To introduce the trio, 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).
With the 2013 release of their Arista Nashville debut album, American Beautiful, 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, compelling songcraft, 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, with writing credits on multiple albums, most notably the Platinum-certified debut from The Band Perry, who scored big with "You Lie," written by Aaron, Clara, and Brian, as well as the two-week #1 smash, "All Your Life," penned by Brian and Clara.
"We try to be very lyrically descriptive," Brian says of the trio's songwriting. "We always say it when we write: we're trying to make a little movie play in your mind."
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. "Your best friends were your siblings," Aaron says, and the Henningsen family, including Brian and his wife and 10 children, had everything in common with a large, traditional farm family.
"Lots of activity, lots of people, very little downtime, very little alone-time, and very little privacy," Brian shares with a smile, as Aaron injects, "But a lot of fun."
Their working farm has raised corn, soybeans, cows, "and kids," Clara says with a laugh, noting that almost all the children were not only born on the farm, but also homeschooled. "Our parents always led by example," she says, "and we were very fortunate in that regard."
As for being a musical family, Clara laughs, "We've always been musical, but we didn't grow up like the von Trapps!"
Indeed, while The Henningsens as a performing trio are still relatively new, their coming together as a band was part of an unexpected path that poignantly found Aaron and Clara sharing the dream their father once pursued - a career path that Brian relinquished for the sake of family, only to find - years later - that his family was bringing that dream back into focus.
Pursuing his love for music had long been a sideline for Brian, playing in Illinois-area country and country/rock bands off and on for more than a decade, but by the early '90s, he'd also begun songwriting. When Brian and his wife were leading a church youth group a few years later, he'd call Nashville to book Christian artists to come perform at a converted barn, and his involvement and the flow of talent inspired him to consider pursuing music full time. Visits to Nashville and meetings with music publishers followed, but in early 1996, Brian's father was involved in a tragic fall that left him paralyzed. Brian immediately returned to Illinois, as he set aside music to help care for his father and take over the family farm.
But by 2003, Aaron was into music - writing and performing in a college band - and Brian says, "I was blown away by what he was doing." It was a pivotal year, and while Brian enjoyed farming, it was the pressures of farming in tough times, together with the excitement of Aaron's music, as well as a song that Brian had written at the time, that all became catalysts to reignite Brian's thoughts about music, as did an inspiring talk show - literally an on-the-tractor radio epiphany that allowed him to feel that he really 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 actually 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 Brian, Clara, and Aaron penned their first song together with another writer in Nashville. When the trio played the song at an open mic night at Nashville's fabled Bluebird Café, they were truly taken aback by the response.
"It was like people were transfixed," Clara recalls with amazement. "We had no idea what to expect," she says, "and people were coming up to us and saying how great it was that we were performing together as a family, and we really weren't even thinking about that."
After writing that first song together, Brian says it was a natural progression: "It went so well, we did another and another, and pretty soon, this is what we were doing."
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 at church, and Cactus was impressed enough with their music that he shared some of the group's demo recordings with producer Paul Worley. "Paul believed in us early on," Aaron says. Worley met the trio in 2008, and - thinking they'd gel with an act he was working with - he introduced The Henningsens to another family trio who had yet to sign a record deal: Kimberly, Neil, and Reid, soon to be known as The Band Perry. And Worley was right; the families clicked as writers and friends, with the Perrys' debut album featuring three songs they wrote with The Henningsens, in addition to their hit recordings of "You Lie" and "All Your Life."
Now, The Henningsens bring their talents to bear on their own debut, American Beautiful, a collection of songs all of which were written by one or more of the trio, including tracks penned with friends Cactus Moser and The Band Perry and noted Music City tunesmiths Brett Beavers, Lisa Carver, Ashley Gorley, Christopher James Morthland, Don Poythress, and Jimmy Yeary.
"We're all the way from very country to bluegrass to something you can't quite put your finger on," Brian says of the trio'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, while Clara is quick to mention Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, and Nickel Creek.
But on American Beautiful, from the dynamic energy of the title track to the up-tempo, prison-bound fun of "Darrell" or the picturesque, wistful melancholy of "Arkansas," The Henningsens' debut album is very much a reflection of them.
"We want people to be able to hear these songs and feel like they know The Henningsens," Clara says, "because this album really represents our personalities, too."
The band's playful side is on display with the sassy, sing-along hilarity of "No," a musical kiss-off to the ex who just won't go away ("How'm I gonna miss you if you won't stay gone?"), which also features Aaron's young son in a brief guest vocal.
Another album highlight is "The Color Red," 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."
Many of the songs on American Beautiful have personal connections for the family, including the album-closing "To Believe." 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 ballad is based in part on a challenging time in Aaron's life and is, collectively, the trio's favorite song on the album.
On or off stage, there's a disarming quality to The Henningsens - friendly, engaging, 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'll also say they love doing it - and they hope that it might be a positive inspiration to others.
As for what else The Henningsens hope to be able to share with their music, Brian offers, "I really want people to be happy. Music is an escape, and there's a thing down inside of you that music touches that speech alone sometimes won't, and we could have this conversation, but if I sang it to you, you'd be touched differently."
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."