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Three Sonoma County music talents flying high

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Wine Country always has been fertile ground for talented people, from horticulturist Luther Burbank to cartoonist Charles Schulz, and the current crop includes restaurateur and TV personality Guy Fieri.

But there is always new talent growing up in our midst, and while locals know who has what it takes, it sometimes takes the rest of the world a little longer to find out. Singer-songwriters McKenna Faith, David Luning and Pete Stringfellow are not newcomers. They all have strong local followings and each has had some national exposure, but 2016 could be a big year for them.

January is a major month for McKenna Faith. The country music singer, who has grown up in front of North Bay audiences, passes a milestone on Jan. 6. She turns 21 and intends to celebrate all month.

“I’m going to hang out with family and friends that weekend and the weekend after I’m going to Idaho, my most favorite place on earth. I’m going to snowboard and play in the snow,” she said while running errands in her native Ukiah. On her to-do-list? Drop CDs off at the post office.

Faith has two upcoming gigs booked in Ketchum, Idaho, near Sun Valley, one a 21st birthday party at Whiskey Jacques.

Then it’s on to Nashville for another milestone. She’ll be moving permanently to the Country Music Capital in February.

“Everything in country music is going on in Nashville. This expands my options. You get to meet and mingle and make connections. That’s the place you have to be to do that,” said Faith, who has already been spending a lot of time in Nashville and will be sharing a house with friends.

It will be Faith’s first time living completely on her own and so far from home. But she’s more excited than nervous.

“I see all the new opportunities that are going to open up for me,” she said.

One of the things she loves to do with other musical artists is to participate in writing circles, where people gather to kick around ideas and get input or feedback. And in Nashville, the town is filled with talented country artists to collaborate with.

“You get more creative. It’s a different experience than writing alone. We just throw out ideas,” she said. “When you’re a songwriter, when you hear something or when something pops in your head, you write it down. I have all these notes in my phone. I bring them to a writing session. Or say you need a chorus or help with a finish.”

Nashville friends Caleb Sherman and Monique Staffle helped her co-write and produce “Somethin’ Somethin’ ” which became a breakout single off her CD, “Seal it with a Kiss.” Faith scored when Jerry Duncan, the big-wheel promoter who has worked with the likes of Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw, Toby Keith and Martina McBride, picked up the song and promoted it on radio stations, enough to make a heartening 117th on the country charts.

Among her notable gigs last year was the big benefit at Wells Fargo Center in November for victims of the Valley Fire in Lake County. Faith appeared in a lineup that included legends like Norman “Spirit in the Sky” Greenbaum, guitarist Robby Krieger of The Doors and drummer Danny Seraphine of the band Chicago.

After finishing high school on independent study, she plans to take online classes through Mendocino College. But her goals are bigger than an associate’s degree. She figures, why not shoot for the moon?

“I definitely want to be a household name. That would be pretty awesome to headline my own tour and have a Number 1 song. I’d love to perform on The Grand Old Opry.” And she added, after a pause, “maybe Female Country Artist of the Year.”

Meg McConahey

David Luning, the 28-year-old singer and songwriter from Forestville, got national exposure — and took some teasing about his snap-brim fedora hat — when “American Idol” televised his audition and interview two years ago.

That was as far as he got on the show, and then he came home and went back to work on his music career.

“I wanted to do ‘American Idol’ just to get exposure. It wasn’t to win. I was.in the top 100, and I made it to Hollywood. I got a lot of press,” Luning said. “Ultimately, it was a boost for me, and I made some good contacts. Now I have a booking agent, and there’s a publicist involved.”

Continuing to perform locally and nationally — from Houston, Texas to Toronto — both solo and with his band, Luning hopes to expand his reach soon, and step up from nightclubs to bigger venues.

“This year, I plan to be touring in the United States, Canada and Europe,” he said.

Luning is finishing up his second locally recorded, independently produced album, “Restless Wanderer,” this month for spring release. The album includes his original blues-rock song, “In Hell I Am,” which he performed at his “American Idol” audition. His first album, “Just Drop On By,” came out in December 2012.

