Their hit debut single is “American Beautiful,” and for family trio The Henningsens, it may be an American spirit story wrapped up in a love song, but in lyrics like “we’re a little unusual, we are American beautiful,” there’s a window into the unlikely story of a group whose musical journey has been anything but typical.
To introduce the group, they are Brian Henningsen (bass, guitar, vocals) – family patriarch and father of 10 including eldest son Aaron (guitar, vocals) and daughter Clara (lead vocals, guitar).
On their Arista Nashville debut, helmed by four-time GRAMMY®-winning producer Paul Worley (Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride), The Henningsens showcase a sound that is fresh, vibrant, and uniquely their own, with Clara’s expressive and inviting vocals center stage, together with gorgeous family harmonies and vivid storytelling, offering lyrics that paint sometimes traditional themes in non-traditional ways.
It’s their gift for songwriting that first began turning heads in Nashville, most notably on the Platinum-certified debut by The Band Perry, who scored big with
“You Lie,” written by Aaron, Clara, and Brian, and the two-week #1 smash, “All Your Life,” penned by Brian and Clara.
“We try to be very lyrically descriptive,” Brian says. “We always say it when we write: we’re trying to make a little movie play in your mind.”
On their self-titled debut EP, all four songs were written by The Henningsens, collaborating with some of Music City’s top tunesmiths, including Brett Beavers, Lisa Carver, Don Poythress, and Jimmy Yeary.
From the dynamic energy and lyrical imagery of “American Beautiful” to the gently longing emotional beauty of “I Miss You,” The Henningsens’ EP offers a snapshot of the diversity and depth of the trio’s talents.
“The Color Red” is a “true story of legend,” Brian says, that musically and lyrically simmers with the drama and passion behind what Clara calls “the story of a murder that almost was.”
And with the opening lyric, “I got a check from God today, hiding in a stack of bills, addressed from a long-lost friend,” the chill-inspiring “To Believe” is based in part on a challenging time in Aaron’s life and is, collectively, the trio’s favorite song on the EP.
“We’re all the way from very country to bluegrass to something you can’t quite put your finger on,” Brian says of the band’s music, rooted in very melodic, harmony-driven sounds and crossing generations of musical influences. While Brian cites such acts as Pure Prairie League, The Marshall Tucker Band, and The Eagles, Aaron notes influences like Johnny Cash, James Taylor, and Brad Paisley, and Clara is quick to mention Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, and Nickel Creek.
There’s a heartland theme that runs throughout the music of The Henningsens, which seems only natural for a family from rural Atwood, Illinois, where their 1700-acre farm has offered home and livelihood – and, at times, school, playground, and even birthplace – across seven generations.
As for music, Clara laughs, “We’ve always been musical, but we didn’t grow up like the von Trapps!”
Indeed, coming together as a band was part of an unexpected path that found Aaron and Clara sharing the dream that their father once relinquished for the sake of family, only to find – years later – that his family was bringing that dream back into focus.
Music had been a sideline for Brian, playing in Illinois-area bands off and on for more than a decade, and by the early ‘90s, he’d also begun songwriting. Trips to Nashville and meetings with music publishers followed, but in early 1996, his father was involved in an accident that brought Brian home, as he set aside music to help care for his father and take over the family farm.
But by 2003, Aaron was writing and performing in a college band, and Brian says, “I was blown away by what he was doing.” While Brian enjoyed the farm, it was the pressure of farming in tough times, the excitement of Aaron’s music, and a song that Brian had written at the time that all became catalysts to reignite his thoughts about music, as did an inspiring talk show – literally an on-the-tractor radio epiphany that allowed him to feel that he could explore a life beyond farming.
“It was like you have that ‘Eureka!’ moment,” Brian recalls. “I’m not trapped in any circumstance I’m in. I have the ability to make my own destiny, which leads into the premise of ‘American Beautiful.’”
The following year, the family purchased a historic fixer-upper in rural Tennessee – a house that became a family adventure project over the next couple of years, employing Brian’s construction skills on vacations and breaks in farming schedules.
But the evolution of the group began in early 2007, when they penned their first song together with a writer in Nashville. When the trio played it at an open mic night at Nashville’s fabled Bluebird Café, “it was like people were transfixed,” Clara recalls with amazement. “We had no idea what to expect, and people were saying how great it was that we were performing as a family, and we really weren’t even thinking about that.”
And while they continued writing and performing locally, Clara says, “It wasn’t until a few years later that we really took being a trio seriously.”
Aaron remembers, “People would tell us that we sounded good together, and we were sort of like, ‘Okay, well, I guess we’ll just keep going!’”
It was during this time that Aaron met longtime musician/songwriter Cactus Moser, who shared some of the group’s demo recordings with producer Paul Worley.
“Paul believed in us early on,” Aaron says. In 2008, he introduced them to another family trio who had yet to sign a record deal: Kimberly, Neil, and Reid, soon to be known as The Band Perry. The families clicked as writers and friends, with the Perrys’ debut album featuring three songs they wrote with The Henningsens, as well as their hit recordings of “You Lie” and “All Your Life.”
On tour with Brad Paisley through the summer of 2013, The Henningsens are fast becoming fan-favorites, musically and personally. Friendly, gracious, unassuming, and fun to be around, they share the candor and sometimes merciless teasing of family, and while they’ll be the first to say that it can be unusual to see two generations of family living and working so closely together, they love doing it – and they hope that it might be a positive inspiration to others.
And making music that not only entertains, but also empowers or uplifts – music that resonates on an emotional level – is at the heart of what The Henningsens are all about.
“If you can touch somebody emotionally and say something that’s actually worth saying, then you’ve done your job as a songwriter and an artist,” Brian says, “and that’s really our biggest goal.”