The Lone Bellow has turned a personal tragedy into musical triumph
It was a family tragedy that transformed Zach Williams into a songwriter. His wife Stacy was in a horseback riding accident, and the couple was told she would be a quadriplegic. During the time that followed, as Williams was taking classes on how to feed and bathe her, he was also going through the stages of grief—anger, sadness, then numbness. It was during these periods of feeling numb that he started writing in his journal, in an attempt to process his experience.
“I started writing in rhymes to try to press my thoughts out of my brain,” he says. “There was something about the rhythm that helped me—just in the little moments of putting pen to paper.”
A friend saw the journal entries and suggested that Williams learn how to play guitar and sing so that he could share the thoughts that looked a lot like verses and choruses. Williams took his advice, picking up the guitar and starting the process of turning his deeply personal thoughts and emotions into songs.
Incredibly, Stacy made a full recovery. Shortly thereafter, the couple moved to New York to pursue their creative interests. While there, Williams became part of a community of songwriters and open mic regulars that, he says, “were beautifully and brutally honest,” letting each other know when a song was too self-absorbed or when it really connected.
It was at an impromptu music session at a diner that the band the Lone Bellow was born, when Williams and his longtime friend Brian Elmquist connected with singer Kanene Pipkin, whose older brother was also an old friend of Williams. While workshopping some of Williams’ new songs, the three artists experienced something magical. The way he tells it, there was a “really hard, really big note,” and when they sang it together, something happened that they all realized was extraordinary.
“There was this moment where I realized I can sing my hardest and feel safe, with them singing their hardest at the same time,” says Williams. “I can remember that feeling.”
Recognizing that there was something special being created, the three focused their musical energy on the new group. Within a few months, they were recording their self-titled debut album with renowned artist and producer Charlie Peacock, introduced to them by the folk duo the Civil Wars.
With Peacock at the helm, the Lone Bellow recorded at the Rockwood Music Hall in Brooklyn. The result is a magnificent addition to the American roots music canon. The record, which sees the band open, honest, emotionally vulnerable and connected, is full of gospel-inspired vocals, layered and rich instrumentation and a sense of familiarity and closeness. It was widely regarded as one of last year’s best acoustic releases.
“Charlie did a wonderful job of capturing the moment, the energy,” says Williams. “He’s a wonderful listener, and he really beautifully helped us narrow down some very small but ambiguous decisions that made the work something I’m proud of.”
Born in Acworth Georgia, Williams credits his musical style to his upbringing. He comes from a family of musicians in which everyone sang and played instruments. His grandmother was in a gospel group called the Justice Trio. Elmquist and Pipkin also have roots that lend themselves to the Lone Bellow’s haunting, down-home style. Elmquist was in a barbershop quartet as a young man, and Pipkin, who Williams calls “the smart one,” grew up singing in church.
The band is now working on its next record, with help from Aaron Dessner of the band the National. They’re recording at Dreamland, a studio in what Williams describes as “a forgotten church on a forgotten railway” outside of Woodstock, N.Y. The first single, titled “Then Came the Morning,” is due out in early-October. According to Williams, the new material has a lot of family lore in it, as well as the personal revelations that the Lone Bellow is known for.
Sharing those deeply personal feelings can be challenging, but Williams says doing so elicits moments of joy, gratitude, pride and humility. He’s particularly grateful when audiences come along for the emotional journey.
“Whenever an audience has the conviction to want to carry that with us,” he says, “that’s when it’s like, ‘Damn, okay, we’re a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves, this feels really good.’”
The Lone Bellow will perform at 9 p.m. Monday, September 29 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $18/adv, $20/door. For more information call 603-2294.