ATWOOD, Ill. — If they’re ever in danger of forgetting where
they came from, Aaron, Clara and Brian Henningsen have only to look toward home.
At home, brother Andy pulls into the driveway in the
four-wheel-drive Case tractor, fresh from planting corn, then steers around the
other side of the barn. When Aaron asks why, after Andy reappears a few minutes
later, his brother explains he wanted to wash it.
“Somebody has to work around here,” Andy teases his older
If that’s not enough to bring them back, the simple teasing
that goes on in a big family — Brian and wife Debby have 10 children, with Aaron
being the oldest and the youngest being 8 years old.
It’s the life on their family farm that has brought the
family musical trio to the notice of the biggest names in country music. The
Midwest farm life, the sights and sounds — and the values — are a part of who
Brian and his son and daughter are both on and off the stage.
“One of the things about living in the country, the images
are so vivid. It harkens back …,” Brian starts to explain.
“Harken? Did you just say harken?” Aaron teases his dad.
“Did you grow up in the 1800s?” Clara adds.
Brian smiles at the teasing, well used to it.
Brian did grow up farming with his father on the farm
founded by Brian’s great-great grandfather in 1871. The house where Brian and
Debby are raising their kids is the original house, with a couple of additions,
that was built in 1871.
Today, the farm is operated in a partnership with Brian and
his sons, Andy and Paul. They raise corn and soybeans on some 1,700 acres.
Brian was dipping a toe into the Nashville music scene in
the 1990s, with a young family and they were living on the farm.
“I was in music for years, I played in bands and wrote
music, country and contemporary Christian and folk music,” Brian said.
He’d started to interview with music publishers and record
labels in Nashville when his dreams of a musical career came to a halt.
“My dad was hurt in a farm accident in 1996. That was a
crossroads for us. We were really interested in pursuing something in Nashville,
but we gave that up because I took over the farm from Dad. We just thought,
‘Well, I guess nothing will ever come of that,’” Brian said.
Aaron and Clara and all of the children grew up on the farm
as farm kids. They had chores, since the farm still raised cattle then. They
were home-schooled and also involved in 4-H, showing cattle, hogs, sheep and
Brian’s three sisters are all close by — the house is busy
with a nearly-continuous flow of aunts, uncles and cousins. Among Brian and his
sisters, they have a total of 34 children.
As their children were growing up and active in their church
youth groups, they converted a barn on Brian’s sister’s farm into a performance
hall that hosted country and Christian groups from Nashville and around the
“The barn concerts were how we met people from Nashville and
the music business,” Brian said.
In addition, Brian and Debby never lost their love for the
countryside around Nashville. They continued to vacation in and around
Nashville, loading up their growing family and driving around the Tennessee
In 2003, on one of those trips, Brian stopped into the
office of a construction company that did historic restorations.
“I walked in, and he offered me a job. He said, ‘Go home and
after harvest, come down here and I’ll put you to work,’” said Brian, so he did
just that. “I get to go to Nashville and I get to farm and I love to farm, so I
did that the first winter.”
In 2004, Brian and Debby bought a farmhouse outside
Nashville, and Brian began to restore it as a vacation place.
“We’d be down there when we weren’t busy on the farm,” he
He also hoped to continue the music career that had been put
“When Dad got hurt, we laid all that aside and concentrated
on farming, but I never really lost the music bug,” he said.
Clara was a teenager, and Aaron was in college at Bryan
College in Dayton, Tenn.
While they both liked music — Clara had piano lessons and
wrote music growing up, and Aaron was a drummer in Christian rock bands during
college — the two never considered performing professionally.
“I never really thought of it,” Clara said.
“I thought about it a little, about doing something in
music. I didn’t necessarily think that I would be in a band with my dad and
sister,” Aaron said.
The three began to write songs and ended up performing one
of those songs at an open mic night at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, a famous
“listening room,” where songwriters will come to perform their music in front of
audiences. Even then, the father and his son and daughter weren’t sure of what
“We went and played this song and that was the start of our
family band and we weren’t even convinced we were one for a long time — we’d
never really thought of it,” Brian said.
The Henningsens met some of the power players in the country
music industry through everyday events. They connected to legendary music
producer Paul Worley through another member of their church, who also knew
Worley introduced them to Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry, who
were also just starting out as The Band Perry. The Henningsens ended up writing
two hits, “You Lie” and “All Your Life,” for the group.
“The Band Perry’s career took off, and they were singing two
of our songs, which opens doors for you,” Brian said.
In 2011, the Henningsens were offered a record deal with
Arista, a Sony label. They continued to perform at festivals and other venues.
They’re currently on tour with Brad Paisley, as well as
performing on their own across the Midwest. “American Beautiful,” released in
December 2012, quickly climbed the country charts. “I Miss You” is their new
single, and it continues its steady ascent up the charts.
The Henningsens draw from the life on their family’s farm as
a source of inspiration.
“I think the thing about country music is that there’s a
sound and a style to it, but it comes out of who you are and your life
experience. Ours might sound a little different than other songs on the radio,”
“Because we grew up in the Midwest on a farm,” finishes his
“We grew up in the Midwest on a farm, but we have that rural
experience and country experience. Our music might sound a little different, but
it’s still country music because it’s based on the country experience,” Aaron
They also draw from their faith experience.
“One thing that we maintain is good Christian principles,
but I also think there’s a lot of innocence. A lot of people have noticed that
about our music. It’s got an innocence about it that I think partially comes
from growing up with a simpler lifestyle,” Aaron said.
“It is a simple lifestyle. You don’t have all the hustle and
bustle,” Clara said.
Brian has incorporated themes from farm stories he’s heard —
“The Color Red” is the story of a farmer who lost his farm and wants revenge on
his neighbor and banker, but who gets derailed from violence through an unusual
turn of events.
“You Lie,” the song they wrote for The Band Perry, is filled
with sayings about lying that are commonly heard throughout the Midwest.
“One of the things about country music is it’s so
conversational, you want to write it down, you’re trying to put conversation to
a rhyme and music,” Brian said.
In May, Clara married Jacob Calaway at the farm, and in
June, the Henningsens began to tour with Brad Paisley on his “Beat This Summer”
Brian said that raising 10 kids in a small farmhouse has
prepared all of them for life on the road.
“We raised 10 kids in this house, which is not all that big,
and our house in Tennessee is smaller and so we’re really used to close quarters
and lots of people and no privacy,” he said.
What the fans don’t see are the hours on the road, the view
from the tour bus parked behind stadiums and venues, the countless interviews
and meet-and-greets and the down-to-the-wire preparations for a show.
“The glamorous thing is only the show stuff. All the rest of
it is pure work,” Brian said.
The new life of rapidly-rising country music stars has its
surreal moments, too.
“It is surreal when you’re backstage and Brad Paisley walks
past you and you’re like — that was Brad Paisley!” Clara said.
Debby and the rest of the family spend their time between
the farm and the house in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Brian, Aaron and Clara continue on with a life
that may look glamorous from the outside, but one in which heart and soul — and
farm and family — go into each and every song and performance.
“We’ve got the best of both worlds,” said Brian as family
arrived from across the fields to celebrate a rehearsal dinner for Andy’s
wedding, children run around and play and Debby readies food for the rehearsal
dinner feast. “You just look around and you know — everything you have is a