia boy!”
As tour dates multiply throughout the South, Gilbert’s fan base continues to expand. The rising star’s Facebook post see
views of 7 million a month and his MySpace page has garnered more than 16 million total song plays— a number that has
brought him to the #1 spot on MySpace Music Charts for both Country and Southern Rock. He also continues to sell out
venues throughout the country – proof that the BG Nation is relentlessly growing.
In February 2011, Gilbert passed another career milestone when he signed with Big Machine Label Group’s imprint The Valory
Music Co. -- home to superstars Reba and Jewel as well as #1 chart-topper Justin Moore. Brantley Gilbert’s first single on
The Valory Music Co. debuted in the Top 40 at Country radio on its official impact date – an impressive feat by a new artist.
Gilbert is currently in the studio with award winning producer Dann Huff working to finish his first album on The Valory Music
Co. for a late summer release.
“I’ve realized that life can be very short, and everyone should take advantage of it,” says Gilbert. “If you’re gonna live, do
something with it. Make it great.”
Florida Georgia Line
In country music, there are the rule breakers and the rule makers – artists who defy trends to pave something new, something original, something maybe a little shocking at the time. Johnny Cash. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Alabama. Waylon Jennings. Garth Brooks. These are the forces who took the bones of an American musical legacy and burst through with their own unique voice – leaving, in their wake, the seeds of the future. And now, on the tail end of a whirlwind few years that catapulted them to the top of the charts and to the center of fans’ hearts across the world, is Florida Georgia Line, claiming their spot in the grand tradition of these Music Row renegades. How’d they do it? One simple mantra, really.
“ANYTHING GOES,” says the Georgia half of FGL, Tyler Hubbard. “It says it all. No boundaries, no genre, no rules.” Living according to their own doctrine, in their own completely singular creative space, has become the lifeblood of Florida Georgia Line. So much so, that when it became time make the follow-up to their smash trendsetting – not to mention chart-topping, 2X Platinum debut – HERE’S TO THE GOOD TIMES, there was only one option: ANYTHING GOES.
“There’s a little something for everybody in there,” says Hubbard. “If that helps shape where country is heading, or breaks down walls, then great. But it’s just what Florida Georgia Line has always done.”
Since forming in 2010, Florida Georgia Line has taken the songwriter skills honed from their early days in Nashville and shredded them to bits, all while simultaneously using the deep roots of country music to build something new and totally thrilling. From the most raucous party moments to unexpected self-reflective odes, FGL is an unstoppable powerhouse only looking to answer to themselves, and, perhaps most importantly, their fans.
“We’ve always been comfortable doing something that may or may not be accepted,” says Brian Kelley, the Florida side.
And ever since the two met while attending Belmont University, they’ve been following that credo – going from songwriting workrooms with nothing more than an acoustic guitar or two, to a headlining tour, crisscrossing the nation, collecting awards, bringing people up when they need to “Cruise,” lifting them out when they’re deep in the “Dirt.”
Except, of course, their music wasn’t just haphazardly accepted: it was embraced with open arms. Their signature anthem “Cruise” was certified 8X platinum and became the best-selling Country single ever (according to SoundScan) – and the remix with Nelly rocked both the charts and eager genre-taggers. With their Republic Nashville debut, FGL is the only artist in history to join legends Brooks & Dunn in achieving four back-to-back, multi-week #1 singles. They’ve taken the “anything goes” approach with them from day one – never once, however, compromising their vision.
“We’ve built this from the ground up,” says Kelley. “That’s something we never take for granted. Tyler and I are hands on with it all, from set list to email. Everything we do, we have put the FGL stamp on it. This is our love and our passion. We run it as a business…and a party.”
And FGL is indeed a party. ANYTHING GOES is full of odes to the good times, from the twang-reggae “Sun Daze,” to the wickedly delicious “Good Good” to the rowdy title track that’s both rock and bluegrass. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more serious, sincere moments: take the lead single “Dirt,” for one.
