The talent of three women on nothing but three chords and the truth is a powerful thing. Tightened around a neo-traditional arrangement and flickering references to John Wayne and Jesse James, “Wild West” is one of 2017’s best singles. Runaway June, as they’re called, made up of Naomi Cook, Hannah Mulholland and John Wayne’s granddaughter Jennifer Wayne, bear an uncanny resemblance to one of country’s best-selling dynamic players in the business, the Dixie Chicks.
Natalie Maines‘ voice might be irreplaceable, but her imprint on the rising generation is unmatched. Her work with sisters and accomplished musicians/vocalists Emily and Martie Erwin defies genre. They blasted onto the scene in the 1990s, shaking up the boys club with unapologetic unruliness and redefining modern music– often blurring the lines between bluegrass, pop and the Nashville sound.
In the aftermath of their infamous tea-spilling about then-President George W. Bush, they quickly faded from radio playlists, but they never left our hearts. Dixie Chicks have done well for themselves in the interim, mounting a rather successful world tour last year. Tragically, they are unlikely to ever return to the pinnacle of their early-00s success. But it appears Runaway June, a brawny and ferocious trio of singers and songwriters, are more than up to snuff to reignite the torch and blaze the path once again. Wayne, Mulholland and Cook come from vastly different backgrounds, all the better to have a far richer well from which to draw.
Wayne, who never met her grandfather, missing him by a couple of years, grew up in Southern California but has lived in Nashville for a decade. In the early 2010s, she was a member of Stealing Angels, who charted a few singles including “He Better Be Dead.” She has also forged a moderate songwriting career, the down-and-out ballad “She Don’t Love You” by Eric Paslay among her biggest credits. “I would say that’s been one of the coolest moments of my entire life. Eric is a star and so exceptional, as a singer and a writer both,” she said. “To have a cut on his record was so hard to describe, but for it to wind up being a single was fantastic. We actually do it in our set, so it’s gone over quite well.”
Meanwhile, Mulholland calls Los Angeles her hometown, and Cook is native to Nashville. The trio came together when Wheelhouse Records CEO urged them to write together. “Our label head had seen Naomi play a showcase. He fell in love with her voice. I had kind of been working with him a little bit. He was like, ‘you girls should get together and write and see what happens.’ I had known Hannah for about five years,” Wayne reflected. “Her and I had been writing together. We all just got in a room together and really didn’t know what would happen. It was magical. I’ve been in Nashville 10 years writing. I’ve never felt the chemistry like I feel with the girls.”
In that same interview, one of their first as a collective, Wayne also detailed the intent behind “Wild West,” saying, “I had always wanted to put him in a song. I just had to do it in a cool way. I didn’t want to be cheesy about it. I felt like that was the perfect tip-of-the-hat to him. That song is so romantic. I love the harmonies. It paints a picture. I feel like you are in Sedona watching all that imagery of someone falling in love.”
Along with songs like “Cowboy,” “Blue Roses” and “Forget Her,” the trio’s forthcoming, yet-untitled, debut album contains a rather uncanny, unintentional western theme, threaded withs saloon-style pluck and varied personal anecdotes. “I think it became that accidentally. As we started writing songs together, the album started having this western theme running through it — not in a rhinestone country way, but in a western way,” explained Cook. “We love how the American cowboy/western romance has found its way into the album. There is also a lot of strength there for men and women. It happened rather organically.”
From the sharpness and wit of their pens, best displayed by “Lipstick,” in which they sing “you better love somebody who ruins your lipstick, not your mascara,” Cook, Wayne and Mulholland pay homage to not only the cheekiness of Dixie Chicks (in songs such as “Goodbye Earl” and “Not Ready to Make Nice”) but to country’s rich history of songwriting. The likes of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, John Prine and Merle Haggard are among the finest and most vivid storytellers, revealing matters of the heart, flipping through lust and love, and devastation and sorrow. Runaway June are mastering the perfect blend of throwback and modern, appealing to traditional fans but pushing the envelope. They are among a new class of artists, which includes Midland, Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan, who are challenging the status quo of pop and hip-hop currently dominating the charts.
Using the female qualifier is embedded in the patriarchal society–and I try to avoid it in my writing–but Runaway June are shattering the glass ceiling. They might not have a blockbuster hit single under their belts yet, but they are gaining steam. Their music is coming at the appropriate time, too, when a wide section of country fans are fed-up with Music Row and the watering down of the music. The current iTunes charts features Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton in the Top 5 albums leaderboard, and you know how it goes, money speaks loudly and proudly. In the post Salad-Gate-era, female singers, songwriters and musicians are being heard more than ever before, whether through campaigns like Change the Conversation or CMT’s Next Women of Country.
Wayne, Cook and Mulholland embody the true spirit of mainstream country, which has always danced a tender waltz with pop since the ’50s. But that doesn’t inherently make it terrible. With a slew of smart songs and even stronger melodies in their arsenal, this trio is undoubtedly on the edge of glory. And we’re just along for the ride.
The debut album’s street date has yet to be revealed.