Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Members: Zach Williams (lead vocals, guitars), Brian Elmquist (vocals, lead guitar), Kanene Pipkin (vocals, mandolin)
Album: The Lone Bellow
For Fans Of: The Civil Wars, The Carter Family, The Head and the Heart
Musical families played a vital role in the development of country, bluegrass and folk song traditions. Though the lineage may have skipped a few generations, influences such as The Carter Family, The Partridge Family, The Staples Singers and others seemed to have seeped into the DNA of The Lone Bellow, a new Brooklyn group for whom music and family seem to be just as closely entwined.
When I skeptically ask how familial The Lone Bellow really is, considering its three core members aren’t actually related, singer and guitarist Zach Williams suppresses a laugh. “How about I just yell out the top window and Brian will yell back up so you know that we live in the same house?!”
The Lone Bellow, whose members all hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line, followed a convoluted path to making honky tonk music together in Brooklyn. Singer and mandolin player Kanene Pipkin grew up in Fredericksburg, Va., studied linguistics at the College of William & Mary and moved to Beijing, China after graduation. Both Williams and guitarist and singer Brian Elmquist were raised in Georgia and went to college together, but Williams later got married and moved to West Palm Beach, Fla. to finish school while Elmquist traveled to Nashville to play music.
About seven years ago, though, tragedy befell the Williams family. “My wife, who I met when I was 12, had this crazy accident where she fell off a horse and broke her neck,” begins Williams. “She was a quadriplegic and we moved into the hospital… A bunch of friends of mine that basically lived with me in the waiting room there all started thinking about moving to New York together.”
During their hospital stay, Williams found solace through the company of friends—including Pipkin’s older brother—and playing music. “That was when I learned to sing and play the guitar at the same time,” he says. “[My friends] were encouraging me to play at open mics and stuff because it was helping me process.” Miraculously, Williams’ wife recovered fully and the pair moved to New York with a number of friends shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, Elmquist and Pipkin were around the world exploring other projects. But when Pipkin’s brother, Mike, got married, the first musical spark alighted. “The first time [Zach and I] sang together was at Mike’s wedding,” starts Pipkin, “he had matched us up to sing ‘O Happy Day’ as the recessional. Halfway through rehearsing the song, I think we both looked at each other and thought, ‘Hey, this works.’ Zach asked me to come sing with him in New York sometime, but I think he had missed the memo that I lived in China. When my husband and I moved to Brooklyn we reunited with Zach and just naturally fell into playing music together.”
So when Williams found himself with a catalogue of sad stories that needed to be sung, he called upon his old friends—now all living in New York—to complete the songs. He remembers, “I went over and stopped at the diner that Brian works at and was like, ‘Hey man, let’s put together a honky tonk band! I got all these sad lyrics and I gotta hide ‘em with some kinda melody!’”
The 12 tracks on The Lone Bellow don’t sound so dreary, though. The trio’s impeccable, soulful harmonies command attention in songs like “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” and “You Never Need Nobody.” The song structure is reminiscent of classic country, possibly from the Hank Williams Sr. tunes Elmquist mentions he listened to when Williams first called him. And by telling their own and their friends’ stories of tragedy, hope, betrayal and redemption, emotion rings most clearly on The Lone Bellow.
“Honestly, I hope this is a record that heals people,” says Pipkin. She elaborates, “We’ve gone deep into our grief in this material, and subsequently I feel we’re able to go deeper into our joy as a result. I want others to experience that. I hope people will be filled with hope for their relationships, that they’ll see the beauty of redemption and the value of pain through the songs we’ve put our own stories into.”
Continues Elmquist, “We’ve made the record. Now it’s time for other people to listen to it and make it theirs.”
As The Lone Bellow prepares for the release of its self-titled debut on January 22 via Descendent Records, Williams, Elmquist and Pipkin are also looking to transition out of the double-lives they’ve been leading. And with a late-night TV spot on Conan slotted for the release day, tours with Marcus Foster, Ivan & Alyosha and Dwight Yoakam all in the works and support from former tour-mates The Civil Wars, it seems most likely that The Lone Bellow will captivate audiences in 2013.
“Lone. That adjective,” Williams considers. “I really enjoy the harmonies of us three singing together and I feel like it’s kind of its own sound. There’s definitely a feeling that happens inside me when I sing with Brian and Kanene and it’s a stand-alone feeling. That’s why we went that that adjective…I think it’s one sound together.”