In The Limelight
The Smoky Nights
Wisconsin Natives Bring Home the Music
By Teresa Nguyen
"We're thrilled to return to our home state and share our original music with everyone." ~ Anthony Nguyen
The Smoky Nights
Photo by Kristen Drum Media Photographer
In 2019, my son, Anthony’s band played a show to a full house at Fermenting Cellars winery which, at that time, was still a relatively new event space in our community. The show was billed as the “Hometown Party with The Smoky Nights”. The audience enjoyed sipping delicious wine and listening to creative, catchy tunes written by Janesville native, Anthony Nguyen and his new wife, co-leader of the band, Lily Nguyen. Lily, a native of Green Bay, also appreciated the hometown welcome and that familiar Midwest warmth and hospitality.
At the time, I considered doing a story on them. However, as a freelance journalist, I didn’t set out to make this website about me or my family. It’s a place to showcase stories about our community, its wonderful people and businesses. It’s also journalistically not very “kosher” to make the author a part of a story. So, I easily set that thought aside.
This year feels different. And though I’m sure there’s still a bit of “mom bias” in me, I also have watched this band’s popularity grow. All the while, we have all witnessed the band not only returning home, but also supporting our community in multiple ways.
Not all kids who move away from their hometowns do that. Many leave and decide to also leave that part of their lives behind. They go on to spread their wings in new places, find new friends, soaring onward and upward on to new adventures. The Smoky Nights are also flying into new territory, exploring newfound fame and an ever-growing fan base, yet the Wisconsin natives recognize that staying connected to their home roots is important.
In the end, it’s a win-win. Or, if you’re familiar with how to say the name, it’s a Nguyen-Nguyen!
The Smoky Nights at Fermenting Cellars
Photo by Marsha Mood Photography
Who Are The Smoky Nights?
The Smoky Nights is a Tennessee-based band with a unique sound; a cool mix of folk, pop, soul and indie. The leading members, Lily and Anthony Nguyen, are originally from Wisconsin, and have been performing music together for over six years in Middle Tennessee.
The rest of the 2022 band is made up of Stephanie Brooks on violin, Derek Lane on drums and Charles Gaston on bass. Stephanie hails from Florida, while Derek and Charles are both from Tennessee.
Each band member brings unique talents, skills and personality to their shows.
Janesville’s Anthony Nguyen
Anthony is a multi-instrumentalist: a drummer for 21 years, saxophonist for 18 years, guitarist for 13 years, and a singer since childhood. He also does live sound mixing, graphic design, and other creative work for the band.
Anthony, the oldest of three boys, was born and raised in Janesville. He attended Monroe Elementary, then Marshall Middle School and graduated from Craig High School with the class of 2008. That class, and the years around it, produced some amazingly talented Janesville students who also pursued careers in the arts!
As a kid, Anthony’s music teacher, Adrian Farris, noticed his musical talents and his stage confidence early on. Mr. Farris often gave him solos and roles in elementary music productions at school. Eventually, Anthony took clarinet lessons under band educator, Scott Sasse. In middle school, Anthony’s musical skills began to expand in multiple directions. He participated in the Marshall musical Bugsy Malone in sixth grade, began watching his dad play drums at home, picking up rhythmic tricks at just age 11. At the same time, he was learning tenor saxophone in band under the direction of Paul Neitzel.
In high school, Anthony was a very involved band student under Dave Rush, playing tenor sax for marching band, as first chair for jazz band, as a member of the Early Bird ensemble, the Spotlighters Show Choir and in the pit orchestra for the musical Grease at Edison Middle School. Anthony was the recipient of the Wisconsin Band Association award in senior year. He also formed a couple of high school “garage bands” with some friends.
Aside from all the music involvement, Anthony also participated in Craig Soccer, in an engineering club and earned a black belt in Kyuki-Do under the guidance of Master Holden at AKF Martial Arts in Janesville.
