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Aaron McDonnell on His Muse, His Musical Upbringing, and New Projects

When it comes to country music, the best material comes from the most genuine people in the business. It’s artists that have a respect for more than just the artists that have come before them. It’s artists that have a deep understanding of the history and technicality of the genre from the songwriting to the production. One will not find a more studied, talented, genuine, and humble musician in country music than Aaron McDonnell. He’s the real deal.

Musical Upbringing and Influences

McDonnell grew up listening to his grandmother’s old records and found himself especially drawn to the likes of George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Conway Twitty, and in his music, there are even strong similarities to Dwight Yoakam and the Bakersfield Sound as well. Lula 1892 had the chance to ask him about a few more of the artists who influenced his career. “Dwight and Merle are my favorites and after getting to Texas I was turned on to other acts that the dancers really connect with. I found out quickly that if we were going to be a country band down here, our stuff needed to be danceable. I love the dance culture, and I wanted to make the two-steppers happy! So, folks like Johnny Bush and Gary Stewart were also big influences. Of course, I was huge into Dale Watson as well after arriving in Austin. His ability to entertain and keep folks on the dance floor is really amazing.” McDonnell explained.

Bands, Solo Career and Songwriting Process

In 2004, McDonnell had founded a more alternative, pop country band called Gin Betty! after moving to Seattle. They recorded two albums and found themselves quite a bit of success playing several hot local venues including The Showbox, and The Triple Door. Gin Betty! was even featured on a national college radio campaign and received great responses in Texas and in other areas in the Southeastern United States. The band unfortunately unravelled due to some personal issues and it was those older, more classic sounds that really had a special place in McDonnell’s heart. “It was really what I always wanted to do, but in a lot of ways I didn’t know how,” he explains. “I overcomplicated the writing process and at the time thought it would be better to try and be more alt-country. In addition to that, 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. Leading up to me being a solo artist I was always in bands so there was a lot of compromising as far as what everyone involved wanted the songs to sound like.” After Gin Betty! dissolved, McDonnell put together The Grandtours (named for the classic George Jones song “The Grand Tour”) in 2009 which allowed McDonnell to lyrically explore darker territories and more complex musical arrangements while staying underneath the Classic Country umbrella.

Throughout his solo career, McDonnell’s sound and style have both stayed very consistent which, surprisingly, isn’t something seen all that often in the climate of country music these days anymore. Artists tend to bend to the ebbing and flowing of what’s charting rather than staying true to their own desires, but thankfully, not McDonnell. “I intend to give folks something they can sink their teeth into. I really love the Texas dance hall culture and I think that will always be a huge part of what I do. The tricky part is to not keep doing the same old thing. As a listener, why would I want to listen to someone try to sound like Ray Price when I could just listen to Ray Price? I want to find ways to keep it fresh and interesting while putting my own spin on things.”

Somehow, McDonnell has unlocked the secret on just how to do that and part of that secret may lie in the songwriting. “I find it hard to sit down and write about something out of thin air, it’s usually inspired by something that’s happened to me, or something I’ve heard someone say, or a combination of both. My wife, Dani, who sings with me is in many ways my muse. If we have a fight or something happens between us it can turn into a song rather quickly. I always say the occasional fight sucks, but hey, at least we got a song out of it!” Look, folks! It’s real life! That’s the first cut on the key.

When it comes to songwriting, McDonnell broke it right down to the basics. “I’ll typically start messing around with a chord progression first and then see what sort of lyrics might fit from there. I also use the notepad on my phone to write down lines that could be potential song material when I hear them. A good example is “Green Side of The Grass” from my last EP [Lucky Me]. Last year I got a call from a gentleman asking if we’d be interested in playing the Houston Rodeo. I said: “Yes, definitely,” and I asked him how he was doing that day and he said, “Well, I’m on the green side of the grass.” I thought that was great, took note, and ended up writing the song the next day. I knew I wanted it to be upbeat and a fun dance hall type song and was really into Vince Gill’s “Take Your Memory With You” at the time so, musically, that was the inspiration. It was kind of a mash-up of all those elements. As far as co-writing goes, I haven’t done much of it because it’s sort of intimidating to me. Dani and I have written together a bit and you can hear a couple of those songs on her recent EP, Neon’s Callin’.”

(Pssst, that EP should sound familiar!)

