In country music, there are endless debates about what kind of instrumentation really defines the genre as it constantly updates itself and divides into traditional and contemporary factions. Home Free found an ingenious way to get around those kinds of arguments: just ditch the instrumentation altogether. Their five members are all about what has always inarguably been at the core of country music: the human voice.
That Home Free is country music’s only real a cappella group is a novelty that, on the radio or on record, might only occur to listeners after the fact, since arrangements that are so fully fleshed out — and we do mean fleshed out, as opposed to machined out — have a way of tricking the ear. In concert, of course, it’s a different story: all at once, from first row to last, jaws drop at the first sight of all those throats in action, followed by nodding, dancing and even crying as the group’s powerful musical storytelling unfolds.
Home Free are returning with their fourth studio album, Dive Bar Saints, and there are a lot of new wrinkles to their story. But that most critical element remains intact. Listening to the leadoff track, “Remember This,” you might wonder if they’ve finally just given in and added instrumentation to their previously all-vocal catalog? Not to worry; that’s just an optical illusion. “We're completely a cappella. At all times,” Tim Foust assures us, laughing that the question still comes up. Foust is the bass player of the group… the bass voice player, that is. “Never say never,” he adds, asked if they might ever consider giving Nashville’s finest studio musicians some employment, “but that's what sets us apart. I mean, when we collaborated with Charlie Daniels, we let him play his fiddle, but that's about it.”
So there’s no breaking news alert to be had there, on the all-vocals front. But Dive Bar Saints does have a few other fresh headlines for the group, as their first album since they took full control of their recording career. Home Free had been on a major label ever since finding national fame via NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” the a cappella competition show they won in 2013, after more than a decade on the road. This new album, though, is coming out on Home Free Records, which will be distributed by The Orchard globally. And it’s not just the imprint that’s changing as they take the reins. On Dive Bar Saints, 10 of the 12 tracks are newly penned songs — the greatest amount of original material they’ve ever included on an album — with two band members stepping up in a big way as featured co-writers.
Making an album of almost exclusively new tunes wouldn’t necessarily be such a huge deal for most other country acts, but for Home Free, there was the possibility that fans might see it as a violation of their prime directive, or at least a shift away from what they’ve come to know and love — which is that this is the only country group in the world that delivers joltingly fresh, new, all-vocal arrangements of well-known songs from in and out of the genre. So the group took it to the fans, asking them if they’d mind an album of predominantly unheard songs, and those devotees made their own voices heard: The “covers” part isn’t what we care about most — don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
“I really do feel like this is a turning point for us,” says Rob Lundquist, the group’s tenor harmony singer. “It's the first time where we are going to have more original content than covers. It feels great now that we’ve had the community of songwriters actually coming to us and presenting us with songs that they wanted to be on the album. But it’s coming from within, too — Tim, our bass singer, co-wrote a couple of songs, and Austin Brown, our high tenor, co-wrote a couple songs.” Adds Brown, “Every time we have mentioned we have an album coming out and that it's almost all originals, people explode. Lord knows we wouldn't have expected that, but all signs point toward it being not just what fans want, but what they crave.”
Between the one-of-a-kind nature of the group, their established global appeal, and the types of theaters they usually play, Home Free are not exactly what you would call a “bar band.” From the fall of 2019 through the fall of 2020, they’ll be on their Dive Bar Saints World Tour, playing about a hundred shows in 16 nations, triumphantly returning to the UK for the fourth time and hitting other European countries like Italy and Switzerland for the first. The U.S. leg of that tour will be capped off by a special two-night stand at Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium. All to say: very few actual honky-tonks are on the itinerary.
But when it comes to the emotional grist of their material, they’re spiritually as much at home in the watering holes, where the stuff of life goes down every night, as they are headlining the “Mother Church of Country Music.” That’s why they can call their new album Dive Bar Saints: These songs represent the space where the sacred meets the everyday. Devastating breakups, rejuvenating pick-me-ups and God’s own harmonies will ensue in these 12 tracks.
The maturity in the songs belies just how long the group has been at this. Most fans probably have no memory of Home Free before they applied for, and ultimately won, the fourth season of NBC’s a cappella competition series, “The Sing-Off,” impressing judges Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds as well as millions of nightly viewers in 2013. That victory put the turbo drive to a career that had already been over a decade in the making.
Founding member, Adam Rupp, provides the group’s percussion sounds and beatboxing, which makes for some of the most show-stopping live moments, but also some of the subtlest undercurrents on record. Other members shifted slightly through years of touring, leading to the current lineup, most of whom went on “The Sing-Off” and subsequently signed with Sony for a string of four albums that all debuted in the country top 10. “The Midwesterners are definitely outnumbered by the Southerners now,” says Foust. “So there's a lot more ‘might could’ being said in the group” — as opposed to “might be able to.” That's an expression we have in the South that I didn’t realize was unique until I started working with people that weren’t from the South.”
Points out Lundquist — whose surname may be a giveaway that he is not one of the Southerners — “Tim Foust joining the group in 2012 was a game-changer for Home Free, big time. When he actually made that switch and he became a full-time member, we exploded after that. He’s a big reason why we are where we are today.” Without taking that much credit, Foust acknowledges that he “shared more country with the group, and that led to us covering some Josh Turner, which was fitting for my deeper voice.” Austin Brown, who’s also a Southern guy, joined in 2013 — then Adam Chance, the group’s baritone and newest addition, joined in 2016.
Home Free’s primary “platform” — very unofficially speaking — has been YouTube, where they’ve racked up a staggering 306 million views to date. The video success makes sense, apart from their canniness in choosing attention-getting covers: Home Free is a group that demands to be seen as well as heard, if only to prove anew each time that, yes, it’s five humans doing this… not just “home free,” but hands-free.
