Coralee and the Townies is a sextet of Lexington musicians whose lineup and sound encompass various genders, genres, influences and experience levels. But if you ask any of the band members, there are several points — one in particular — on which they all see eye to eye.
"We're just trying to go for an honest" sound, drummer David White said. "That's what she goes for."
The "she" in that statement refers to the band's vocalist, frontwoman and songwriter, the single-named Coralee.
Having spent most of her life in Lexington or Versailles, Coralee, 27, was raised by church-going parents with musical talent. (Dad was in a gospel band. Mom was in a vocal trio.)
Coralee remembers singing harmony parts to songs on the radio when she was 5 or 6 years old. She later went on to sing in her high school choir before attending the University of Kentucky to earn a degree in landscape architecture.
While at UK, she timidly performed at local coffee shops. Eventually, she decided that being a singer simply wasn't enough.
"I wanted to be a songwriter and a singer. That was important to me," Coralee said. "Pretty much as soon as I graduated college and the world opened up to me, I knew this was what I wanted to do."
She also knew she didn't want to take the journey alone. Performing her original songs by herself made her feel exposed and slightly terrified, she said. But Coralee had been around the Lexington music scene long enough to know the type of dream team of musicians from various local bands she wanted for her own project.
So she got to work.
In 2009, she approached her friend Scott Wilmoth, bassist for the popular Lexington groups The Swells and Big Maracas. Wilmoth came on board, bringing along White, his bandmate in both groups, and he got her in touch with other musicians she had in mind.
"I knew some of them and was like, 'Here's their numbers. Call 'em,'" Wilmoth said.
Coralee said, "I just called them up and said, 'You don't know who I am, but my name is Coralee and I'm a big fan of yours.'"
She recruited rhythm guitarist Smith Donaldson from The Tall Boys, lead guitarist Fred Saxton from Crown Electric and The Yonders, and keyboardist Jon Grossman, who would later be replaced by Ray Smith.
She even made them a mix CD of possible covers of songs by artists as varied as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Flying Burrito Brothers, giving them a sense of the vibe she was looking for before Coralee and the Townies' first gig at The Green Lantern in March 2009.
Of course, those band members said being in a group with Coralee wasn't a hard sell. The fact that she had the gold locks, pretty face and big smile of Kate Hudson's iconic "band aide" Penny Lane from the flick Almost Famous certainly helped, but it was her voice that they thought was unique.
"Just hearing her sing, man. Hearing her sing, it's like she's in your living room right in front of you," Wilmoth said. "It's easy to want to be a part of it."
With tunes that mixed elements of psychedelia, country and rock embroidered with Coralee's visceral vulnerability and confessional lyrics, the band's sound, which it dubbed "honky-tonk soul," started to catch on. Coralee's strong presence first drew female fans, and the musicianship and well- constructed tunes drew just about everyone else.
The "honky-tonk soul" is finely captured on the band's self-titled EP. Recorded by Duane Lundy at Lexington's Shangri-la Productions in March 2010, the five tracks showcase elements of well-worn roadhouse country on Don't Touch Me, adulterous, dusty soul on Funny That Way and a dark, lusty come-on in the closing track, Rough and Tumble.
No matter what song the band attempts, Coralee's forceful vocals have lyrics with an equally powerful and personal emotional core. She said most of her words capture the euphoria, tension and turmoil that love (or a lack of it) can bring. And even if it reveals her own flaws, mistakes and insecurities, no punch is pulled.
Coralee said, "I am probably the most honest with myself when I'm writing, and that's good for me. I force myself to be as brutally so as possible because I think that's good for the people who are listening."
And if Coralee and the Townies have any say in it, even more people will get a chance to listen for themselves. The group has broadened its territory beyond Lexington, performing in Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus and Knoxville. The band is making a trip to Nashville to play its first Music City gig at 12th and Porter on Friday night before headlining a hometown show Saturday at Cosmic Charlie's.
The band has the ambition and sees the potential for Coralee and the Townies to be more than just a local sensation. But the approach in the studio and on the stage will remain in intact for Coralee and her bandmates, keeping the playing tight, the performances fun and the feelings sincere.
"I only ever want to offer something that's real. And I always do," Coralee said. "I think an audience can always tell the difference."
Blake Hannon is a Lexington writer.