LA CRESCENT, MINN. – All the teenage girls in the long post-concert line at the La Crescent Arts Center were hopelessly giddy. Except Eve Kramer.
The 17-year-old was calm and patient, clutching a wooden cutting board as she waited to meet the five guys known as Home Free, the Twin Cities’ instant singing sensation thanks to their Dec. 23 victory on NBC’s “The Sing-Off.”
The board was a replica of the cover of Home Free’s brand-new album “Crazy Life,” which she wood-burned as a project for art class. She wanted the singers to autograph it.
“It was everything I expected and more,” the senior from Trempealeau, Wis., said of the show. “I didn’t know they were that funny. Their harmonies are tight. I love their arrangements.”
The first Minnesota music act in 25 years to win a recording contract on a TV talent show, the a cappella quintet — no instruments, just voices — hit No. 3 on the iTunes chart when “Crazy Life” was released by music giant Columbia Records. Now Home Free is headlining the first Sing-Off Live Tour, a 32-city trek coming to Minneapolis on Friday.
It’s a big change for five guys accustomed to traveling in a conversion van. Fourteen years after the group was started by two music-crazy brothers from Mankato, Home Free hopes it has made a leap toward stardom, or at least a step up from playing 200 concerts a year at county fairs, small colleges and cruise ships.
But first, there was the 600-seat auditorium at La Crescent — the final gig they had booked before winning national fame.
Humor and harmonies
Three things about the guys in Home Free: They are tall (lead singer Austin Brown is the shortest at 6 feet 1 ½).
They wear Western clothes — shirts, cowboy boots and big belt buckles.
And they truly harmonize. Ranging in age from 27 to 34, they get along like brothers who are the best of pals.
Their fast-paced 70-minute concert was a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll and a whole lot of fun.
Texas-bred bass singer Tim Foust managed to playfully tease every member of the group — one for wearing purple jeans, another for singing Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on a Saturday and so on. With a speaking voice as deep as his singing, Foust even taunted the fans by threatening to sing a soaring Dolly Parton song.
As with any a cappella ensemble, though, it comes down to the vocals. And Home Free hits a home run.
“They’re incredibly talented,” said Scott Hoying, lead singer of Pentatonix, which won “The Sing-Off” the previous season.
Hoying knows a little bit about succeeding in a world where no instruments are allowed. Less than a year after winning NBC’s contest for a cappella groups, the three-year-old Pentatonix is selling out theaters, including a recent date at the State in Minneapolis, and it counts more than 5 million subscribers to its YouTube channel.
“Austin has a killer voice,” said Hoying. “Their bass singer is unreal. He taught our bass singer a couple things, like how to sing lower. Combining a cappella and country is really cool. There’s a market for that in country.”
His advice to Home Free: “Find a niche and commit to it. And be the best at that. Now they’re kinda country and kinda pop. They need to get signed with a high-up country manager with Nashville connections and promote their music to country radio. They should do a killer original [song] and go on tour with Luke Bryan.”
The Southern connection
Country is a relatively new genre for the formerly pop- and rock-oriented group. But it’s what got Home Free on “The Sing-Off” after three unsuccessful auditions.
Chris Rupp was a student at Minnesota State, Mankato, when he founded Home Free with his brother Adam, who attended nearby Gustavus. Six years ago they recruited Rob Lundquist, a choir obsessive from Brooklyn Park who sang with the nationally known group Four Shadow. Over the years, they built up the business, self-releasing five albums (including two Christmas collections and one concert CD) to sell at performances.
Foust, who had sung in Twin Cities a cappella group Blue Jupiter and tried a solo country career, joined Home Free in time for a 2012 Caribbean cruise where they befriended Brown, a Georgia native who was also an entertainer on the ship. When co-founding lead singer Matt Atwood decided to retire a year ago, Brown was eager to step in.
The two Southerners made a crucial difference when the group auditioned a fourth time for “The Sing-Off” last spring.
“Both of them have strong country roots and backgrounds,” explained Chris Rupp, who serves as Home Free’s musical director, vocal arranger and road manager. “When we auditioned with more of a country sound, the producers got really, really excited. In the years past, we just sang good songs with no direction or focus.”
In the meantime, the quintet had become such a serious endeavor that they hired five replacement singers in September to honor their concert commitments while the real vocalists secretly competed in “The Sing-Off” in Hollywood.
That’s how the group managed to cut their Columbia Records debut in what seems like record time for a TV-talent show winner.
After their victory show was taped last fall, the group quietly holed up at a studio in Lakeville to record with producer Darren Rust of the Blenders, the Twin Cities’ most prominent a cappella outfit. In 11 days, they cut the 11-song album on Columbia’s dime, and Home Free got to keep its $100,000 “Sing-Off” prize.
There’s no question that Home Free has built a fan base via “The Sing-Off.” That was clear when “Crazy Life” was issued digitally in mid-January.
“The first week it was No. 1 on the country iTunes charts and that week it made it to No. 3 overall on the iTunes charts, which was unbelievable,” Brown said. “Columbia was ecstatic.”
Released on CD Feb. 18, “Crazy Life” features imaginative covers of hits by such country stars as Hunter Hayes, Keith Urban and Josh Turner; a creative reworking of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that the group performed on “The Sing-Off,” plus a treatment of Avicii’s pop/dance smash “Wake Me Up.”
The album also includes three original country tunes. One, “Any Way the Wind Blows,” has been released as a single. But the playful “Champagne Taste (on a Beer Budget),” co-written by Foust, sounds more like a country hit.
Keeping it simple
The group’s percussion ace, Adam Rupp, wasn’t able to make the La Crescent show — his wife gave birth to their first child that day — so a cappella veteran Paul Donnelly filled in.
Talking with the group afterward, Donnelly said he could see why Home Free won “The Sing-Off”:
“A lot of groups take a cappella, which is essentially a very simple art form, to levels that it’s so complex that it’s not accessible anymore. You guys kept it simple, you were complex in moments where it was beautiful and you let the lyrics speak and you served the songs first. That was powerful.”
Back on the road under “The Sing-Off” banner, Home Free doesn’t miss the days of being crammed into a van. Now there’s a full-time tour manager, buses with bunk beds, a road crew and a relatively quick 40-minute set.
“It’s wonderful,” Chris Rupp said recently by phone from Raleigh, N.C., before heading to a slickly organized meet-and-greet for which fans paid $150. “The tour’s not hard. A tech crew sets up. We just show up and smile pretty and sing pretty.”
Last week the Sing-Off Tour was headed to Nashville for a show at the revered Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry. Home Free planned to meet with the Columbia Nashville staff to discuss marketing plans.
“The label said they don’t know what to do with a cappella. It’s such a new thing for them,” said Rupp. “We’ll grease the wheels.”
This summer, the group will spend time expanding its social media presence, including videos for its own YouTube channel, a strategy that proved hugely effective for Pentatonix.
They also will play some gigs, including the Wisconsin State Fair and Jackpot Junction casino in Morton, Minn.
“Brad Paisley talked to us about doing a show,” Rupp said.
State fairs, the Ryman and Mr. CMA Awards. Now that’s the kind of harmonic convergence that could get Home Free’s country career to take off.