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Brennen Leigh Goes Honky Tonkin’ All By Her Lonesome

Brooke Hamilton

Brennen Leigh has been on The String twice before, most recently in late 2020 talking about her album Prairie Love Letter. But the past three years have been so productive and so full of change, and her latest album has been such a hit at Americana radio, that it became rather urgent to reconnect for a longer conversation. Leigh is on a roll that includes star collaborations and a debut on the Grand Ole Opry. The only artist I can think of who has done as much since the pandemic to secure a place at the top of traditional country music in 2023 is Charley Crockett, and she’s got Charley in her ear.

“I had a friend give me some advice,” Leigh says about Crockett. “He said, you’ve got a buzz going right now. Release this record. Hit him with another one really quick, because you can't let people forget about you. Everything's so fast paced now that you kind of need to remind people you exist. And I'd written so many songs in the preceding decade that were just sitting there.”

The Prairie album drew on Leigh’s upbringing in rural Minnesota, with its wide open landscapes and agricultural expos. Next came Obsessed With The West, a collaboration with Ray Benson and his iconic 50-year-old band Asleep At The Wheel, testament to the respect she accumulated during her 15 years living in the roots hotbed of Austin. And now, about 7 years into life in Nashville, she’s worked with producer Chris Scruggs to craft a new set of sharp and piercing songs inspired lyrically and sonically by late 1960s Music Row. Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet sounds like a manifesto and something that goes without saying at the same time.

Opener “Running Out Of Hope, Arkansas” is a bluegrass tinged portrait of a small town cashier who blasts off for bigger horizons. “The Red Flags You Were Waving” deploys clever rhymes as it unspools a story of a woman who regrets being too impressionable. As with the puzzle box craft and wit of Roger Miller or Tom T. Hall, Leigh’s best songs here bring us in close contact with people who feel real through the slightly hyper real presence we feel at good theater. Such as “Carole With An E”, a long haul trucker “in pearls and kitten heels,” based on a real woman who lived next door to Leigh’s co-writer.

My favorite piece of writing here though is “The Bar Should Say Thanks,” a tightly wound character study of a lady who superciliously berates the establishment that’s at last banished her for what, it seems, are an accumulation of good reasons. “What a powerful tool denial is” for songwriters, Leigh says. “The listener knows what's going on. But the (narrator) doesn't. That's just such a smart way to approach a song.”

It was that free-thinking whimsy and sharp point of view that attracted me to Brennen’s music the first time I heard it. Thing is, and this is true for a lot of fans, that was when she was a partner in writing, touring, performing and life with Noel McKay. Their 2013 album Before The World Was Made remains a masterpiece of classic country wit and wisdom with songs like “Let’s Go To Lubbock On Vacation” - it was part of Guy Clark’s effusive celebration of both musicians in the later years of his life. But Noel and Brennen have broken up, and I’ll let you hear how she addresses that big life and career change in the interview. But she does say that Noel is the best songwriter she knows and that “I'm very, very proud of the work that I have done with him.”

Yet on her own and following her own lights, the past three years have been the most successful of Brennen’s life in music. She’s toured with Asleep At The Wheel and as a trio bill with Melissa Carper and Kelly Willis. In June, she debuted on the Grand Ole Opry. She’s off soon to Australia with Joshua Hedley, and she’ll showcase at AmericanaFest in September. She seems exactly where she needs to be.

"Carole With An E" | Brennen Leigh

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>