“It’s a little unexpected, sure,” says Hubbard. “But I think we we’re at a spot in our life where we wanted to show that side to people. It’s how we started as songwriters. We felt it was time to release something like that.” The fans agreed: it’s already been certified platinum for over one million downloads sold and topped both Country radio charts to become their fifth #1 single.
It’s some personal moments and milestones – marriage, engagements, loss and mourning – that spurred some of ANYTHING GOES’ contemplative notes, like “Angel” or “Like You Ain’t Even Gone.” But it’s all part of FGL’s mission to show a complete package to their fans, and to be with them at every moment in their lives, from the good to the bad.
“We like to be serious, and we like to take people to church on a Wednesday night in our live set,” says Hubbard. “We like to have songs that mean something, that make you feel something. And, of course, we like to have it be party.”
Adds Kelley, “you can tell by listening that we felt no pressure. We wanted to push ourselves lyrically and vocally. It’s very evident in the sound and the vibe. We took the confidence that country radio and the fans gave us, and made it into something that is pure FGL.”
From coast to coast with national TV appearances, the FGL machine has been rolling nonstop, and sees no sign of slowing down. At the core, is the brotherhood between best friends and creative partners Hubbard and Kelley – theirs is a bond that exists past the musical realm. At the same time, they love to embrace the most thrilling minds working in Nashville today as writing partners, and recruited names like Rodney Clawson, Ross Copperman, Dallas Davidson, Chris Tompkins and Chris DeStefano to help pen the hits on ANYTHING GOES.
“The biggest thing for us was just staying in the creative zone,” says Kelley. “From the best writers in town, to a producer (longtime collaborator Joey Moi) who is like a wizard on steroids. Nothing was stopping us. This record is a representation of exactly where we are in our lives. Want to know me and Tyler more? Just listen to ANYTHING GOES.”
And, of course, they kept those country music renegades – Cash, Alabama, Skynyrd, Jennings – top of mind. But like those brilliant creative outlaws before them, the best way they could pay tribute to the rule-breaking tradition is just by being completely themselves.
“When you get in a creative space and you know your influences, that’s when you let your natural talent come out in ways that are organic,” says Kelley. “That’s when the freshness comes.”
Fresh, new: that’s ANYTHING GOES – a new force for Nashville, a new life for country music. And a duo that is totally unafraid to take risks and innovate, every step of the way.
“There are party moments, there’s loss, there are odes to amazing times on ANYTHING GOES,” Kelley adds. “Just lots of real life. Now THAT is country music.”
Randy Houser is a man refreshed. “I don’t know how it happened, but everything in my life has started lining up,” says the Lake, Mississippi native. “I must have done somebody right in the past.”
Those positive vibes of renewal ripple through Houser’s newest single “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” and “How Country Feels,” his first radio No. 1 and Gold® certified title track from Stoney Creek Records debut, How Country Feels, which hit stores on Tuesday, January 22, 2013. The title track was his fastest-rising single to-date on the country radio charts and sparked a wildfire of accolades and media appearances including: CONAN, NBC Nightly News, NBC Weekend Today, CBS’s “On The Couch,” FOX & Friends, Better TV and many more. “It was the obvious choice for a lead-off,” Houser says of “How Country Feels.” “It caught my ear the first time I heard it—like, ‘I wanna hear that again.’”
Houser cut How Country Feels with producer Derek George, a long-time friend and fellow Mississippian he had wanted to work with for over a decade. It’s been called “a buoyant, hook-filled outing” (Washington Post) that’s infused with “ a balance of revelry and introspection” (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) and shows off Randy’s powerhouse voice, hailed “one of the best in Nashville” by Great American Country (GAC) and numerous other critics.
Houser’s past contains no shortage of achievement, as it includes multiple nominations for ACM and CMA Awards, a No. 2 single in the form of “Boots On,” and songwriting credits for major names such as Trace Adkins, Justin Moore and Chris Young. In 2008—mere months after the release of his debut single, “Anything Goes”—Houser was even asked by David Letterman himself to appear on the Late Show. The singer’s first full-length, Anything Goes, came out later that year, followed in 2010 by They Call Me Cadillac which spawned hit “Whistlin’ Dixie,” and fan-favorite “A Man Like Me.”
