The new ten track release from Nashville singer songwriter Mac Leaphart, Music City Joke is a perfect combination of twang, heartbreak and irony with a good bit of nostalgia too. Produced by Brad Jones, (Hayes Carll), the album includes Nashville players Fats Kaplin, Will Kimbrough and Matt Menefee. Leaphart released his first album, Line, Rope, Etc.in 2009, before he left South Carolina where he’d been balancing a nighttime gig as a bartender with trying to launch his music career. A few years later, he headed for Nashville, launched a songwriters night called Southpaw Social Club, then released his sophomore album, Low In The Saddle, Long In The Tooth. In 2018 he worked with Sadler Vaden releasing a five song ep and was named a winner in the 2018 Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters. This new release fits squarely in the realm of some songwriting greats, John Prine, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson come to mind. I asked him about a couple of the tracks on the record and what’s behind that album title!
AnaLee: Congratulations on releasing Music City Joke, Mac. What a tremendous album. I was completely in after the first track, and that song, “El Paso Kid” is actually a reimagined version of song from your 2015 album, Low In The Saddle, Long In The Tooth, and it’s even twangier than before! I love it. What prompted you to re-record this song and have it as the lead off track on the album?
Mac: Thanks so much! So glad you’re enjoying the album. The first time I recorded “El Paso Kid,” I had this idea that pairing the thoughtful & somber content of the story with an upbeat groove would be an interesting juxtaposition. And in the end, it just didn’t really work. It came out borderline kitschy. I felt like the story in that song deserved more appropriate and effective instrumentation, so this time around, we worked really hard to get it right. I think we played it nine times to get the take. Fats Kaplin’s fiddle part and Will Kimbrough’s gut string guitar frame the story nicely.
AnaLee: You mentioned Fats Kaplin and Will Kimbrough. You also worked with producer Brad Jones, banjoist Matt Menefee and a few others for this record.
Mac: Brad Jones has been on my radar ever since I heard ‘Trouble in Mind’ by Hayes Carll. It was a great experience working with someone who had an objective opinion and could really bring the best out of the songs. And, because I liked the records Brad had made in the past, I trusted him 100%. If he had an idea that didn’t initially jive with me, I would try it anyway, and it always ended up being the right way to go.
Brad brought in Fats, Will, and Matt. They’re incredibly experienced session players and have all worked with him on numerous sessions, so they’re familiar with his style and process. They were really able to get the songs to match up with the way I was hearing them in my head. Brad is one of the best bass players in Nashville, and he laid down some really solid bass lines on this record. I particularly like the kind of bouncy thing he did on “Honey, Shake!” and the subtle upright part that comes in halfway through “Division Street;” it really holds the song together. Will Kimbrough has all of these great vintage guitars, and as soon as I walked in and saw his Harmony & Silvertone guitars, I knew there would be some great sounds on this record. I really like his baritone guitar solo on “El Paso Kid.” He also has some entertaining stories about hanging with the Replacements and stuff. Fats Kaplin is all over this record, playing violin and pedal steel. That fiddle part at the beginning of “El Paso Kid” makes it immediately feel like Texas–which is apropos for a song with El Paso in the title. He brought a Doug Kershaw Cajun flavor to “Honey, Shake!,” which kind of makes the song for me. Plus, he played with John Prine, so that’s cool. I probably badgered him with questions about Prine. Sorry, Fats. Matt Menefee on banjo was almost like a secret weapon. Banjo is not an instrument I’ve used much in the past, but he added some understated and a few not-so-subtle parts that really bring out the best in the songs, like the part in the solo section of “That Train”– it’s gorgeous. Brad brought in Carey Kotsianis to sing harmony; the back & forth, on-the-spot arrangement ideas between the two of them just showcased their great ear for harmonies. Carey’s vocals on “Window from the Sky” and “Every Day” are spot-on and beautiful. Logan Todd is a solid and attentive drummer, who always plays to the song. He was very involved in the “pre-game” arrangement talks before we pressed record. His subtle drums on “Every Day” and “The Same Thing” are really unique.
AnaLee: There are two tracks from Music City Joke I want to highlight today, but first can you tell us what’s behind the album title?
Mac: “Music City Joke” is a sort of a dig at the mindset I had when I came to Nashville. It’s hyperbole–I mean, I knew Nashville was no joke. As they say across the pond, I was taking the piss outta myself. It’s looking back at the guy who figured getting songs on mainstream country radio would be something I could just sort of “make happen.” When I first moved to town, I wrote a whole lot of songs I figured other people would want to sing. But I never really got the hang of how to get those songs in other people’s hands. It gets frustrating spending so much time on a song and having it go nowhere. So, I shifted my focus to my own songs, and started writing songs that I wanted to put out into the world. Novel concept, right?
AnaLee: I love the upbeat, honky-tonk dancehall feel of “Honey, Shake!” and the beautifully sparse “Window From The Sky”. Can you talk a little about those two tracks?
Mac: Those are a couple of my favorites off the record, too. They both work well live, obviously for different reasons. “Honey, Shake!” was the product of playing long bar sets back in SC. Those sets consisted of a lot of covers, but as long as we kept it upbeat, it didn’t really matter what we played. I didn’t have a lot of upbeat originals at the time–mostly folk/country “guy on stage with an acoustic guitar” type tunes. So, I sorted through my influences, diving into a lot of stuff like Chuck Berry, Billy Joe Shaver, anything that was upbeat but still had some weight & substance, lyrically, and I wrote a good number of songs that I could slip into those long bar sets between covers to get people moving to a song that I wrote. “Honey, Shake!” was originally called “Shake It Like You Mean It,” and while it grooved, it was a little forgettable. When putting together the songs for the new album, I knew I wanted an upbeat, rock & roll number, so I reworked this one to make it more memorable.
You played a demo version of “Window from the Sky” a while back on WMOT. Thank you for that–I really appreciate it. There was a bird that got stuck in this place I was living, and it just hit me that we all fail to see our situations–whether it’s a job, a relationship, or something else–objectively from time to time. And if someone is looking at us the way I was looking at the bird, the solution seems so obvious: just get out the same way you came in. But, just like the bird, we can’t always see it.
Mac Leaphart, “Honey, Shake!”
Mac Leaphart, “Window from the Sky”