Craig High School Class of 2008
Anthony learned guitar in college
Anthony was academically gifted and ambitious, graduating as one of six valedictorians of his class.
He worked through high school as a farm hand at The Good Acres & also for a year as a clerk at Shopko.
Anthony attended Milwaukee School of Engineering obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering. While at college, his roommate had a guitar, which Anthony began to borrow, teaching himself chord after chord. It wasn’t long before he began songwriting on his own guitar.
During that time, he played drum set for the MSOE Pep Band, becoming president of the group and formed a student jazz band, playing both jazz and pop covers at the student centers on campus. He would also play local open mics at coffee shops while continuing to write his own originals.
His engineering degree took Anthony to Green Bay where he met Lily Bethke at Harmony Café; there he would frequently play both guitar and drums with his new band The Feel Good Kids.
More on their beautiful story in a bit.
Lily is the dynamic female lead singer, co-leader and vibrant performer with The Smoky Nights. Originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Lily always enjoyed singing as a child and would find herself frequently singing with her daddy around the house. Lily was only 11 years old, when she suddenly lost her father in a motorcycle accident. She was devastated and had a lot to deal with at a young age.
In high school, Lily immersed herself in music, sharing her vocal talent in choir and show choir, and soloing. She was also very involved in high school extracurricular activities, including sports. She learned guitar and began exploring her own songwriting, even recording her early originals.
Lily and her father, Nic Bethke
Lily would frequent an open mic night at a place called Harmony Café in Green Bay. It was there she saw Anthony performing with his band.
Together in Harmony
Lily needed someone to accompany her at the open mics and perhaps harmonize with her. So, she found the courage to ask him if he’d be willing. He agreed. Lily gave him her phone number. He didn’t call her for an entire week!
Finally, he called, they practiced and worked up a few songs. Immediately they realized how their harmonies complimented each other like the moon with the stars.
Around that time, Lily and her mother moved to Tennessee. Lily enrolled at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology.
They missed each other. Soon after, Anthony found an engineering job in Tennessee and reunited with Lily. They began singing together and performing gigs at local establishments, gaining popularity.
Lily thought of the name, The Smoky Nights, tying them to the Smoky Mountains, which aren’t too far east of where they live.
They performed mostly cover songs, shifting the arrangements for acoustic instruments, and soon after started exploring songwriting, pooling their creative talents and musical skills.
Meanwhile, Anthony continued working his engineering job and Lily continued her studies, working odd jobs as she finished school.
After years of dating and singing together, they went for a spring hike to a beautiful Tennessee waterfall. Anthony pretended to be randomly choosing a location, but Lily wondered why the trip was taking so long, then realized that they were going to their favorite spot.
Finally, when they arrived at the cascading waterfall, near the top of the mountain, there was no one else there. Anthony got down on one knee, took out the ring, and proposed. She said, “Yes!” The waterfall was exceptionally loud, so when Anthony stood up, he stopped in a daze and asked, “Did you say 'yes'?” They had a laugh about that!
It was getting pretty dark by the time they hiked back on the rocky, narrow paths, so Anthony had to take out his phone to use the flashlight so they could make their way safely out of the woods! Thankfully, they had no slips or encounters with Tennessee black bears!
In 2019, Lily received her college degree from Tennessee Tech. That July, Anthony & Lily were married in a fairytale wedding at the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at with a fun reception at Becket’s along the Fox River. They honeymooned in Puerto Rico and used footage from that trip to create the video to their original song, Paradise.
Together they share their love, their life and their music!
Evolution of the Band
Anthony was working with fellow engineer, Carson Correll, who joined them on cajon at their gigs.
Eventually, Eric Cullins merged with the group on violin, after Lily met him at a college party. Eric was also a student at Tennessee Tech, majoring in Computer Science and Violin Performance.
Lily quickly learned the mandolin, and when she wasn’t playing that, kept shimmering rhythm on tambourine.
