I’ve never been to Elizabeth, Minnesota, population 170, and I’m going out on a limb in guessing that you haven’t either, but clamp on some headphones, cue up Brennen Leigh’s new song about the town, and after her four-minute tour, delivered in an intimate western jazz singer’s tone, you’ll be transported. Country music is made for a sense of place and a homesick heart, and Leigh’s new album Prairie Love Letter is a pristine example.
“Elizabeth Minnesota” is like a National Geographic article and a Ken Burns documentary set to a tune by Cole Porter. Leigh evokes birdcall on the Pelican River and home grown tomatoes. She leavens the scene with rhymes like “I love the turning of the seasons, and the smiles of old Norwegians.” Because for Leigh, humor is baked into the cherry pie of good songwriting. So is honest sentiment and longing for home, and over these 12 songs, the artist evokes the sights, the critters and the byways of a vast but overlooked place in the northern heartland.
“I was writing on a theme, and that's what kept popping into my head, because I lived away from Minnesota. now for about 18 years,” Leigh says in the conversation presented here. She consulted with Chicago songwriter and producer Robbie Fulks, with whom she was planning an album. “We kind of went back and forth like, well, maybe people aren't going to get it because it's this weird niche thing. It's very regionally specific. And then we ultimately decided to just go ahead and do it and see what happened. It sounds corny, but I followed my heart. And the payback has just been incredible. People really respond to it no matter where they're from.”
The album opener “Don’t You Know I’m From Here” finds Leigh visiting the place she grew up. She loved it yet had to leave it, and in her refrain, the singer gently wrestles with the age old problem of going home. “Prairie Funeral” and “Yellow Cedar Waxwing” are miniatures of family life. Yet the record isn’t removed from contemporary issues. The song “Billy Loves Beau” acknowledges the lonely reality of being a gay teenager in these small communities in the decades when Leigh grew up. And “Pipeline” is a classic folk protest song inspired by the Native protests against the oil industry near Standing Rock.
Brennen Leigh left Minnesota after high school to pursue music in Austin, where she had a much better chance at building a career. “I was crying,” she said. “I was really sad to be going but I knew that what I needed to do as an as an artist as a musician was not going to be in Fargo, North Dakota, or thereabouts.” In Texas she met and coupled up with Noel McKay, and in the past decade they’ve become a cherished Nashville-based duo, writing songs with an intelligence and wit that made Guy Clark a big supporter before his passing. Leigh has released three solo albums prior to this new one and had songs cut by Lee Ann Womack, Sunny Sweeney and others.
The duo was featured on The String back in February, and even then Leigh was speaking about having a solo album in the works. One wondered what she could do under her own name that she couldn’t with Noel. Prairie Love Letter answers that question.