But despite this early success, Houser now admits that he wasn’t truly happy. “It seemed like professionally things weren’t as great as they could be, and that was part of it,” he says. “But the biggest thing was not having a homebase. I needed an anchor.” He found one last year when he started a family and welcomed his son, West. “All of a sudden it was like I had this piece that had been missing,” he says with audible gratitude. Shortly after, Houser signed with new label home Stoney Creek Records based in Nashville, Tenn.
“Everybody there feels like part of my family,” Houser says of the independent imprint, where he happily signed following a long stretch of intensive touring. (How intensive? Think 150 shows a year.) “You walk in the door and everybody seems really happy with their job; there’s no strife in the air. That’s really important for me to have right now. It’s comforting.”
New tracks on How Country Feels echo the single’s sunny self-assurance, including “We’re Just Growing Younger” and “Along for the Ride,” which Houser co-wrote with Zac Brown. “We were playing a festival and I just had this song rolling around in my head,” Houser remembers of the latter. “I stayed up till about 5 in the morning but then got stuck. So I called up Zac and we went on his bus and knocked it out of the park.”
There is contemplation, too: “Like a Cowboy” is about “me coming home for a few days, then having to leave again,” Houser says, while “Route 3 Box 250D” provides an intimate snapshot of the singer’s upbringing. “That one’s kind of hard to listen to,” he admits. “It hits almost too close to home.” Billboard calls the song “stunning,” and The New York Times writes, “His voice here is almost wholly different, thicker and more throbbing, a caldron bubbling over. For a few minutes he’s the singer Nashville won’t let him be.”
As for the sound of How Country Feels, Houser says it’s his most expansive outing yet, with more bells and whistles than he’s used in the past; it also showcases the remarkable voice that led Vince Gill to call Houser “one of the best in the new crop of country singer-songwriters” and pal Jamey Johnson to say, “I watched a blind man jump to his feet and drop his crutches the first time he heard Randy Houser sing.”
And since the release of How Country Feels, critics have echoed those claims in reviews, with MSN writing “Houser is hands down one of the best male vocalists in Nashville,” and quoting Dierks Bentley as saying, “It’s kind of ridiculous how good of a singer he is.”
Still, the heart of the album—of Houser’s entire outlook right now—remains the story of a man who’s moved through darkness into light. “I feel like I’ve reached such a special moment,” he says, and it’s a true pleasure to hear him inside it.
Cool and confident, yet warm and approachable with a laugh that’s as melodic as the songs she sings, it’s difficult to look at Maggie Rose and not think that she was born under a very special star. And maybe she was. How else can you explain her journey from Potomac, Maryland—hardly a mecca for country music—to Nashville by way of storied record executive Tommy Mottola (Celine Dion, Mariah Carey)?
Mottola wasn’t a friend, or even a family friend. More like a friend of a friend of a friend. But Maggie’s biggest supporter and business partner, Tom Natelli, who had encouraged and nurtured the young songbird’s talent early on, had the chutzpah to ask around until he found someone who knew someone, who knew someone, who lived next door to Tommy. The music executive was impressed enough to encourage Maggie to pursue her music, but since country wasn’t his forte, he equipped the aspiring star with a handful of contacts and enough information to make her way to Nashville. It didn’t take any persuading though. Singing was her dream. She stepped away from Clemson University, where she performed with a Bruce Springsteen cover band, and into her career with encouragement of her parents and Natelli.
Tommy may have knocked on doors, specifically producer James Stroud’s (Willie Nelson, Chris Young, Tim McGraw), but Maggie kicked them down all by herself. And despite the connection to Mottola and the rock cover band experience, she kicked them down country style. Country by choice.
