Imagine in your mind's ear some of the male voices defining roots country music now. Jason Isbell is velvety and passionate. Tyler Childers is rough hewn and cantankerous. Cody Jinks and Jamey Johnson bring the booming baritone. But realistically, they're not threatening to displace the golden male voices of the golden age of country music - the Hammond organ swirl of George Jones, the honeyed blues of Merle Haggard or the lonesome hurt of Keith Whitley. Who's gonna fill their shoes?
The renowned producer T Bone Burnett would seem qualified to spot that voice if he's out there, and perhaps he's done so. Rounder Records has recently released two projects by previously unknown Logan Ledger. There's a single (a real-deal 45 with a B side by the way) called "Starlight" that leaps out of the speakers with a distinctly Bakersfield bounce and swoon. On October 4, came a four-song EP called I Don't Dream Anymore, whose title track has a Roy Orbison fullness and a dynamic, towering melody that shows Ledger's range and craft.
The band, consisting of mostly players from Burnett's work with Alison Krauss and Robert, makes a reverb-laden ocean of modernist hillbilly sound. And soaring above that are Ledger's commanding tones and surges of emotion. He balances long tones against crisp phrases, finding pressure points in the lyrics that sell the stories. A duet on Bob Dylan's "Oh Sister" with Courtney Marie Andrews is especially bold and moving. This, and a full length debut album on its way in early 2020, all happening because of an old fashioned Nashville friend of a friend referral.
"That's an interesting story. Should I tell it?" a gently reflective and grateful Ledger said in a recent conversation with WMOT. Here's the condensed version of what you'll hear in the interview posted above. Musical associate Mark Thornton, leader of the twanging Sidekicks, asked Ledger to record a couple of solo acoustic songs in his home studio just to audition a new microphone. "I didn't think anything more of it," Ledger said. "A week or two goes by and Mark calls me." Thornton and bass player Dennis Crouch had added some parts and worked up full demos from the tracks.
Ledger hadn't met Crouch, a brilliant musician and an anchoring presence on a number of T Bone Burnett productions, but he was about to. "Another week goes by and I get another call from Mark and he says, 'Hey Logan, Dennis sent these demos to T Bone Burnett and T Bone wants to meet you.' This is crazy! At this point I'm playing in cover bands and working at a bar." Crouch and Ledger finally met, got on the phone with the West Coast, and Burnett's assistant booked him an immediate flight out. That was two years ago, and Ledger says what followed was a gradual process of getting to know each other before formally hitting the studio.
Upon signing to Rounder, Burnett noted in a news release that Ledger has "a voice filled with history. I could hear echoes of one great singer after another in his tone. He sang without artifice. As we have been working together over the last couple of years, I have begun to discover the wide territory he is able to cover, and I look forward to exploring these new worlds of music with him.”
Ledger grew up in the Bay Area, improbably fixated at an early age on old-time country and traditional folk and bluegrass. "The first banjo music that set my heart on fire was actually Pete Seeger doing "If I Had A Hammer."," Ledger says. "It's kind of funny, I really was like this old leftist folkie when I was a kid! Loved Woody Guthrie, protest songs, coal mining ballads. All that kind of stuff."
The romance of the 50s folk revival also played in to his decision to go to New York City for college (Columbia University), where he formed bluegrass bands and hosted a long-running folk music radio show. By the time he moved to Nashville about six years ago, he was fully into honky tonk and grew his network largely at the American Legion's organic indie country scene.
Thing is, a lot of guys with guitars and good songs have done the same thing. Almost none sound like they'd belong fully at home on the radio circa 1969 among the titans and future hall of famers. But Ledger's worked on his voice, as an instrument and as a way to stand out. "I spent a lot of time trying to imitate people," he says. "At a certain point I realized you have to have your own style, so I think I just tried to amalgamate everything. But then also kind of be deliberate about what I wanted to do with it. Make sure it suited my own natural timbre. It took a while for me to develop my own sound. I don't think I had it until my 20s. It's important I think to do your homework. It roots me in a tradition in a way that wouldn't have been the case if I hadn't done that work."
Ledger is on tour this fall with John Hiatt and Ida Mae and plays the Mercy Lounge in Nashville on Dec. 12.
The video for "Darkness, Darkness" a Youngbloods cover featuring guitar work by Mark Ribot premiered on Wednesday.