Hometown News: Nothing to Shock Grandma

Country duo Hometown News accepts the reality that today’s country music is more likely to be rooted in suburban angst than rural hard times. Their recently released debut album, Wheels, abounds with songs about manageable emotional crises –- job stress, bad romantic choices, the inevitability of aging –- rather than such traditional life-or-death themes as poverty, betrayal, addiction and separation from home. “Minivan,” the act’s first single, is a light-hearted look at America’s most ubiquitous symbol of family responsibility.

Making up the Hometown News team are singer-songwriters Scott Whitehead and Ron Kingery. Although both are sons of military fathers, they point out that they grew up mostly in civilian surroundings: Whitehead in St. Louis, not far from his family’s farm, and Kingery in a small town in southern Illinois. “Our dads got out relatively early, while we were young,” Whitehead explains.

Their musical inspirations came from all over the charts. “I watched a ton of Hee Haw,” Kingery says. “I couldn’t get enough of it. … Still, my influences came mostly out of my parents’ record collections –- the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, Conway Twitty , Johnny Cash , the Statler Brothers , Three Dog Night. … Later on, Steve Wariner and Alabama were big influences.”

“I’m glad my mom listened to Glen Campbell ,” says Whitehead. “I heard his stuff all the time through her, along with Johnny Cash, who was my dad’s favorite. But Glen Campbell [was the main interest]. I even started combing my hair like him. That was when I was a kid. … I was a huge Doobie Brothers fan. I loved the way they blended their vocals and their acoustic and electric guitars. In college, I got more into songwriting and began listening to the James Taylors and Dan Fogelbergs. I came back to country music when Restless Heart was hitting it big. I really enjoyed their songwriting and their style of music, which reminded me a lot of the Doobie Brothers.”

The impact of the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel and other ultra-smooth vocal groups is amply evident in Hometown News’ own rich and polished harmonies.

The two aspiring performers met at a “writers’ night” in Nashville in 1996 and subsequently worked together as guitarists on radio tours for Lila McCann , Kevin Sharp and Chalee Tennison . Since the release of “Minivan,” the two have done their own share of radio visits and “listener appreciation” appearances. In addition, they have lately opened shows for Steve Holy and Brad Martin and are scheduled to open a few dates for Lee Ann Womack .

Whitehead is still recovering from the broken collarbone he suffered in a car accident during Fan Fair week. “I’ve got a plate in it and six screws,” he reports, “but I haven’t been on pain medication for a couple of days, and it’s starting to limber up a bit. I think collarbones are tough.” Unable to play his guitar the first week after the accident, he’s now back at it, albeit on a limited basis.

Late last year, in pursuit of a recording contract, Whitehead and Kingery began recording demos in Kingery’s home studio. When VFR Records heard those early results, Kingery recalls, “They said, ‘Hey, let’s keep doing it the same way.’” Consequently, the two singers wound up producing their own album. Individually, as a team or in league with other writers, Kingery and Whitehead also wrote six of the 11 songs on the album, including the title cut and “Minivan.” They also covered Stealers Wheel’s 1973 hit, “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and “Can’t Let Go,” from Lucinda WilliamsCar Wheels on a Gravel Road.

“We like to say that all these songs passed the ‘Grandma Test,’” Kingery notes. “Scott and I made a pact that we wouldn’t record anything we couldn’t sit across the table and sing to our grandmas without embarrassing them. They’ve got to go to church and face their peers on a Sunday morning, so we don’t want them to think they’ve got a couple of heathens.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.