After the departure of trio-mate Hannah Mulholland, the group gets an energy boost from the gifted vocalist and fiddler, who's now featured on new single "We Were Rich"

By Nancy Kruh
July 27, 2020 04:10 PM
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Runaway June's Naomi Cooke and Jennifer Wayne were faced with just two choices when trio-mate Hannah Mulholland told them this spring that she wanted to call it quits.

"Are we going to be a duo — or do we find someone new?" Wayne, 38, recalls about the fateful conversation she had with Cooke.

In truth, the decision was even narrower than that, both women say, because only one "someone new" came to mind: Natalie Stovall, the gifted solo artist and fiddler who's earned a loyal following — and Nashville esteem — even though a national breakthrough has somehow eluded her over her lengthy career.

"Literally, that was it," Wayne tells PEOPLE. "Natalie was the only person."

"Yup," Cooke concurs.

But would Stovall say yes? Turns out the decision was a no-brainer.

"It just felt right," says Stovall, 38, officially the newest third of the trio since May. "My gut said, 'This is the next thing. This is what you need to do.'"

The first audible result of this 2.0 version of Runaway June is now hitting the airwaves: New single "We Were Rich," a standout track on the band's 2019 debut album, Blue Roses, has been updated to include not only Stovall's vocals but also some of her signature fiddle licks.

Wayne enjoys pointing out that Stovall's fiddling prowess is, in fact, a return to Runaway June's roots. After the band formed in 2015, their first recordings prominently featured fiddle solos, but they were eventually dropped.

"We couldn't afford a fiddle player on the road," says Wayne. "We could barely afford a guitar player! So it's been really cool because that's the sound that we loved from the beginning."

In reality, Stovall's fiddle is just a bonus. What truly set her in Wayne and Cooke's sights was the chemistry the three already shared.

"There are a number of beautiful, talented, hungry, hard-working young women in town," says Cooke, 30, "but finding someone who knows what it's like to be on the road, who knows the difficulty of life on the road, who knows what it's like to work with a crew of guys ... Natalie knows. She's just such a good vibe."

Cooke and Wayne, who celebrated a top 5 hit last year with "Buy My Own Drinks," have a lengthy mutual-admiration history with Stovall, including actually opening for her at a long-ago Nashville show. (Cooke still has the poster.) Wayne's friendship with Stovall extends back to 2014 when Wayne worked for Stovall's label at the time, and the two traveled together on a radio tour. Stovall, meanwhile, has been DMing "attagirls" to the group for years. More recently, in February, they all reconnected during a music festival in Mexico.

About a month later, as quarantine life was just taking hold, Mulholland finally told her two bandmates the pull to permanently rejoin her family in her native California had become too strong. Neither Cooke nor Wayne say the news came as shock.

"She had been kind of feeling homesick for a long time," says Cooke. "This life is not for everyone. You spend a lot of time away from your family. You sacrifice a lot of other things, and so you kind of have to choose."

Both bandmates say they supported Mulholland in her decision. "We still love her," says Cooke. "There was no drama."

Meanwhile, Stovall was at home in Nashville, in the doldrums that the pandemic had pushed her off the road. "And then," she says, "these beautiful girls called," offering her a new opportunity to live out the life she already loves — granted, once touring restarts.

The elephant-in-the-room issue, of course, is the fact that Stovall has spent her entire career — she actually had her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 12 — as a center-stage solo artist. Cooke's equally striking voice is indisputably the distinctive sound of Runaway June. Is spotlight-sharing even in Stovall's nature?

Stovall quickly puts the question to rest. "It would be very difficult if I wasn't such a fan of Naomi's voice, because I do love to sing lead," she says. "But in this scenario, her voice is 'the voice,' and for me, there is something magical about harmonizing together. Singing harmonies is another love of mine, and so now I get to do that in a much bigger capacity."

Besides that, Stovall notes, the three share a remarkable amount of artistic DNA. "We all speak the same language musically and even just our dreams are so similar," she says. "I know one thing for sure. I love making music in a band scenario. I'm happy to welcome some sisters into the band of brothers that I've always had."

A larger-than-life presence on stage, Stovall says she also asked for — and received — assurances she wouldn't have to squeeze into a new mold. "Something that really impressed me about our conversations was the encouragement to embrace my individuality, because that was something I needed to talk about," Stovall says. "Like, do I need to do something different or change what I do, because I can be a lot on stage! But the thing was, they came to me because they wanted me to do what I do, just within this context."

Both Cooke and Wayne consider a band relationship a "marriage," and they're open about how, like some other bands, group therapy is a regular part of their professional lives. It was especially helpful, Wayne says, in closing the chapter with Mulholland.

"Naomi and I wanted to make sure that we were not going to let any of the past stuff go into this new marriage because that's not fair to Natalie," Wayne says. "It's pretty cool how therapy makes a new, healthy place for something new to start."

Jennifer Wayne, Natalie Stovall and Naomi Cooke of Runaway June
| Credit: CeCe Dawson

The three women are now building their future together, co-writing songs and exploring their sound in the studio. A second album is in its early stages, and a Christmas project will be released later this year. The trio also is enjoying early reaction to "We Were Rich," a nostalgic song about appreciating life's simple, priceless treasures — a message, the women believe, that has special resonance in the midst of  COVID-19 (which Wayne herself recovered from in April).

Appreciation is surely Stovall's byword these days as she embraces her new role.

"I'm the luckiest person in the world, during a world pandemic," she says, "because I got to join them."