Aaron McDonnell is a breath of fresh air for country music.
The George Jones influence is easy to hear, but McDonnell brings his own unique sound to Jones’ classic style.
McDonnell, who released his first material in 2009 with his band “Gin Betty!” stepped to the forefront in 2014 with his debut EP “Follow.” With three releases since “Follow,” McDonnell has become one of the bright young lights in traditional country music. Read below to hear about his biggest influences, going solo, and what is next for the Austin, TX singer/songwriter.
JL: Who were some of your biggest musical influences growing up?
AM: As a kid growing up in the Northwest in the 90s, I was of course a big fan of all the “grunge” bands. Folks like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, etc. I also loved metal bands like Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth, along with whatever my parents were listening to (Eagles, Steve Miller Band, Aerosmith), and I should mention my Dad is a big fan of Motown and R&B. My grandparents were the main influence in terms of country music. They were big country fans on both sides of the family, and I even remember making an “On the Road Again” custom license plate holder for my grandma one year. They were crazy about Willie!
I started getting really into country in high school which is also when I started playing guitar. I liked the stuff popular at the time like Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks, but really gravitated to the older stuff. Hank Jr., David Allan Coe, Charlie Daniels, and Waylon were on heavy rotation. I remember the first time I heard “Luckenbach, Texas” when I was working on a farm the summer before my senior year. It was during one of many 14 hour days driving a combine and it came on the local AM classic country radio station. I was blown away. Once I got to college I started getting into the Alt-Country stuff, and am still a huge fan of Ryan Adams and Wilco.
JL: You quit a corporate job of 13 years to pursue a career in music. What led to this decision and how easy/hard was it to make?
AM: It was something I had been considering for a while, and when the time finally arrived to move on, I was more than ready. The climate in the office was toxic and overall morale was really low. On top of that, I was passed over for a couple promotions I’d been groomed for (for nearly a decade), and that was the last straw. Looking back, I am so eternally grateful I did not get those jobs because if I had, I may still be there today. In hindsight, it is easy to see the Lord had his hand in all areas of my life; nudging me toward pursuing music full time and ultimately moving to Texas.
JL: One of your first musical projects was your band “Gin Betty!,” which was more alternative/rock/pop sounding than what your sound has transitioned to today. What was the biggest thing you learned about yourself and about the music industry from this project? And was it a bit odd for you to be playing that particular type of music?
AM: That band taught me a ton because it was literally my first band ever. Even though I was in my mid-twenties, it was the first time I’d ever played out in front of people in bars, clubs, etc. It’s funny to listen to that stuff now (and a little embarrassing), but we were just trying our best to figure it out together. As much as I wanted it to be a country project, the other players in the band didn’t really know how to play that kind of music, so it ended up just being a hodge-podge of everyone’s individual style. The biggest thing I learned about myself during this time is that I was capable of leading a band.
JL: You took some time away from music after your band The Grandtours broke up in 2011. Did you ever consider stepping away from the music industry altogether or did you know it was only a matter of time before you would be back?
AM: There was a time during this period where I thought I would just put my head down and continue trying to climb the corporate ladder. I had a bad taste in my mouth due to two really bad band break ups. Gin Betty! dissolved after myself and the bass player’s wife sorta fell for each other. She was a great harmony singer and joined the band shortly after we got started. It was a situation that got way out of control, and I still feel bad about it. They were great friends and while it was a two-sided affair, they didn’t deserve that drama in their lives. Needless to say, it was not my finest moment. We were just finishing a record when the band broke up and had a lot invested in it, both artistically and financially. It was never released, and yet we all still had our own individual financial obligations to our investor. I lost a lot of friends in that process and overall, it was a really bad deal. It was, however, songwriting fuel for my next project, which was The Grandtours.
That band had a much darker sound due to where I was in my life and I guess that’s where the name came from. We named the band after “The Grand Tour” by George Jones which (while great) is a very depressing song. We released an EP and were picking up steam around the Seattle music scene and my now wife, Dani, joined the band. Our sound improved, but conflict arose between our lead guitar player and her, and I was stuck in the middle. Even so, we started doing a record and were working with an awesome producer who had just finished the Head and the Heart album that launched them (he produced Dave Matthews Band right after us). The album turned out great, but was never released due to a huge blow up and the band breaking up before we could do so. Once again, after a large artistic and financial investment, I had a finished record, no band, and all my money spent. This was about the time I thought I’d take a little break from music.