McDonnell’s Muse

Although, The Grandtours dissolved in 2011, McDonnell found his sweet muse with them. It might not be a love story fit for a fairytale, but it sure is a love story fit for a country song! “It’s actually really funny. The Grandtours started after a bad breakup of the previous band that involved a girl in the group and some love triangle type drama, so as a result, I didn’t want any girls in that band. Our drummer at the time felt like we needed a girl singer and posted an ad on Craigslist without me knowing. The ad simply read “Country rock band seeking attractive female vocalist to sing backup as well as take lead sometimes”. We had a few responses, but Dani’s stuck out since she only wrote back, “I fit your requirements.” I thought it was hilarious once the drummer told me he’d posted it and started forwarding me the applicants. After meeting with a few of the girls and having some weird experiences, I met Dani at the bar across from our practice space. I saw her when I walked in and said a silent prayer in my head, “please let that be the girl.” We ended up having a few beers, [we talked], and probably drank too much tequila before we ever even went up for the tryout. It was just her and I in the space, and in all honesty, she really couldn’t sing harmony, but I didn’t care. I really liked her voice and I liked her even more. To hear Dani tell the story from her perspective it sounds like a 60 Minutes special where a girl gets lured to an industrial part of the city and then into a windowless sound-proof room to get murdered. She’s not wrong, I’m sure some people would have been freaked out, but we hit it off right away so nothing else really mattered. It was all over for me and I broke up with my girlfriend the next day. It took Dani a couple years to break up with her boyfriend, but I eventually wrangled her away! We’ve been married over 4 years now.” Ahh, true love. Lula might just need to hear her side of the story sometime for the fun of it!

Thoughts on Streaming, The Shift in Country, Mainstream Radio, and His Goals

Many have been waiting for the classic country sound to come back around again, and many, including us here at Lula 1892, have turned to streaming services over traditional radio to find just what they have a hankering for. McDonnell, however, is late to the game. “I finally signed up for Spotify and am loving it. I’ve collected vinyl for years and have plenty of old records, but it’s amazing to have access to full catalogues of my favourite artists. As far as radio goes, you end up hearing the same songs over and over, and as much as I love the hits there are so many other amazing songs out there. Right now I’m really into the following records: Merle Haggard “If I Could Only Fly,” Johnny Paycheck “On His Way,” and Dwight Yoakam “Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room.” Back to front, they are all so great. I also really dig harder stuff like Monolord, Red Fang, and Melvins.” McDonnell also shared his thoughts on the current shift in country music. “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.” Truer words were never spoken.

When asked which bands and artists McDonnell currently enjoys listening to, he didn’t hesitate to rattle off a few names. “I feel like some of our peers in the Texas scene are putting out some really great stuff. Definitely check out Mayeux & Broussard, Kathryn Legendre, Jason James, Jonathan Terrell, and Mike & The Moonpies. Those are the folks that come to mind.” Clearly, McDonnell has spent less time on the web looking for new artists to listen to, and a lot more time playing alongside them.

We had time to reflect back on McDonnell’s career and the goals he had set out when he started and the goals he has yet to accomplish, and his answers were very telling of his character. He’s the real deal. “I wanted to make a living playing music that I’m proud of, and we are doing that now. I haven’t had a “real job” in over 4 years and Dani quit hers in August of 2017, so we’ve been hustling full-time since then. We feel incredibly lucky and it’s clear the Lord has his hand in our lives as things continue to unfold. We had a few milestones in getting a booking agent, publicist, and beer sponsorship which were goals of mine that I think will keep moving us forward. My next goal is to get our fan base up to the point where we are playing larger venues with great production and 90-minute sets while growing our revenue. Over the past several years we have relied a lot on private events (weddings, corporate events, etc.) to pay the bills, maintain the band, and have money to pay for radio promotion, studio time, equipment, our van, etc., and while it’s been a great tool to get us to this point, I’d like to move away from that towards playing for folks that specifically are connecting to our music, and bought a ticket to come to see us.”

New and Upcoming Projects

When it comes right down to the music that Aaron and Dani McDonnell have been releasing for fans, it’s never anything short of fresh and exciting. Their latest release, Austin Signal – Single Mic Series, is another fresh take on what used to be a country music commodity. Live, one take studio recording. It’s the McDonnells, surrounded by their core road band (Electric Guitar: Matt Wiley, Bass Guitar: Morgan Patrick Thompson, Pedal Steel: Simon Page, Drums: Bryan McGrath) all strategically positioned around a single microphone at Austin Signal in Austin, Texas under the skillful eye of Jon Niess, Signal’s Owner and Engineer. Certainly, a setup such as this brings to mind the live sessions put together at Sun Studio with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s real, it’s uncut, it’s raw, it’s unmixed, and it’s imperfect. It’s music the way music should be.

