When Brock Gonyea (pronounced GONE-yay) was 4 or 5, his mother encouraged his musical abilities before he even showed interest. Following a lineage where his fiddler great grandfather taught seven children guitar and other instruments; his grandfather played classics from Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Sun Records’ era Elvis and taught those traditional Country and Rockabilly songs to his sons, it was inevitable the child was going to fall in love with music.
“I never got to meet my grandfather,” says the upstate New Yorker, “but I have these cassette tapes of all these parties he used to have. That’s how I learned all these old songs. Listening to them playing and having fun, it pulled me in... “‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,’ “Frauhlein,’ ‘You Win. Again.’ If someone forgot the lyrics, because these were parties and there was a little drinkin’ going on, my Grandmother was right there with the words.”
If kids in school teased him, Gonyea didn’t care. To him, the music around his home and family was more alive. Laughing now, the son and nephew of lumbermen –who still spends his days splitting cord wood, loading trucks and delivering it to people – marvels at what so many miss.
“I was never really around mainstream music,”he confesses. “I wasn’t touched by today’s artists. That older style vibrato is what was current to me, because that was what was around our home.‘Gonna Find Me A Bluebird,’ my dad used to sing it to me – and it was the first song we ever sang together when I was about 10 and finally got my major chords down.”
Since then, the flax-haired vocalist has come into his own. With a decided retro-contemporary style, the 25-year-old has spent his life steeping in the music his family loved, playing guitar and developing a vocal style that recalls Ray Price, Raul Malo and Roy Orbison.
To hear his debut, Where My Heart Is, is to time travel without leaving the moment. From the lushly bittersweet “Pretending It’s Me” to the romping Rockabilly “Where My Heart Is” and the Hank Sr-esque “Lovin’ You,” he creates a new day for the genre. Without being mannered or overly formal, Gonyea delivers a supple ramble through many of Country music’s overlooked design keys with the same euphoria that Sam Hunt or Maren Morris bring to their progressive take.
Part of the purity stems from how he was raised, the fact he’s only left his small town for a few months to sniff around Los Angeles trying to figure out how to make a dream about singing songs come true. Other than that, the lanky artist has stayed in his hometown, helping his now 71-year-old dad with his cord wood business, working in a gas station for a while and playing shows at the taverns, breweries and county fairs around the Adirondack Park region, close to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
Like all great Country singers, his break came from heartbreak. As he explains, ““There was this girl, this one girl – and she’d left me... I’d covered Faron Young’s ‘Hello Walls,’ which is really a Willie Nelson song, because that was what was I feeling. I put that video up on Facebook, saying, ‘Come home.’ And it went nuts! I’d put it up there for one specific person, but started getting calls from all over.”
Beyond short-term reconciling with the girl, he and his family started thinking about how to “make music work.” While they were delving into the logistics of DIY, Brynn Arens reached out... again. Having recognized something in Gonyea’s voice, the producer wanted to help.
When Arens hadn’t heard back from the then-22-year old, he’d taken matters in his own hands: sending the video, along with a live clip from the Clinton County Fair singing “Kentucky Rain” (“written by Eddie Rabbit, but more in the style of Elvis’ version,” he notes) to the Big Machine Label Group’s resident provocateur Julian Raymond, the Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning writer of “I’m Not Going To Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me and producer who’s worked with Cheap Trick, Insane Clown Posse, Justin Moore, Sugarland, Hank Williams Jr, The Wallflowers, Rosanne Cash, Fastball and Suicide Machines.
“I’d been puttering around all these offers,”Gonyea remembers. “And Brynn messaged me again, saying, ‘I’ve sent your videos to Big Machine...’ I was thinking, ‘Is this guy legit?,’ because this stuff is all really different from our life here in Tuppen Lake.”
By September 2019, the 23-year-old was sitting in BMLG founder Scott Borchetta’s office with his guitar. Asked to playa Hank Williams song and a few originals, the meeting seemed straightforward. Then he threw a curve: “What do you do when you’re losing your crowd?”
