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."