Naomi Cooke, Jennifer Wayne and Hannah Mulholland of Runaway June were sitting in a pitch meeting trying to find songs for their debut LP when they first heard “We Were Rich.”
Although the trio penned most of the songs on “Blue Roses,” including the chart-smashing “Buy My Own Drinks,” they wanted to fill out the record with some fresh ideas without departing from ideas that felt authentic to their collective voice.
After they sifted through a never-ending cache of insider-collected potential country hits, the novelty started to wear thin.
“It’s kind of like being in a perfume store,” Cooke said. “After a few perfumes you can’t smell anything anymore.”
But when the opening lines of Ross Copperman, Nicolle Galyon and Ashley Gorley’s “We Were Rich” drifted into the room and painted a sun-dappled picture of an early ’90s American childhood spent in a family that was economically stretched thin, it struck a chord.
Reynolds Wrap on rabbit ears.
TV tray, Back in the day,
We’d watch ‘The Wonder Years.’
Cooke immediately thought back to her own childhood as the fifth kid in a family of 11 with parents who craved “an alternative lifestyle.” Her parents were in the mold of the late ’60s, idealistic, back-to-the-land brand of hippies. They revered nature, lived off a minimum necessity of resources and refused to conform to societal norms.
Cooke lived in a bus during her preteen years, during which her mother worked as a traveling midwife, and, just like the family in “We Were Rich,” her family’s first house had only one bathroom sink.
It is perhaps that wealth in life experiences that elevated the raw musical talent of Runaway June beyond the normal success expected.
In 2019, “Buy My Own Drinks” became the first single by an all-female group since 2005 to break into the top 20 of the Billboard Country Airplay chart, peaking at No. 8. According to Cooke, its success was a combination of being the right group at the right time.
“I think that we kind of came on the scene when country was really male gender specific, and it sounded a lot more pop sonically,” she said. “And we were doing very organic country music, and it sounded different just based on that.”
Unlike much of the overproduced, crowd-tested country pop that has spent time on the charts in the aughts and 2010s, Runaway June uses live instruments almost exclusively while recording, and the band members write most of their own material.
They are also not afraid to explore thematic territory beyond beer-drinking, jean-wearing and off-roading feel-good tropes. Like early Dolly Parton, some of the band’s best material draws on themes of hardship and sorrow. For Cooke, the ability to explore these themes is what makes country music so special.
“It’s about storytelling,” she said. “It’s about sparing no detail and no emotion.”
Cooke wrote “Blue Roses,” the eponymous final song on the LP, about her brother who died in a car crash.
“It’s painful and very cathartic and healing to write and sing about my brother and to sing that song about him every night,” Cooke said.
But with the pain, there also comes healing in sharing her story: “I’m not alone in my loss. Every single person in that room has experienced loss. Every single one.”
Runaway June will play its first show of 2020 from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. The show comes in a rare lull during a hectic two seasons of touring. After playing sold-out arenas with Carrie Underwood in 2019, Runaway June will embark on a European tour and then an American tour with fellow country star Luke Bryan this year.
It may be Cooke’s affinity for Jackson Hole that brought the hit band here. She has skied at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (her instructor is planning on coming to the show) and even started to hunt for a house in Wilson.
So don’t get too tipsy and heckle the band at next Friday’s show, because the lead singer could be your future next-door-neighbor. Do bring your boots and spurs, though: One look at the music video “Wild West” is enough to tell you that Runaway June has a particular affinity for cowboys. ￼