“That was easy,” he shrugs. “I ripped into ‘Amos Moses’ by Jerry Reed. When I stumbled over part of the solo, because nobody plays like Jerry Reed, I just sang the notes. They loved that! The idea we’re gonna laugh and enjoy music, just have fun, that worked for everybody.”
By the time Gonyea got home, there was a deal on the table. More importantly, there was a commitment to leave his music as itw as, not make it fit today’s slick Pop aesthetics.
Raymond is deeply fastidious about roots, musicianship and maintaining his artists’ integrity. Drawing on Time Jumpers steel master and Musicians Hall of Famer Paul Franklin,, acclaimed upright bassist and Mark Knopfler vet Glenn Whorf, Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year Tom Bukovac and Emmy-nominated arranger/ keyboardist Tim Lauer, the idea was to capture the spark of Gonyea’s ancestry, while also creating a fresh expression of timeless sounds.
“As much as I want to be reminiscent of those old records of my grandparents, I want to get there without sounding like a novelty,” Gonyea says. “With my voice, I come by (the vibrato) honestly. That’s what I was exposed to when I was younger, so that’s what I absorbed as a kid. This music comes from the inside out, and all of these players understood that.”
Raymond used his connections to access the vaults at Sony/Tree, where many of Country’s classic songwriters were under contract. Looking for treasure, he found an unrecorded WebbPierce/ Mel Tillis song that stumbled, shuffled and suited Gonyea’s Rockabilly sheen.
With a quick drum roll and a tangy guitar lick, “All Night Long” cries out for a vintage jukebox tucked in the back of aVFW 35 miles out of town. Heartbroken, throwing ’em down and remembering what was, it packs the euphoria of Robert’s Western Wear when Greg Garing, BR5-49 and Brazilbilly ruled Lower Broad thumps like a pair of sawed-off cowboy boots on a beer-covered dance floor.
“I didn’t even know there were unreleased catalogues,” he enthuses. “My father used to sing ‘There Stands The Glass,’ and say, ‘Your grandfather used to sing that song.’ The idea I could perform a song by one of my heroes was surreal enough, but getting to sing a song by that artist? With that rockabilly feel? The harmony vocals? That stomp? I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
That same bright-eyed embrace infuses the loping, big vocal finishing “My World Turns To Silver,” equal parts rapture and hope at what could be unfolding. Laughing, he admits, “It’s kind of a premonition I’m hoping to see, you know, the room lights up when that someone walks through the door... Or maybe it’s just what happens with all this music.”
Given his instincts – to raise his voice fora big finish on “World” or the long note that goes into falsetto on “Pretend – Gonyea has found a range that far surpasses his years. Maybe it’s the cassettes of much older people’s music he grew up on, or an old soul, but he knows there’s something different about how he approaches music.
“My music teacher told me, ‘Some of your lyrical content is a little beyond your years...’,’’ he recalls. “So I got that (feedback) early, and I learned. I didn’t show my lyrics to her anymore. I’d show my friends and play some of the songs out, and that was plenty, because I knew this was what I should be doing.”
It paid off. At a time when many artists sound like they’re copying each other, or borrowing from other genres for what’s working, Gonyea is absolutely, unapologetically vintage Country. So much so, that when the happy-go-lucky vocalist went into the studio, he wanted to cut as live as possible.
With track approximation demos from Raymond and Bukovac to find the pocket with, by the time he got to Blackbird Recording, the half dozen songs were embedded in his soul. What you hear on these five recordings are often tracking vocals with the band playing live.
“I was nervous we’d end up with that clunky sound, but these musicians really enjoyed what we were doing. I think it was a little break-up of the norm, so we were all having fun with the rockabilly stuff, the honky tonk stuff.
“When we were done, Julian said, ‘Let me see if we can make ‘Pretend’ that much more. I didn’t think it was possible, but then I heard those string arrangements Tim (Lauer) did, and WHEW! I really love playing with the notes, stretching things out... and when I listen back now, I just smile. The whole thing, the way we did it, made me feel more like some of my heroes. Now that is a pretty big deal.”