Maggie explains that in her home, she was exposed to an array of musical offerings: “My mom loved certain artists and I think the people she actually played are clearly influences of mine. She loved Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman. She loved the Beatles, which everyone loves the Beatles, but their sense of melody is so strong. And I loved Dixie Chicks. There was a really good mix of music. The fact that I gravitated toward country when there were so many other options shows that’s where I belong. Because it’s not like that’s all I was exposed to, that’s what I wanted to listen to.”
Why? The singer-songwriter smiles and simply says, “You can hear the story.” It’s that mindset and a healthy dose of diligence that kept Maggie in Nashville since the age of 19. Starry-eyed and a bit naïve, her first run at commercial success positioned her as a voice to be heard and gave her a foothold in Music City, but the songs weren’t quite what she needed. Even she admits, “I just wasn’t ready. I think that was the only difference between then and now is that I’m just ready. In fact, I’m chomping at the bit to get this album out. And before, I wasn’t excited about what I had to share yet. I was excited about being able to sing and do what I love, but I wasn’t totally connected to a body of work. I had singles here and there, but that doesn’t make an artist. I wanted to do something that people could latch on to, and I wanted to start a conversation with my music that people could be a part of.”
With iconic country music producers Blake Chancey and James Stroud at the helm, Maggie starts the conversation on Cut To Impress by writing almost half of the songs on the album. The remaining cuts are tunes that she has been performing for the past five years—songs that not only survived her evolution from the young girl, Margaret, to the young woman, Maggie, but became part of her musical make-up.
And they are KILLER tracks. Killer. Yes, there’s a body count on this album. From the flirtatious “Fall Madly In Love With You,” to the musical mini-movie “Looking Back Now,” Maggie shows she has a bit of a dark side, but she doesn’t dwell on it because she has sass, too. From the opening swampy, gospel-tinted track, “Preacher’s Daughter,” to the debut single, “I Ain’t Your Mama,” she reveals a delightful blend of feminine attitude that will empower her female fans and bring the boys to their knees with desire.
It isn’t all serious though. Humor is a tricky maneuver for any recording artist, but in the tongue-in-cheek “Hollywood,” Maggie is guaranteed to capture a grin, giggle or guffaw with clever lyrics like, “Tiny dogs in little bitty purses, cosmos everybody nurses, they get as trashed as we do…”
But give the girl a chance to wail, like she does in “Put Yourself in My Blues,” or the beseeching second single, “Better,” and that’s when you realize what she’s had all along. That’s when you see what brought her to Nashville. Songwriting can be learned, but to be able to convey a heartbreak, to sing a tear, that is a gift. And Maggie’s voice can soar without overpowering the listener. She’s not singing at you, she’s singing to you. She’s making that connection that she so desperately wants to make.
Maggie is committed to this career. Much like her very successful contemporaries, there was never a Plan B. “It even scares me to think about it,” she shudders. “I was lucky and crazy enough to make the move at a pretty young age, so before any serious decision making had to be done—is it this or this?” Even with the disappointments that face any new artist—promises broken, faith rattled, hopes shattered, dreams dashed—Maggie persevered. And she sees now where her experiences hold the promise of longevity. “If I’ve learned this much in five years, 20 years down the road, I’m going to be dangerous. So, I think that music will always be part of my life.”
It’s Maggie’s turn now. Meticulously choosing her album title from a song she co-penned, “Mostly Bad," is the best representation of where the ingénue is at both musically and emotionally. “That one is a really playful, fun song. ‘Cut to impress’ is a line from the second verse and it jumped out to me because it represents so much about this album. It’s a really confident statement about all the album cuts—play on words. But it’s also that I’ve finally cut out a place for myself as an artist that is unique and real.”
A little good, a little bad, a lot confident and very much intentional. That’s her word. Maggie says, “That has been my keyword for this whole process, ‘intentional.’ I think that everything I do as an artist now should be with a purpose. I think that the way I write should be with intent behind it. It can serve different purposes, but make sure that every word written is intentional.”
