From left: Hannah Mulholland, Naomi Cooke and Jennifer Wayne of Runaway June photographed on July 14, 2019 at Westlight Studios in Nashville.
From left: Hannah Mulholland, Naomi Cooke and Jennifer Wayne of Runaway June photographed on July 14, 2019 at Westlight Studios in Nashville.
Eric Ryan Anderson

Chartbreaker: Runaway June Formed By Accident, But They're Sending an Intentional Message

In late 2014, Broken Bow Records founder Benny Brown introduced Southern California native Jennifer Wayne, now 37, to Floridian Naomi Cooke, now 29. They were both living in Nashville, and Brown suggested they write together. In June 2015, Wayne invited her former songwriting partner, Hannah Mulholland, now 28, to sushi with her and Cooke to see if the three clicked.

After dinner, Cooke and Wayne played some of their material for Mulholland, and a ballad titled "Blue Roses" struck a chord. "We were all in Jennifer’s car," Cooke recalls, "and [Hannah] was shaking the back of my seat, like, 'Let me in on these writes!'" Within days, the three wrote 25 songs together, and decided to become a group. “We’re strong, independent women, and that can go two ways,” says Wayne, who had previously been in female trio Stealing Angels. “Luckily, we all had the same vision.” Adds Cooke with a laugh, "It was like getting married right away, like, 'Oh, this works!'"

Later that month, the trio played four songs for Broken Bow; Brown offered the group a record deal on the spot. "All of a sudden, we had to learn how to be a band,” says Mulholland. The speedy signing was a whirlwind in more ways than one: Not only had they not even decided on a group name, but each of the members had previously been told that labels weren't signing female acts – especially an all-female trio. "It was the talk of the town because women were not getting signed like that," Mulholland says. "I think [Broken Bow] saw it as a little bit of a challenge, and they were probably pretty excited about the idea of like, 'We’re going to take that and triple it.' They were motivated to break that stigma."

The women landed on the name Runaway June — which combined the members’ “running away” to Nashville with the month they started writing together — and released their first official single, the fiery breakup song “Lipstick,” in May 2016. The love-struck ballad “Wild West” arrived the following year. Both hit Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, making Runaway June the first female country group to land two top 40 singles on the list since SHeDAISY in 2006.

While working on their debut album in 2018, the Runaway June ladies had a writing session with Hillary Lindsey (Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”) and Josh Kear (Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”) that produced a song about staying strong after a breakup. "Josh, the only guy in the room, said, 'What about the title "Buy My Own Drinks"?'" Mulholland remembers, smiling. "Hillary started playing this groove on guitar, and we knew exactly where to take it." Runaway June felt it had the makings of what Mulholland calls a “career song,” which was confirmed by the act’s successful debut at Stagecoach music festival just days later. "The reaction from the crowd was unlike anything we’ve gotten from any of our songs before," Mulholland says. A year later, “Buy My Own Drinks” is the group’s first top 20 hit on both the Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts (No. 13 and No. 20, respectively, as of press time).

Runaway June decided to name their debut LP after the song that started it all, "Blue Roses," which Cooke calls "the heart of the record." Blue Roses arrived on June 28, starting at No. 36 on the Top Country Albums chart and No. 2 on the Heatseekers Albums chart (both dated July 13). In September, the group will resume a 56-date North American trek supporting Carrie Underwood on her Cry Pretty 360 Tour along with openers Maddie & Tae. Cooke estimates that audiences for the all-female bill so far have been 90% women, which she finds particularly encouraging after years of hearing label reps say that women don’t want to listen to female acts. “We’ve been beat down with people telling us that stupid thing, and it’s just not true,” says Cooke. "We all knew it was BS, and we’re seeing it in front of our eyes. It’s a big energy boost for us."

Though it's still early in Runaway June's career, being put in the same category as SHeDAISY and the Dixie Chicks — the groups that inspired all three members — is equally empowering. "I want to make sure that little girls right now have people to look up to," Mulholland says. Cooke agrees: “We’re busting down the door for other women to come through. If that’s the purpose of this band, I’ll take it.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 27 issue of Billboard.

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