Photo by Bluetree Photography
The four-piece group developed an original style, combining acoustic guitar, mandolin, and violin with melodic, pop arrangements to play for a variety of audiences. And their popularity grew! They began playing regular gigs in the Middle Tennessee area, plus weddings, private parties and events.
They were getting busier and busier with their gig schedule and, with a full-time engineering job, Anthony found himself pulled in too many directions. By summer of 2019, they both had made the career jump to full time musicians.
Derek Lane took Carson’s place as full-time drummer in 2020. Originally from Sparta, Derek recorded drums for "Waking Up In Wonderland" in 2021 at FAME Studios in Alabama. He's the band’s man of many talents - drummer, gear tech, and tour driver! He is also great at lightening the mood whenever he’s around.
Charles Gaston joined the band in early 2020 at the Road to Nightfall series in Chattanooga, TN. He has worked as the band’s part-time bassist since, playing both electric and upright. Charles recorded his smooth bass for "Waking Up In Wonderland" and has also joined the group for large stage events, Fleetwood Mac Tribute shows and their Wisconsin 2022 Tour.
In early 2022, Eric took a job in the computer science field. Meanwhile, Stephanie Brooks had filled in on a few gigs with the group.
Her violin talents wowed them all, so they asked her to record on three of the band's new singles in Nashville. Shortly after, she joined The Smoky Nights as a full-time member. She helped write and arrange one of the band’s newest songs, "Dreamcatcher" in 2022.
Photo by Ray Soldano Photography
Photo by Ray Soldano Photography
Photo by Ray Soldano Photography
Stephanie is a freelance violinist, violist, and cellist from Lakeland, Florida. With a Bachelor's degree in performance from Florida State University, she also plays violin and viola in many Chattanooga area local bands and string ensembles and even toured with The Eagles while they were in Florida!
Eric, Lily, Derek and Anthony in Mexico
Photo by Claudia del Rivero
Rise in Popularity
Besides shows in Wisconsin, The Smoky Nights have played other states, traveling in 2019 to the World Food Championship in Dallas, Texas, to Pinehurst Golf Resort in North Carolina, Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, as well as gigs in Illinois and a destination wedding in Mexico. In late 2019, they opened for Grammy-Award winning and RIAA platinum country band Diamond Rio, and they have also supported Cookeville-based artist Jake Hoot, winner of Season 17 of NBC’s The Voice. In 2022, they opened for Resurrection - Journey Tribute at Cookeville's 4th of July celebration.
The group has played to a wide audience range of all ages and backgrounds, from church shows to biker events to LGBTQ+ events and county fairs. They’ve played anything from local restaurants to thousands packed at 4th of July events.
They’ve performed for conventions, weddings in barns and posh venues, gigs on boats and at Bluebird Café in Nashville. They’ve also entered song and band competitions, played radio spots and have been filmed by TV and media crews.
The Smoky Nights have also had great newspaper coverage in their city of Cookeville, Tennessee and Anthony was interviewed for the Janesville Gazette’s 20 Questions series. They recently had a story in the Miami Journal publication and a short story on visitmadison.com. As a female songwriter, Lily was featured in the Women in Music series, which celebrates the women in music of the Upper Cumberlands in Tennessee. The Smoky Nights had one of their concerts featured on WTCE - Tennessee Public Television and they’ve had several radio interviews including WCLO here in Janesville!
The band has already been recognized in the Tennessee area for their unique sound with these accolades:
• Winner - Cookeville Fall Funfest 2019 Battle of the Bands
• Finalist - Tennessee Songwriters Week 2020 Showcase
• 2nd Place - Chattanooga Road to Nightfall 2020
• Finalist - Tennessee Songwriters Week 2022 Showcase
Lily and Anthony both run their official LLC business together. They also both book all of their many shows throughout the year. Anthony typically takes care of the bookwork, and Lily manages much of their social media presence and coordinates stage outfits and photo shoots.