Their first single and album title track is called “American Beautiful,” and for exciting new family trio The Henningsens, “American Beautiful” may be an American spirit story wrapped up in a love song, but in lyrics like “we’re a little unusual, we are American beautiful,” there’s a window into the unlikely story of a group whose musical journey has been anything but typical.
To introduce the trio, they are Brian Henningsen (bass, guitar, vocals) – family patriarch and father of 10 including eldest son Aaron (guitar, vocals) and daughter Clara (lead vocals, guitar).
With the 2013 release of their Arista Nashville debut album, American Beautiful, helmed by four-time GRAMMY®-winning producer Paul Worley (Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride), The Henningsens showcase a sound that is fresh, vibrant, and uniquely their own, with Clara’s expressive and inviting vocals center stage, together with gorgeous family harmonies, compelling songcraft, and vivid storytelling, offering lyrics that paint sometimes traditional themes in non-traditional ways.
It’s their gift for songwriting that first began turning heads in Nashville, with writing credits on multiple albums, most notably the Platinum-certified debut from The Band Perry, who scored big with “You Lie,” written by Aaron, Clara, and Brian, as well as the two-week #1 smash, “All Your Life,” penned by Brian and Clara.
“We try to be very lyrically descriptive,” Brian says of the trio’s songwriting. “We always say it when we write: we’re trying to make a little movie play in your mind.”
There’s a heartland theme that runs throughout the music of The Henningsens, which seems only natural for a family from rural Atwood, Illinois, where their 1700-acre farm has offered home and livelihood – and, at times, school, playground, and even birthplace – across seven generations. “Your best friends were your siblings,” Aaron says, and the Henningsen family, including Brian and his wife and 10 children, had everything in common with a large, traditional farm family.
“Lots of activity, lots of people, very little downtime, very little alone-time, and very little privacy,” Brian shares with a smile, as Aaron injects, “But a lot of fun.”
Their working farm has raised corn, soybeans, cows, “and kids,” Clara says with a laugh, noting that almost all the children were not only born on the farm, but also homeschooled. “Our parents always led by example,” she says, “and we were very fortunate in that regard.”
As for being a musical family, Clara laughs, “We’ve always been musical, but we didn’t grow up like the von Trapps!”
Indeed, while The Henningsens as a performing trio are still relatively new, their coming together as a band was part of an unexpected path that poignantly found Aaron and Clara sharing the dream their father once pursued – a career path that Brian relinquished for the sake of family, only to find – years later – that his family was bringing that dream back into focus.
Pursuing his love for music had long been a sideline for Brian, playing in Illinois-area country and country/rock bands off and on for more than a decade, but by the early ‘90s, he’d also begun songwriting. When Brian and his wife were leading a church youth group a few years later, he’d call Nashville to book Christian artists to come perform at a converted barn, and his involvement and the flow of talent inspired him to consider pursuing music full time. Visits to Nashville and meetings with music publishers followed, but in early 1996, Brian’s father was involved in a tragic fall that left him paralyzed. Brian immediately returned to Illinois, as he set aside music to help care for his father and take over the family farm.
But by 2003, Aaron was into music – writing and performing in a college band – and Brian says, “I was blown away by what he was doing.” It was a pivotal year, and while Brian enjoyed farming, it was the pressures of farming in tough times, together with the excitement of Aaron’s music, as well as a song that Brian had written at the time, that all became catalysts to reignite Brian’s thoughts about music, as did an inspiring talk show – literally an on-the-tractor radio epiphany that allowed him to feel that he really could explore a life beyond farming.
“It was like you have that ‘Eureka!’ moment,” Brian recalls. “I’m not trapped in any circumstance I’m in. I have the ability to make my own destiny, which actually leads into the premise of ‘American Beautiful.’”
The following year, the family purchased a historic fixer-upper in rural Tennessee – a house that became a family adventure project over the next couple of years, employing Brian’s construction skills on vacations and breaks in farming schedules.
But the evolution of the group began in early 2007, when Brian, Clara, and Aaron penned their first song together with another writer in Nashville. When the trio played the song at an open mic night at Nashville’s fabled Bluebird Café, they were truly taken aback by the response.
