Runaway June: True, Modern Grit

Photo courtesy of Runaway June

Photo courtesy of Runaway June

Written by Constance Dunn

Years ago, John Wayne’s granddaughter Jennifer Wayne set out from California for Nashville to fulfill her musical dreams. It was there she met Naomi Cooke, a Florida native from a family of 11 children. The two began writing songs together and, soon after, Hannah Mulholland joined the mix. The trio hit it off, and Runaway June was born.“The reason we clicked is because we all wanted to say the same thing,” says Wayne. “We’re three very independent women, each very different. Our songs come out that way without even trying, because we are those women.”

Since then the group has been building success after success, from their first record deal sealed with the poignant, harmony-filled song “Forget Her,” to their debut 2016 single, “Lipstick,” to the honor of being the first female trio to score two Top 40 hits in over a decade. Their 2018 American Country Music (ACM) nomination is a recent notch, and the day of our interview, the ladies gleefully learn that they will be a supporting act on Carrie Underwood’s 2019 tour. “We still can’t even believe that’s happening,” says Mulholland. “It’s been a really crazy couple of years.”

Amid a busy schedule—the week we speak is a flurry of interviews and concerts—the group is intent on giving back. One way is through the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. “It’s really personal because my grandfather fought cancer for so long,” says Wayne. “That’s why he started it. He was like, ‘I don’t want anyone else to suffer from this horrible disease.’” Whether performing at fundraisers or lending their star power to the Institute’s initiatives, the group’s support has been unflagging. “The girls have been so awesome at supporting it, too,” she adds. “It’s really close to our hearts.”

John Wayne embodied the spirit of rugged individualism, a trait that’s clearly extended to granddaughter Jennifer and the group as a whole. A look at their lyrics reveals the persistent theme of finding happiness in one’s skin, being satisfied in one’s boots despite the ups and downs of life. “Our journey to get to each other was an individual journey with struggles and adversity,” points out Cooke. “So that made us individual artists on our own, before we even got to each other.” There is the group’s musical chops, too: from deft harmonizing and songwriting to skillful musicianship tinged with steel and roots. “I always had an interest in pretty much any instrument,” Malibu-raised Mulholland says, whose guitar and mandolin-playing are just the tip of the iceberg. “I started playing piano when I was five; it was my first instrument.”

Possessing strong visual beauty crossed with self-honed musical skills, and having what it takes to blossom (and endure) in the music industry, is not for the faint of heart. Mentioning this, Cooke references steel magnolia country artists like Dolly Parton or Shania Twain: “Those women had to be even more tough in a way to prove that they were smart, and true artists and writers.” It’s that positive balance of style and substance—genuine to Wayne, Cooke and Mulholland—that Runaway June embodies, and that they are more than happy to showcase on a grand stage. “The biggest compliments we get,” says Wayne, “are when moms come up to us and say, ‘Thank you for making music that my daughters can look up to.’”