Hopefully Forgiven: A Unique Sound with a Familiar Refrain

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Brad Penuel and Telly Karoussos of Hopefully Forgiven, photographed in their Sag Harbor recording studio. Michael Heller photo

One of the hottest musical acts on the East End these days is Hopefully Forgiven, a band that draws legions of loyal fans to venues both large and small across the region.

Interestingly enough, the band possesses a style more evocative of the heartland of America than the shores of Long Island, and if you mention that to Hopefully Forgiven founders, Brad Penuel and Telly Karoussos, they won’t disagree.

“We each had our own thing going musically before we met,” explained Penuel during a recent interview at his Sag Harbor home. “We decided that the sum of the parts was better than each of us individually. That mixture turned out to be its own thing.”

Inspired by blues, country, hard rock, and even traditional folk tunes from the hills of Appalachia, Hopefully Forgiven may not fit neatly into a single genre, but you could say that Penuel and Karoussos have found a way to breathe new life into the regional shades of Americana.

“Though there’s a familiarity, it’s not just one thing,” Penuel said. “It covers lots of ground. If we’re in the right mood and right spot, it can be a hopped up high-energy bluegrass band. Or Telly and I could be playing acoustic guitars, like an unplugged act filled with intricate harmonies.”

Though they can play both straight up hard rock or heartfelt acoustic numbers with the best of them, Penuel and Karoussos feel it’s their ability to harmonize which sets them apart as a band. It’s an overlooked skill in many bands these days and Penuel explains the harmonies are a throwback to the golden age of country music and artists like The Louvin Brothers, a 1950s duet whose harmonies are the stuff of legend.

“I played in a lot of trios where the harmonies weren’t great,” said Karoussos. “I never felt like it sounded awesome. Then Brad and I played ‘The Long Black Veil.’”

Originally recorded in 1959 by Lefty Frizzell (and later by Johnny Cash), “The Long Black Veil” tells the story of a man who goes to the gallows for a murder he didn’t commit — all because his sole alibi happens to be his best friend’s wife. Penuel and Karoussos demonstrate their harmonies by picking up their guitars and launching into a haunting rendition of the song.

While the duo meld seamlessly as musicians, they come from two very different backgrounds. Karoussos is from western Nassau County and grew up listening primarily to pop, rock and heavy metal. Conversely, Penuel hails from Birmingham, Alabama and comes from a long line of farmers. His earliest musical influences were found in the pews of his Baptist church and, later, rounded out by performers like Hank Williams, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and even the punk rock group Fugazi.

The two met when Karoussos, who lives in Amagansett, responded to a Craig’s List ad. The ad was written by Penuel and his wife who were looking for someone to pet sit in their Williamsburg apartment while they traveled abroad.

“I was over it as far as playing out here was concerned,” said Karoussos. “I wanted to be in the city more and came across this random ad looking for someone to watch their dogs and killer cats.”

“You can weed lunacy out by looking at grammar,” said Penuel. “Telly was the first guy I called.”

During his stay, Karoussos noticed things in Penuel’s apartment that told him he may have found a kindred spirit —specifically guitars and surf boards. The two became friends, and within a few years, Penuel and his wife had left Brooklyn for Sag Harbor.

“We started playing two years after that. For a couple years it was just me and Telly,” said Penuel.

“I was making music, playing with all different artists and seeking out musicians,” said Karoussos. “It wasn’t till I met Brad that I wanted to play someone else’s music and add something to that. Typically singer songwriters aren’t looking for other singer songwriters.”

Though Hopefully Forgiven is now a full fledged band — with Benjamin Goodale on stand-up bass and a number of different percussionists on drums — Karoussos and Penuel often play as a duo, or even solo, and they remain the driving force behind the music and the songs.

“It’s nice that it’s really me and Telly — and liberating for the other guys,” said Penuel. “We have to struggle with what we are doing. The other guys show up and rock out.”

Getting together to rock out can be challenging given that both Penuel and Karoussos have day jobs. Karoussos works as a real estate agent for Douglas Elliman, while Penuel is chief of staff and associate dean at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering. His job keeps him in the city all week and he comes to Sag Harbor only on weekends.

“An interesting part of the story is we both have this whole thing going on the daytime,” said Penuel. “Yet we come together to do this whole other thing that we approach equally as professionally, as if we’re doing this all the time, but we don’t have all the time.”

Which largely explains why Penuel (with the help of his dad, Ken, a fellow engineer from Alabama) has constructed a full recording studio in the basement of his home. All winter long, the band, with Fred Trumpy of Massapequa doing the duties on drums, is meeting there to record a new song every weekend until they have enough for an album.

It’s a big change from the recording of their debut EP, “Soaked,” when Penuel nervously tallied the cost of studio time as he was trying to channel his creativity. Not a great environment to think openly.

“When you have it at home and you’re not having to rent the studio space, it changes the dynamic,” he said. “Even if you don’t go down rabbit holes, to do music well takes time … an inordinate amount of time.

“You have to find the right song, work it up with a band which is a whole other part of the equation, and consider how you’ll record it,” he said. “One good thing about a band is the camaraderie side. We like to develop relationships with people we want to be around.”

And given their following, Hopefully Forgiven is one band that a lot of East End music lovers are clamoring to be around.

Catch Hopefully Forgiven on Friday, February 9 at Baron’s Cove Inn in Sag Harbor at 6 p.m. Telly Karoussos performs solo at Wölffer Kitchen in Sag Harbor on Wednesday, February 21 and at Wölffer Kitchen in Amagansett on Friday, February 25. Both shows are at 6 p.m. On Friday, March 2 at 6 p.m. Hopefully Forgiven is back at Baron’s Cove again.

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Annette Hinkle, former associate editor of the Sag Harbor Express, writes extensively about the East End of Long Island for a number of regional publications. In 2017, her first book was published. "Sag Harbor: 100 Years of Film in the Village."