Country music is steeped in female voices, from Patsy Cline to Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill. But not since the Dixie Chicks burst onto the scene in 1998 has an all-female trio experienced such widespread success.
“It really happened organically for us, and the timing was just right,” Runaway June lead singer and guitarist Naomi Cooke says. “Our sound was just kind of rootsy and organic, and the writing was, I like to say, feminine, but it also has appeal to men.”
“Lipstick” was the first song in more than ten years by an all-female trio to break the Top 25 on the Mediabase Country Chart, helping Runaway June earn a 2018 Academy of Country Music nomination for New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year.
Though the trio didn’t take home the trophy, Runaway June won the attention of fans and critics alike. Rolling Stone lauded their debut EP as one of the ten best of 2018, calling it “a fun, substantive offering that serves as an exciting peek at a group that’s just beginning to find their voice.”
Runaway June will join Brooks & Dunn, Luke Combs, Locash, Rodney Atkins, and others for a day of music, food, and fun at the 34th-annual KISS Country 99.9 Chili Cookoff in Pembroke Pines Saturday, January 26.
The only female act in the lineup, Runaway June represents a gender disparity that Cooke says has been prevalent in country music for too long. “It kind of takes you aback,” she says. “It really hits you when you look at the charts.”
But Runaway June is changing that fact by appealing to a new generation in an era when fans are eager for women’s voices, Cooke says.
Songs such as “Buy My Own Drinks” speak from a place of strength and independence, while “Got Me Where I Want You” expresses the raw vulnerability of love. “It’s not excluding,” Cooke says of lyrics that empower women without disempowering men. “It isn’t male-bashing at all, 'cause we love our guys.”
Cooke says one reason men have dominated the charts lately is because record labels have preferred men’s lighter, pop-country stylings over the deeper perspectives that women tend to offer.
“Women started writing this country stuff that never felt real or true,” Cooke says of some women’s ill-fated attempts to write songs that record companies wanted to hear. “People want to hear that raw, emotional side from a woman; they don’t want to hear them talking about mud flaps and tailgates. It doesn’t feel authentic.”
Runaway June’s songs are resonating with fans, and the country music world is taking notice. The trio is working on a full-length album and will hit the road this year along with Maddie & Tae on Carrie Underwood’s the Cry Pretty Tour 360.
“I like to call her our generation’s Dolly Parton because she’s so incredibly smart and talented,” Cooke says of Underwood. “She’s just going, ‘Hey, these two acts are on tour with me because they’re the best for the job — not because they are women, but because they are the best.’ And that’s the true purpose of equality.”
Cooke, who is smart and talented herself, possesses a rare combination of grit, courage, and grace, due in part to her atypical childhood.
“We were a very nomadic, hippie family, and we were on the road for a while,” she says of living in an RV with her parents and ten siblings.
One day when Cooke was 9 years old, she sat outside the family’s RV strumming her guitar in the dry Arizona desert. Her father was out of work, and her mother was selling rocks and gems at a nearby festival.
“This guy came up and handed me a twenty,” she says. It was Cooke’s a-ha moment. “I put a little basket down and I played for like five hours, and I think I made like a hundred bucks.”
She knew right then she wanted to be a musician and began playing daily. “I would contribute my money to buying groceries, and we eventually got out of that town, but it was about six weeks,” she says.
The family settled in Cedar Key, Florida, when Cooke was 12. “We had a good life there,” she says. “When I started playing music, my whole town knew what I was pursuing, and they all supported me.”
And though Cook eventually left Florida, it never left her. “It’s just a sense of community that you take with you and kind of search for,” she says.
At 20, Cooke relocated to Nashville, where she ultimately connected with Runaway June bandmates Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne, granddaughter of movie legend John Wayne.
“He’s still alive and well in Runaway June!” Cooke, laughing, says of John Wayne. “Jen never got to meet him, but she looks like him, and he’s influenced her music and writing and opened a lot of doors for her.”
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When Cooke, now 29, isn’t recording our touring, she enjoys painting landscapes and spending time with her family. “They fulfill me as a person,” she says. “They ground me, and I’m reminded of how wonderful people are when I’m around them.”
Cooke is grateful for the female artists who paved the way for Runaway June and hopes to headline a tour and maybe earn a Grammy one day. She is particularly appreciative of the fans who embrace the band’s honest, progressive message.
“We’re modern women living in a modern world,” Cooke says. “We’re just writing about our experiences and hoping that people relate to it.”
Runaway June. At the KISS Country 99.9 Chili Cookoff. 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, January 26, at C.B. Smith Park, 900 N. Flamingo Rd., Pembroke Pines. Tickets cost $65 and VIP tickets cost $339 via wkis.radio.com.