Boston holds special significance for the Lone Bellow, the Americana-steeped rockers who first played the city the night after the lockdown in the manhunt for the Marathon bomber. “There was this cathartic feeling in the room,” primary singer/songwriter Zach Williams recalls of their 2013 show at Brighton Music Hall, “like ‘We have this incredible opportunity to be part of a bit of humanity.’ ”
That feeling plays a major role in the grandly earnest music of the Lone Bellow, which graces both Boston Calling on May 24 and the Newport Folk Festival on July 24. “We use this term Southern Gothic a lot for our music,” Williams says. “At the core, we’re a three-part harmony band that uses whatever instrumentation we feel the song calls for.”
The songs on the group’s January release, Then Came the Morning, range from the sweeping piano-based title track to the electric boogie “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” and from the churning anthem “Take My Love” to the soft gospel-folk ballad “I Let You Go.” Relationships with friends and family fuel lyrics in songs like “Marietta,” which riffs on secrets Williams faced in his marriage.
“The songs ebb and flow out of tragedy and hope and betrayal and redemption,” Williams, 34, says from the road in Missouri. “There are times in the show where songs that we’ve written are really hard to sing every night, and there are other songs in the show that just celebrate being alive.”
The fervent singer/guitarist secured soulmates in guitar buddy Brian Elmquist, a fellow Georgia native he met at a Virginia college, and mandolinist Kanene Pipkin, whose older brother was a friend when Williams most needed support.
In 2005, Williams’ wife broke her neck in a fall from a horse, leading to bedside hours at an Atlanta hospital where she lay paralyzed. His journal writings turned into songs that Elmquist encouraged him to perform at open mics. And when his wife “miraculously healed,” Williams kept a vow with several friends who lived through the ordeal to move together to Brooklyn.
Elmquist joined them a few years later, after time in Nashville, and he and Williams led separate bands. “I was going through some relationship drama and wrote all these really sad songs and stopped by the diner that Brian worked at and said, ‘Do you want to get together and just play music?’ ” Williams says. He also invited Pipkin, who’d just arrived in town with her husband after five years in China. She and Elmquist both had experience singing in a cappella groups.
“With the song ‘You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional,’ we hit the bridge for the first time, and we were all able to sing full throttle and not worry about each other,” Williams says. “It was just this moment where all three of us were [thinking] ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
They named the band after a bull that Williams heard one night when he was a child staying in his grandmother’s guest room. “I was really scared and heard this noise in the cow pasture,” he says. “A quarter of a mile away, I see this white thing in the tree and thought it was a ghost.” In the daylight, it turned out to be a plastic bag.
For Then Came the Morning, the Lone Bellow didn’t go far to find Brooklyn neighbor Aaron Dessner, guitarist for the National (and curator of Boston Calling), who agreed to produce the group’s second album. They decamped to Woodstock to record at Dreamland, a reopened studio in a run-down church.
“The sanctuary was the main room where we did the vocals, and we all stood around each other, so the vocal blends are natural,” Williams says, adding that Dessner and engineer Jonathan Low “put these mics up in the ceiling to get the ambient sounds of what it sounds like to sing in an old church.”
Now the songs resonate through listeners’ personal interpretations, shared with Williams on the road. “That’s a weighty thing for me,” he says. “If people have allowed these lyrics and melodies into their drives to work or whatever, I want to do my very best.”