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As instant gratification becomes the norm and certainty is worn as armor, Sean McConnell is choosing patience and ambiguity––especially when it comes to himself. “I think embracing the blurry lines is a sign of getting older and just having more life experience,” he says. “It can be healthy to break your own boxes.”
Sean is home in Nashville, reflecting on the path he’s taken to recording Secondhand Smoke, his 13th album. A cohesive collection of modern folk music, Secondhand Smoke asks provocative questions about how we become who we are, what and whom we love, and the growth, pain, and freedom that come with accepting that some answers might elude us forever.
“The older I get, the more I find that is what it’s all about––that there is no way to answer it all,” Sean says. “Being comfortable with mystery is a positive thing in all aspects of our lives. I definitely explore that in these songs.”
A grassroots following now hundreds of thousands deep has turned to Sean for that kind of musical exploration for almost 20 years. Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Meat Loaf, Jake Owen, Brothers Osborne, Christina Aguilera, Buddy Miller and more have all recorded his songs––a dizzying list that spans not just styles, but generations. Success shows no sign of slowing: Sean earned his first no. 1 single on country charts in early 2018 with breakout artist Brett Young’s delivery of “Mercy,” which the two co-wrote. As a performer, Sean packs listening rooms and quiets unruly bar crowds. His sound––a warm tenor painting vivid stories over acoustic guitar often cushioned by keys or other strings––has prompted a diverse range of music scenes from the storied Boston folk community to Texas’s defiantly self-sovereign camp to warmly claim Sean as one of their own.
“My payoff is just making the music,” Sean says, then smiles. “Everything else is bonus.”
At 34 years-old, Sean has the catalog of artists twice his age. He released his first album at just 15, and until his acclaimed eponymous record in 2015, he did it all independently. “Bootstrapping your own career, you get to build at an organic pace that allows you to grow with your music,” he says. “It teaches you how most musicians do it. Overnight success is not the rule––it’s the exception. Most of us are doing it the other way.”
“You can hurt and still feel lucky,” Ben Danaher sings on the title track of his deeply personal debut album, ‘Still Feel Lucky.’ Coming from any other songwriter, it might sound like a simple platitude, but in Danaher’s hands, it’s something far more profound, a moment of true enlightenment in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Years of pain are wrapped up in his delivery, but still he commits to the hope and the beauty inherent in the darkness. It’s a monumental task, but one the Huffman, Texas native handles with a tenacious grace on an album that, despite being born in the fires of struggle and loss, manages to forge its own path toward peace, growth, and even joy.
Drawing on the influence of legendary troubadours like Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and Townes Van Zandt, Danaher first made a name for himself as a songwriter in Texas before relocating to Nashville. Along the way, he shared bills with Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jack Ingram, Angaleena Presley, Rhett Miller, Travis Meadows, and Amanda Shires, in addition to co-writing songs for Ryan Beaver, Bonnie Bishop, Rob Baird, and Justin Halpin among others. For his own songs, Danaher collaborated with some of Nashville fastest-rising stars, including Maren Morris, on material that blended classic country tradition with modern rock and roll sensibilities.
Recorded live and raw with his touring band, ‘Still Feel Lucky’ showcases Danaher’s hard-won wisdom and cinematic storytelling, capturing slices of life with a candid honesty that cut straight to the heart of things. Danaher lost his brother to murder and his father to cancer in short succession, and while many of the songs draw from that well of pain and loss, the music is anything but self-pitying. These are songs of revelation and redemption, reflecting a maturity and an acceptance that can only come with time and perspective. Writing the album was a therapeutic process for Danaher, an opportunity to make sense of the inexplicable, but it was also a chance to respond to the universe with love and gratitude despite all he’s been through.
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