The Songwriting & Albums
Both Lily and Anthony are talented lyricists and composers. Sometimes Lily comes up with the perfect lyrics and shares them with Anthony, who then adds ear-pleasing chord progressions. Other times, Lily has a cool melody in mind and Anthony will write the lyrics that fit the song’s mood.
In the news!
Their creative, on the spot songwriting can occur at any time, even late at night after a gig! Their collaborations are woven with a unique kind of musical intelligence that they both bring to their band’s one-of-a-kind sound.
The songs kept coming, so they compiled their first studio album, Burning Bridges, which was released on July 1, 2019. All of the songs were written by Anthony and Lily. The band recorded at County Q Studio in Nashville, TN, and was produced by Nick "Ace" Lutz. Lisa Gong created the album’s design. The album features popular songs like Kaleidoscope, Are You Here to Stay and Paradise
Burning Bridges album of original songs
Waking Up in Wonderland was their second album and a big project, released on September 14, 2021. The album features their popular songs Power, Supernova, Indestructible, and Waves. The tracks include performances from all main members of the band, and also features bass guitar from Charles Gaston.
The theme of Wonderland is displayed on the cover art featuring Lily as Alice, Anthony as the White Rabbit, Derek as The Mad Hatter, and Eric as a violin-playing Cheshire Cat. Lily helped choose their costumes from Spotlight Costume in Cookeville TN.
The songs on the Waking Up in Wonderland album were written by Anthony Nguyen and Lily Nguyen with some song contributions from Eric Cullins. The album was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Lily played on the same piano that Aretha Franklin once played! This album was also produced by Nick "Ace" Lutz and mastered by Mike Purcell. The album artwork was again done by Lisa Gong as well as Danny Birdwell.
A lot of young people move away from their hometowns and leave it all behind, returning only to visit family here and there. This band not only comes home to perform, but finds other ways to support the Janesville community.
For example, Anthony and Lily ordered their wedding programs through JAX Custom Printing. They have also printed their 2022 Wisconsin Tour poster through this long-time, favorite local printing company.
The group has also ordered their merch band t-shirts through MMPR (now Halo) in Janesville and they hired a local photographer for their engagement shoot at Rotary Botanical Gardens and for their wedding.
In 2020, the group was contacted by local music educators to do online presentations to Janesville students.
Waking Up In Wonderland album cover
The idea expanded and The Smoky Nights spoke to and performed for Kennedy and Roosevelt Elementary schools. The students loved the presentations, got to ask them questions and many of the kids attended their Music at the Marv shows. They gleefully dance near the stage.
By performing in local shows, the group brings the crowds to events in our downtown, as well as visitors to our area.
In 2019, they brought new customers out to Fermenting Cellars and the next year were contacted by Downtown Janesville, Inc. to play the 2020 Music at the Marv show. Every time they have filled the hill!
The Smoky Nights at Jim Richter's downtown mural
In 2021, The Smoky Nights were the first musical act to play at the beautiful Genisa Wine Bar on Main Street in Janesville. This year’s tour included four shows in northern Wisconsin and four in southern Wisconsin. It is their third Music at the Marv show and fifth big event gig in Janesville!
The next performances for The Smoky Nights are at Genisa Wine Bar in Janesville on Thursday, July 14th, a show at North Street Cabaret in Madison on Friday the 15th and then Elkhorn’s Rib Fest on Saturday the 16th. Then it’s back to more shows in Tennessee and North Carolina, with a performance in the popular tourist town of Asheville.
You can follow The Smoky Nights on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok.
For more information, visit their website: www.thesmokynights.com
So many Janesville natives have gone on to do some pretty amazing things outside of our community and we're proud to add this band to that list!
The Smoky Nights will continue to support their home communities as they continue to grow in fame!
They are grateful for their Wisconsin roots and for the warm welcome they always receive back home.