“When we signed with our management company, right after winning ‘The Sing-Off’,” recalls Brown, “a big part of the plan was based around YouTube, and a portion of our success has been and will always be that, just because it stays there forever.” In recent years the group has hooked up with the Patreon crowd-funding platform that allows fans to invest in their video production. “We've made close to a hundred music videos now. And while a lot of them are country covers, sometimes we’ll do things outside the box, because you never know which music video is going to be the one that turns an ear onto Home Free.”
There is one very good example of that. Diana Ross asked the group to perform at her 75th birthday party, after she discovered their video covering her hit song, “Love Train.” Her appreciation is proof of the power of search results to turn celebrities and non-celebrities alike into Home Free super-fans. “Oh, man,” says Foust. “Diana Ross is one of the few people that can call on Thursday and say ‘Hey, what are you doing Tuesday?’ and we say, ‘Whatever you want!’ Our minds were blown that we were on her radar at all. Once we got out to L.A., her assistant told us that she had spent the entire previous day sitting in front of her computer watching Home Free music videos, which is just crazy. The fact that someone who has lived music for over half a century —three quarters of a century! — is moved by our music is such an encouragement to continue doing what we're doing.”
They certainly haven’t lacked for encouragement from within the country genre, especially getting appreciation from other vocal harmony-oriented groups like Little Big Town and Rascal Flatts, who understand just what it is they’re pulling off, even if those other acts don’t perform without the safety net of bass, guitar and drums. Growing up, Foust’s wish in life was to be like Richard Sterban of the classic vocal group the Oak Ridge Boys. Eventually, of course, Home Free earned props from those same Boys. “They said they feel like we're the only group they've ever come across that they feel can properly carry their torch forward,” says Foust.
Covers have always been a crucial part of what the group does, and the new album doesn’t completely stint on those. There are two among the 12 tracks, and they’re both corkers. John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” “is one of the most requested songs we’ve had,” says Brown, “and we started on that song four or five years ago, but we were just never satisfied the arrangement was doing it justice until now. And Vince Gill’s ‘Go Rest High on That Mountain’ is similar. Tim had the idea that it would be a really beautiful song for Rob to sing with his beautiful, high tenor voice, and it’s really moving for our fan base. We're definitely very excited about those two covers on this particular album.”
But the songs that Brown and Foust contributed to as songwriters naturally inspire extra levels of enthusiasm. “I was really happy when the band wanted to do ‘What’s the World Coming To,’” says Foust, “because it’s a somewhat subtle social activism song, encouraging people to be in control of how their choices will affect their memories of certain events.” With ‘Lonely Girls’ World,’” Brown says, “I wanted to write a song that empowered a single woman, or perhaps a woman in a relationship that may not be serving her, and remind the men that, especially in this new world, women can control their own destiny, and a lonely girl can be in charge of anything because she holds the cards. I wanted to inspire some women to realize that they're holding the power, but it’s also for any men listening to know that if you don't serve your woman, she can go out and find another man very easily.”
On a more personally poignant level, Brown’s original song “Love Me Like That” hit close to home. “Over the last couple years, I've undergone a lot of personal growth, and that song has me uncovering a lot of my childhood trauma about my parents’ divorce, and being shown by a lovely woman that I’m better than my past. I never in a million years thought that I would submit it to the guys. But of all the things I wrote, that was the one that everybody was most immediately like, ‘Oh my gosh, Home Free needs to do this.’ I figured, well, I’m not going to be insecure about it; I'm just going to put my heart on the table and be honest with the world.”
At this point in Home Free’s career, you might wonder who makes up the core part of the group’s fan base: Is it a cappella buffs who are thrilled that such a thing exists in the country world, too? Or rank-and-file country fans who might love this music with or without an all-vocal approach?
“A little of both, actually,” says Adam Rupp. “First and foremost, we view ourselves as a country band that happens to be a cappella. To this day, there’s still a stigma out there about a cappella music; people think it’s barbershop, and that’s the extent of the conversation. But there's definitely that fan that loves the fact that we don't use instruments and thinks it's unique and outside the box. At the same time, with a lot of the music that we produce, we're just competing as best we can with what’s sonically happening on the radio — making sure that it's got impact in the ‘drums,’ that the bass is nice and full, that we’ve got the harmonies going, and then we throw in little, instrumental imitation grooves behind it. And some people don’t even really think twice about it. They think that they're just listening to good music, and then they find out after the fact: ‘Oh, they're not doing that with any instrumentation.’”
Yet, Rupp points out, crucially, the goal is not to try to 100 percent duplicate the sound of a normally arranged, full-band record — because the world is already full of those, after all. “It’s definitely a challenge,” Rupp says, “because especially with the beatboxing and percussion stuff, you have to play this fine line of making it sound like a drum but yet have enough human quality that it sounds believable that a person is doing that. You can't go too crazy in the editing to make it sound not human at all. You always have to keep a little bit of that humanity in the sound of what you’re doing. People don't want to be glossed over with a bunch of production. They still want to relate to someone actually doing it.”
With Dive Bar Saints, says Brown, “We’re so excited about this record, not just because we’ve got 10 original songs on it — and how do you pick your favorite, when they’re like your children? — but because there’s such a dynamic range. There are faster party songs and slower, more intimate songs.”
For the ultimate proof of Home Free’s dynamic range, you only have to look to a recent song-off on the group’s Twitter account, which paired different tunes from their catalog, then asked fans to vote on their favorite. One day, the choice that came up was… “Hillbilly Bone” versus “How Great Thou Art.” Brown says it was just coincidence that those two songs came up together that day, “but really,” he laughs of the contrast between those tunes, “there’s no better picture of our fan base.” In Home Free’s homegrown but rapidly globally expanding audience, saints and barhoppers are all very much present and accounted for.