“It was like people were transfixed,” Clara recalls with amazement. “We had no idea what to expect,” she says, “and people were coming up to us and saying how great it was that we were performing together as a family, and we really weren’t even thinking about that.”
After writing that first song together, Brian says it was a natural progression: “It went so well, we did another and another, and pretty soon, this is what we were doing.”
And while they continued writing and performing locally, Clara says, “It wasn’t until a few years later that we really took being a trio seriously.”
Aaron remembers, “People would tell us that we sounded good together, and we were sort of like, ‘Okay, well, I guess we’ll just keep going!’”
It was during this time that Aaron met longtime musician/songwriter Cactus Moser at church, and Cactus was impressed enough with their music that he shared some of the group’s demo recordings with producer Paul Worley. “Paul believed in us early on,” Aaron says. Worley met the trio in 2008, and – thinking they’d gel with an act he was working with – he introduced The Henningsens to another family trio who had yet to sign a record deal: Kimberly, Neil, and Reid, soon to be known as The Band Perry. And Worley was right; the families clicked as writers and friends, with the Perrys’ debut album featuring three songs they wrote with The Henningsens, in addition to their hit recordings of “You Lie” and “All Your Life.”
Now, The Henningsens bring their talents to bear on their own debut, American Beautiful, a collection of songs all of which were written by one or more of the trio, including tracks penned with friends Cactus Moser and The Band Perry and noted Music City tunesmiths Brett Beavers, Lisa Carver, Ashley Gorley, Christopher James Morthland, Don Poythress, and Jimmy Yeary.
“We’re all the way from very country to bluegrass to something you can’t quite put your finger on,” Brian says of the trio’s music, rooted in very melodic, harmony-driven sounds and crossing generations of musical influences. While Brian cites such acts as Pure Prairie League, The Marshall Tucker Band, and The Eagles, Aaron notes influences like Johnny Cash, James Taylor, and Brad Paisley, while Clara is quick to mention Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, and Nickel Creek.
But on American Beautiful, from the dynamic energy of the title track to the up-tempo, prison-bound fun of “Darrell” or the picturesque, wistful melancholy of “Arkansas,” The Henningsens’ debut album is very much a reflection of them.
“We want people to be able to hear these songs and feel like they know The Henningsens,” Clara says, “because this album really represents our personalities, too.”
The band’s playful side is on display with the sassy, sing-along hilarity of “No,” a musical kiss-off to the ex who just won’t go away (“How’m I gonna miss you if you won’t stay gone?”), which also features Aaron’s young son in a brief guest vocal.
Another album highlight is “The Color Red,” a “true story of legend,” Brian says, that musically and lyrically simmers with the drama and passion behind what Clara calls “the story of a murder that almost was.”
Many of the songs on American Beautiful have personal connections for the family, including the album-closing “To Believe.” With the opening lyric, “I got a check from God today, hiding in a stack of bills, addressed from a long-lost friend,” the chill-inspiring ballad is based in part on a challenging time in Aaron’s life and is, collectively, the trio’s favorite song on the album.
On or off stage, there’s a disarming quality to The Henningsens – friendly, engaging, gracious, unassuming, and fun to be around, they share the candor and sometimes merciless teasing of family, and while they’ll be the first to say that it can be unusual to see two generations of family living and working so closely together, they’ll also say they love doing it – and they hope that it might be a positive inspiration to others.
As for what else The Henningsens hope to be able to share with their music, Brian offers, “I really want people to be happy. Music is an escape, and there’s a thing down inside of you that music touches that speech alone sometimes won’t, and we could have this conversation, but if I sang it to you, you’d be touched differently.”
And making music that not only entertains, but also empowers or uplifts – music that resonates on an emotional level – is at the heart of what The Henningsens are all about.
“If you can touch somebody emotionally and say something that’s actually worth saying, then you’ve done your job as a songwriter and an artist,” Brian says, “and that’s really our biggest goal.”