JL: You released your first solo EP, “Follow” in 2014. Sonically and through the artwork, it sounds and looks very similar to a 1980s George Jones record. Was that classic sound/look something you really wanted to get across on your debut release?
AM: I definitely wanted it to be more country. As I stated before, throughout my musical journey in Seattle, I wanted our tunes to be more country, but access to players that had a good understanding of the genre and the chops to play it were hard to find. Also, my other projects were bands that were run as a democracy, so I while I was the primary songwriter, the sound was shaped by everyone’s input. This was the first case where it was me getting to call more of the shots, and I was able to get one of the best steel players in town to record with us.
That said, I think it would have turned out much differently had we recorded it in Texas. The engineer on the record did mostly alternative and new wave pop stuff, and the producer primarily worked on rock and R&B records, so to me, it still doesn’t sound right. It was however the best thing we could have made with the knowledge and tools available to us at the time.
JL: “I’m Broke” is one of the standout tracks from your “Get Gone” EP. Can you talk about the inspiration behind this song? Is that one of the most autobiographical songs you have released?
AM: Yes, it’s definitely one the most autobiographical songs I’ve released and states pretty plainly our story of leaving the northwest to come to Texas, and for Dani, BACK to Texas… she is a fifth-generation Texan and I wouldn’t want to take that away from her (laughs). Everything in the song happened, down to me having to get pawn loans off one of my guitars a few times to make ends meet after getting to Austin.
JL: “Lucky Me” has become one of your signature songs, yet has only been released in the past 6 months. Why do you think that song has connected so well with your fan base?
AM: Dani and I came up with a bit of a slogan for our sound; “a sound you remember but have never heard before.” I think this holds especially true to “Lucky Me.” It’s familiar to fans of classic country, even if you’ve never heard it before, but the song also has a freshness to it. I also think folks have connected with it because it is one of the best things we’ve ever done. My songwriting has progressed, and we worked with John Evans in the studio and he definitely left his mark on the record. Lastly, it was our first radio single to break the top 40 on the Texas charts, so more people were exposed to this song than any other.
JL: “We Must Be Doing Something Right” has recently been released as the next single from the “Lucky Me” EP. Why did you think this was the right song to release as your latest single?
AM: We released it based on feedback from friends, family, and fans. Everyone seemed to really like the song, and “Life Sounds Easy on the Radio” has a cuss word in it so that one was out (laughs).
JL: Do you have a favorite song you’ve ever recorded? If so, which song and why is it special to you?
AM: I think at this point, it would have to be “Lucky Me.” However, we just did a single mic session of covers and included one new song written by Bobby Boyd. He and his wife lived out by us and he just passed away last year. He wrote “God Blessed the Broken Road” for Rascal Flatts and “Working on a Full House” for Garth Brooks so we were very flattered when we were offered access to some of his songs. The song we cut is called “What is Fort Worth” and we’ll be releasing a video for it later this year. I think that might be my new favorite.
JL: When looking back at your career, is there anything you know now about the industry, yourself, etc. that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
AM: I feel like we’re just getting started, and the more I think I know, the more I realize how much I still have to learn; but I think I would tell the younger version of me not to compromise so much and make the songs sound how you want them to sound. It seems like everyone always has an opinion, and I think I’ve tried to appease everyone instead of sticking to my guns.
JL: What are your thoughts on the current state of country music?
AM: I’m very encouraged with the wave of more traditional artists gaining momentum. It’s felt like this was coming for several years and with folks like Chris Stapleton and Midland hitting the national stage, it finally feels like it’s happening. I think the average listener is getting tired of the pop/bro-country thing and is ready for something else.
JL: What is next for you and your career?
AM: We just signed with an awesome booking agency with a great roster, as well as brought a full-time publicist on board, so in addition to continuing to build our audience in Texas, we will be starting to tour nationally this fall. We will also be releasing our Single Mic Session this summer on vinyl and to streaming outlets. I imagine we’ll do a new full length next year, and I’d really like to get over to Europe soon. The sky’s the limit!
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