“They’re all pinch-me moments,” says Hannah Mulholland, who, along with Naomi Cooke and Jennifer Wayne, make up breakout country trio Runaway June, as I list off a number of recent and upcoming milestones: they’ve had two singles crack the Top 40 on country radio, they’ve opened for Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts, and, as we meet in October 2018, they are less than 24 hours away from their national television debut on Today. Fast forward a few months to February, and the group will learn that they’re nominated for their first ACM Award for New Group of the Year. In May, they’ll join Carrie Underwood on her massive Cry Pretty Tour, which runs through October 2019. At some point, they’ll finish up their first album with super-producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett).
“You grow up dreaming of these things happening and then once they slowly start to happen,” she says, “every single one of them just feels bigger than the next and crazier than the next.” Today, they premiere the music video for “Buy My Own Drinks” exclusively on Rolling Stone.
And while the trio have had a buzzy stretch — the finger-wagging “Lipstick” cracked the Top 25 in early 2017 and the lovesick “Wild West” broke into the Top 40 last year, while current single “Buy My Own Drinks” is now Top 30 at country radio — it’s hardly overnight success that Runaway June is enjoying. Each of the women came to Music City in the last decade in pursuit of solo star dreams. But with little traction gained and a slew of odd jobs under their respective belts (stints as Halloween store clerks, art teachers and even deckhands on salmon fishing boats dot their resumes), in 2014, the three women found themselves in writing sessions together. The group emerged, as they recall, naturally.
“There was never really a conversation about who would sing what,” says Cooke, who grew up “off the grid,” as she puts it, with her parents and 10 siblings in both Florida and Arizona, plus a few places in between. “We had the same vision of sound and what we wanted to say.”
When a recording contract emerged shortly after, they knew they were on to something. They also knew, though, that they’d have to part with their original solo-career aspirations. “I did think about it for a couple of days,” admits Cooke. “But it was just so glaring. Like, I’m being offered a record deal. That’s what I wanted. It just wasn’t in the form of exactly how I [expected] it to be. So, I was like, I’m not going to be that stubborn. When the universe presents you with what you’ve been asking for, take it.”
Because they are a female trio, comparisons get made between Runaway June and former country music rulers the Dixie Chicks, but their closest sonic counterpart is actually the glossier catalog of Cooke’s personal hero, Shania Twain. “I started doing country music because of her,” admits the singer. For Wayne, who, as the granddaughter of John Wayne, literally has stardom in her blood, it was Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks; for Mulholland, Sheryl Crow. The influence of each — Twain’s charm, Crow and Parton’s sincere storytelling, and Brooks’ desire to entertain — finds their way onto the group’s infectious, self-titled 2018 EP.
“All three of us are like, thank god we’re not doing this by ourselves,” she says. “[As an artist], you’re by yourself so much. You’re away from your family. You’re away from your friends. We’re lucky to have a built-in [support system], but we wouldn’t have known that until we started going through it.”
“Who” each woman leaves behind for the road varies. For Mulholland, who was raised in Southern California to an entertainment lawyer father and an artist mother, it’s a new husband and several pets. For Cooke, her many siblings, all of whom live in Nashville. For Wayne, a relationship and a couple of pooches. “It’s a lot to think about,” says Mulholland, considering the 55-date trek with Underwood. “This will be the first time that we’re gone for such an extended period of time. There’s a couple long runs, and I’m sure the first one will [involve] a lot of trial and error.” She adds, with a laugh, “We’ll just see how it goes.”
When “Lipstick” took off, Runaway June became the first female trio to land a hit on the country airplay charts in a decade. But that song never even cracked the Top 20, and much of the conversation in the genre has centered on the radio airwaves’ lack of gender parity. In December, for the first time in the history of the chart, there were no women with singles in the Billboard Country Airplay Top 20. Right now, there are only four in the Top 30. This moment arrives in spite of lauded records from Kacey Musgraves — who won Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammys — Ashley McBryde, and the Pistol Annies all arriving in 2018, as well as songs like Maddie & Tae’s “Die From a Broken Heart” selling well on iTunes with no support from format EPs.
“It’s a struggle, for sure,” says Wayne of gaining traction at this particular juncture. “When we were first starting to break, we actually felt like we came in at a good time,” she adds. “We felt like we had a chance.” Referencing stars like Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris and Cam, who all arrived loudly in the last several years, she adds, “[It felt like] there was a whole new wave of females coming in.” While some of that optimism has faded, the group refuses to let the stats beat them down. “You’ll drive yourself crazy if you look at the numbers,” says Wayne. The most important thing for us to do is just make the best music we can make.” Adds Mulholland: “That’s our job. That’s what were good at.”
“It’s not in your control, anyway,” Cooke says of her outlook. “So you can let that harm your creativity and your creative mind and be so hooked on that, or you can be like, ‘Hey, I trust the people around me and I trust the work that I’ve done, I’ve got to live in the moment.’”
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WE ARE GOING ON TOUR WITH CARRIE UNDERWOOD!!!!! We can not express our gratitude and excitement enough for this opportunity so here’s a pic of us losing our minds!!!! Can. Not. Wait. Thank you so much @carrieunderwood . This is going to be one for the books!! Tickets go on sale next Friday!!!
What they say is not in the job description, however, is wading into hot button topics like gun control in conversation. In the wake of the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in October 2017, country artists are being questioned on things like their affiliations with the NRA (which has in the past partnered with artists like Tyler Farr and Lee Brice) their positions on gun reform in America and their opinions on the current administration. “I have my own outlook on all this stuff going on,” says Cooke, “but I’m not going to project mine onto someone else or get preachy to our audience.”
Wayne is in agreement. “Our thoughts are private on that matter,” she says. “Our main thing is spreading positivity, spreading empowerment — and we love charity work. That’s what we want to focus on.”
Which means for now, they’re dialed in on supporting “Buy My Own Drinks” and finishing their debut LP, which is slated to arrive this summer. Speaking about the self-assured cut, Cooke says they knew it needed a chance at radio immediately upon writing it with Hillary Lindsey and Josh Kear. “From the beginning, it was screaming that it was a single,” she recalls. “It felt different from the minute it was born. It just felt good.” They first played it at Stagecoach Music Festival last year, just a few weeks after the song was penned. “We were in shock. The crowd was singing it back by the second chorus.”
The group and venerable producer Huff linked up after Huff heard a song of theirs called “Blue Roses,” which is lined with old-timey Appalachian sounds and will likely appear on the full-length. “He just genuinely wants to be a part of what we’re doing,” says Cooke of being flattered by the partnership. “And thatthat’s the highest compliment we can get.”
As for the long march toward album completion, the women say they’re not sweating it. “We’ve grown up a lot,” says Mulholland of how the stars finally feel correctly aligned for this release. “A lot’s changed by us being on the road. We’re writing different now.”
“And we’re in different places in our lives,” adds Cooke. “When we started, I was engaged, Jennifer had been engaged — Hannah’s married now. These songs reflect what we’ve been doing, and who we are.”