In their earliest days as a trio, Runaway June wanted to incorporate a lot of fiddle and steel guitar into their songs. But there was a practical issue that ultimately forced the “Buy My Own Drinks” group in another direction when they recorded their 2019 debut album, Blue Roses.
“We couldn’t afford a fiddle player on the road,” says lead singer Naomi Cooke, who along with her bandmates Jennifer Wayne and Natalie Stovall, chatted with Rolling Stone via Zoom in July. “So we stopped putting that in all the music because we didn’t want to have a fiddle blasting through tracks. We stopped making our music as fiddle-driven.”
That option becomes available to them again with the recent addition of Stovall, a fiddle phenom and singer who joined the band after founding member Hannah Mulholland departed in May. Stovall, who’d previously served as the leader of her own band the Drive as well as a side musician for other performers, had known Cooke and Wayne through various channels — Wayne had even promoted one of Stovall’s songs to country radio in her previous job as a radio promo rep.
When discussions began about Runaway June’s lineup change, Stovall happened to be at something of a crossroads in her solo career.
“I was at a point where I was trying to figure out what was next,” she says. “I’ve been working on a lot of music and a lot of touring, but all of that had just fallen away, clearly, because of COVID. So I was reevaluating a lot of things. There was no part of my mind that was ever going to give up on music. But when they called and we started talking, it was just the right thing to do.”
Stovall’s extensive touring experience was a big asset to Cooke and Wayne, who spent a significant chunk of their time before the pandemic on the road.
“You have to know a little bit about what it’s like being on the road,” Cooke says. “It is not for everybody. After two weeks of doing that, if it’s not what you think it is, it can just implode. So the list was really short and we thought of Natalie. And this is a girl who has been in bands of only guys and knows what that’s like and has never given up — she’s been in town for like eleven years.”
One of their first orders of business was cutting a new version of their song “We Were Rich,” which replaces the more freewheeling “Head Over Heels” as the group’s current radio offering. It’s subtly different than the version on Blue Roses, where it was an album standout, with Stovall’s voice and fiddle now part of the mix. Wayne points out that the pandemic was at least partially responsible for them switching gears to “We Were Rich,” which looks back on a childhood that lacked material means but had no shortage of happy memories.
“It goes back to the simpler times of your parents doing everything they can to make you comfortable and happy,” Wayne says. “And I feel like right now this message is so important for people. It’s like the perfect time to put out a song like this. And then it just felt so perfect with Natalie coming in — it’s like a fresh start.”
Runaway June have spent some of the pandemic visiting with family, but they’re also making the most of this fresh start by getting into the studio to work on new music. A Christmas EP is currently in the works for release by year’s end and they’re writing new material for their second album. With no touring obligations at the moment, they’ve had time to focus.
“We’ve been together quite a bit in a really beautiful, authentic creative space, which has been really awesome because this time of year we’re normally touring and it’s a pretty rigorous schedule,” Cooke says.
“It’s been awesome having the time to do that,” Wayne adds. “Whatever comes of it, it’s going to be a new Runaway June, a new version, but it’s going to be really special.”
For new member Stovall, the process has shaken her out of the fear and anxiety she felt when the country began shutting down in March.
“Just joining a new situation has opened up a whole new world of creativity within myself because I’m thinking about music a little differently,” she says. “It’s not just for me, it’s for what the three of us would sound good doing. It’s made me feel a little less stuck, because at the beginning of quarantine, I was not feeling creative at all.”
There are no details yet on when Runaway June’s second album, or even a first single from it, will be available, but Cooke says the addition of Stovall to the group means “more rootsy sounds.” They’re gearing up to rehearse for a prime opening slot on Luke Bryan’s 2021 summer tour, but with time in abundant supply right now, there’s no need to rush. But they admit that it does raise expectations.
“We’ve got a lot of time to practice and get really, really good,” Cooke says. “If our shows aren’t just absolutely mind-blowing, we’re doing something wrong.”