To give an idea of what the project was about and how they recorded it, Aaron McDonnell has provided a link to a video explaining how single mic recording is done for those interested in the nitty gritty technical side of things such as band placement. The only difference being that The McDonnells didn’t record to tape.

As far as track listing goes, there is just one piece of new material on the six song EP. “What Is Fort Worth,” which was written by Bobby Boyd is surrounded by carefully chosen covers written, and originally performed by some of the best in the business from Johnny and June’s “Jackson,” written by Jerry Leiber and Billy Wheeler, to George Strait’s “The Chair,” written by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran, to Merle Haggard’s “I Threw Away the Rose.”

Don’t think there isn’t a story behind that one new song of theirs though! When it comes to Aaron and Dani McDonnell, everything has a good story behind it. “We were playing at Poodie’s out by our house in Spicewood. Poodie’s is an old roadhouse that was founded by Poodie Locke, Willie’s old road manager, and is a hang out for all the locals, as well as singers and songwriters in the area. It can also be seen in Dani’s Honky Tonker video.” McDonnell explains of their new song “What Is Fort Worth” that has quite the story of its own. “One day after our set, an older lady came up and told Dani and I how much she liked our sound. We got to talking and she mentioned that her late husband was a songwriter and she would like to pitch us some of his songs. Turns out her husband was Bobby Boyd, who had quite a bit of commercial success.

“A guy that Bobby used to play with, who also plays at Poodie’s now a lot (Tuesday Residency with “The Troubadillos”), Louis Long sent me a video of Bobby playing the song not long before he passed away. The video was taken at the Bacon Bistro, a place right across the street from our neighborhood, and has since gone out of business. He didn’t have any of the music or lyrics written down so I had to watch the video slowly and repeatedly to get that all figured out, then work with the band to write an intro, turn around, and solo section. After we recorded the song and video, I sent it back to Louis and he was really excited about it. He made sure to say how proud Bobby would have been.

“Dani and I played it live acoustically one sleepy night at Poodie’s with just a few folks there. Cassandra, his widow was in the crowd and cried through the whole thing. She came up and hugged us afterwards and loved what we’d done with the song. It’s become a really special thing because of how it all came together right here in Spicewood—or “Spacewood” as some people call it. There is a sort of magic to this area. In addition to the beauty of the hill country, proximity to Austin, and Lake Travis, it also was a hang out for [artists such as] Willie, Waylon, Cash, [and their circle] during the 70’s and 80’s—Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch is about a mile from our house. At one time it was sort of a getaway for musicians to get out of Austin to chill out, smoke, and write songs. We feel super lucky to get to experience the remnants of that era and folks that made it so cool.”

Aaron McDonnell has yet another project coming later this year that’s still in the early stages of writing and recording, and he explains that it will be a little different than anything he’s done so far. “We’re doing it at my friends studio in Driftwood, TX. The studio is called Sargent Sounds–where Dani did Neon’s Callin’. The idea on this one is to do more of a collaborative project with the band where everyone is writing their own parts and giving input on the songs. They would also in turn own part of the recording. I thought it was a waste to be playing music with so many talented guys and not have them contribute to the writing part of things. It will be released as Aaron McDonnell & The Neon Eagles, which is the name we play live under. While there still will be some honky tonk type songs on it, we’re exploring some other spacier territory that would be considered more Rock or Americana (i.e. more reverb, delayed guitars, different arrangements, etc.). I’m really excited about turning the corner a bit and allowing ourselves to create without much of a thought of genre.”

One of the best things about country music is that it has so many sub-genres under its big ol’ umbrella. Aaron McDonnell & The Neon Eagles is expected to be released sometime later this year or early next with a single coming by the summer. We’ll make sure to keep y’all posted on release dates, and you can bet your bottom dollar there’s gonna be an album review to follow shortly after the official release. If you don’t know who the McDonnells are just yet, you certainly will by the end of the year, Lula 1892 will make absolutely sure of it!

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