As instant gratification becomes the norm and certainty is worn as armor, Sean McConnell is choosing patience and ambiguity––especially when it comes to himself. “I think embracing the blurry lines is a sign of getting older and just having more life experience,” he says. “It can be healthy to break your own boxes.”
Sean is home in Nashville, reflecting on the path he’s taken to recording Secondhand Smoke, his 13th album. A cohesive collection of modern folk music, Secondhand Smoke asks provocative questions about how we become who we are, what and whom we love, and the growth, pain, and freedom that come with accepting that some answers might elude us forever.
“The older I get, the more I find that is what it’s all about––that there is no way to answer it all,” Sean says. “Being comfortable with mystery is a positive thing in all aspects of our lives. I definitely explore that in these songs.”
A grassroots following now hundreds of thousands deep has turned to Sean for that kind of musical exploration for almost 20 years. Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Meat Loaf, Jake Owen, Brothers Osborne, Christina Aguilera, Buddy Miller and more have all recorded his songs––a dizzying list that spans not just styles, but generations. Success shows no sign of slowing: Sean earned his first no. 1 single on country charts in early 2018 with breakout artist Brett Young’s delivery of “Mercy,” which the two co-wrote. As a performer, Sean packs listening rooms and quiets unruly bar crowds. His sound––a warm tenor painting vivid stories over acoustic guitar often cushioned by keys or other strings––has prompted a diverse range of music scenes from the storied Boston folk community to Texas’s defiantly self-sovereign camp to warmly claim Sean as one of their own.
“My payoff is just making the music,” Sean says, then smiles. “Everything else is bonus.”
At 34 years-old, Sean has the catalog of artists twice his age. He released his first album at just 15, and until his acclaimed eponymous record in 2015, he did it all independently. “Bootstrapping your own career, you get to build at an organic pace that allows you to grow with your music,” he says. “It teaches you how most musicians do it. Overnight success is not the rule––it’s the exception. Most of us are doing it the other way.”