Luning’s songs get good response on YouTube, particularly the rowdy, good-timey “Whiskey Bottle, Marry Me.” Like many of his songs — he writes 95 percent of his material himself — the tune mixes blues, country and rock.

Luning’s band includes Linden Reed on drums, Ben Dubin on bass and harmonica, and Dave Sampson on electric guitar, lap steel guitar and mandolin. Their performances at the Sonoma County venues — including a New Year’s Eve show at the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center — draw good crowds.

“I was born and raised in Sonoma County for sure. I was born in Santa Rosa, then I lived in Cotati, Camp Meeker and Forestville,” Luning said.

“John Prine’s music is what inspired me to get into this in the first place. I was going to school at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and studying film scoring there,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, I was in an apartment building and a friend of mine played me John Prine and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to do.’ ”

He wrote a song called “Northern California,” about wanting to come home, and played it for his parents — his mother, Kathy, a second-grade teacher in Graton, and his father, Michael, a real estate agent. He won them over and returned to California to start on his current career track. Now he looks forward to his new album release and heavier touring schedule this year.

“It’s going to be bigger than anything I’ve done before,” he said.

Dan Taylor

Santa Rosan Pete Stringfellow always has multiple irons in the fire thanks to his multifaceted career as a country music artist and songwriter, actor and multimedia consultant.

But 2016 will be a particularly busy year, with an EP (extended play) album of six songs due out this summer. The EP includes a remake of one of his most successful tunes, “Shado Boxa,” which he wrote with Jason Beltz, another Sonoma County musician. The hip-hop song was featured in the 2000 film, “Meet the Parents.”

It’s a serious song about child abuse — the singer is a victim, and he’s singing to his dad — and will be released as a single on Jan. 16. Stringfellow plans to donate the proceeds from the song to a child abuse charity.

“If we can help (end) violence that happens in the home, then we can help things like the Columbine (massacre),” Stringfellow said. “Studies show that when you have domestic violence, you have trouble in school, and then you have misfits with violence at home. It’s a natural thing for those kids to say, ‘I’m going to kill everybody.’ ”

Stringfellow not only rewrote the music to the song but laid down new lead and background vocals and added a kids’ choir from Oak Grove Elementary School in Graton, where his own kids go to school. He also asked a friend to weave in a cello part.

“I’ve realized the vision of getting the song exactly how I want it,” he said. “I hope people like it.”

A professional actor since 2001, Stringfellow has an agent both in L.A. and in Nashville, where he lived for awhile and landed a role on the TV show, “Nashville.” Last year, he also got a lead role in a feature film, “My Brother’s Shoes.” In 2016, he will have another film coming out, “For What It’s Worth,” shot in Geyserville by Simz Productions of Sacramento.

“It’s about a tech girl who did really well, got rich, and decided to move away from it all,” he said. “I play her boyfriend. … It was fun to be the character you love to hate.”

Stringfellow plans to perform Sonoma County this year with his band, the String Tones, as a celebration of his new music video, “Baby, I’ve Got the Drive.”

“That will be out on the radio in the spring, and there will be a viewing party for everybody who helped make it happen,” he said. “We recorded it at the Dutton Ranch in Windsor, where there’s a lake with a vineyard.”

Stringfellow choreographed the music video carefully, so that the camera does not cut away but continues in one long, raw take, as he walks down a dirt road in a whimsical journey that ends onstage.

“I don’t do a lot of music videos, but this is the real deal,” he said. “I wanted something unique and creative.”

Stringfellow, who has opened for such country legends as Clint Black, Merle Haggard and Trace Adkins in the North Bay, also looks forward to opening for some major acts coming to Sonoma County this year.

“There’s nothing better than singing in front of a large crowd,” he said. “It’s the best. After all the hard work of writing the song, practicing and recording, there’s nothing better than that.”

Diane Peterson

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