From Brennen Leigh To Lefty Frizzell
Austin-based singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh was born for country music. It is in her blood as sure as the Texas air she breathes. Therefore, her current IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign — for a new album honoring the music of honky-tonk legend Lefty Frizzell — is a logical step in a career that has been devoted to uncompromising classic country music.
In a recent phone interview from her Austin home, Leigh brought a refreshing honesty and clarity to her reasons for completing this album: “I’m doing this project because I want to. I have no other ulterior motive. I just want to do it.”
In Americana music today, so many are looking for the “real deal,” that is, the most authentic in country music; it’s hard to believe Brennen Leigh is not a household name. Her 2009 solo album, The Box, stands as a classic of the form, with original songs that are as close to the bone of traditional country music as you’re likely to find east or west of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is among the best Americana albums of the decade, an overlooked gem. Her performance on this album proved she could draw from the classic feel of Kitty Wells with a bit of the early elegance of Patsy Cline, a touch of the earthiness of Loretta Lynn and the writing chops of Guy Clark. For those who have not yet heard this album, it’s a treasure waiting to be discovered.
In 2013, she released the critically successful Before the World Was Made with singer-songwriter Noel McKay. This album was compared by the Chicago Tribune with the duets of John Prine and Iris Dement and George Jones and Melba Montgomery.
Lefty Frizzell is an often overlooked and underrated country music legend in the Americana music community. A contemporary of the late Hank Williams, Frizzell became country music’s heir apparent after Williams’ death in 1953. In 1950, Frizzell toured with Williams after appearing on The Grand Ole Opry and “Louisiana Hayride.” During the historic tour they were co-billed as The Kings of the Honky-Tonks. However, Frizzell would outpace even Williams when four songs consecutively entered the top ten national country charts in 1951. Frizzell continued to chart hit country songs until his death in 1975. Two of his songs, “I Want to Be with You Always” and “Saginaw, Michigan “crossed over to the pop charts. During the ’60s, Frizzell moved to Bakersfield, California, where he would influence the Bakersfield sound developed by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. At his peak in California, he became the first country star to play at the Hollywood Bowl.
Frizzell’s influence in country music is immeasurable. He pioneered a style that would bridge country and rockabilly during the 1950s. In 1977, Willie Nelson released his classic album of Frizzell songs, To Lefty from Willie. In 2001, Merle Haggard’s Roots Volume One included five Frizzell songs. His influence extended into rock music as well. In 1988, Roy Orbison, in tribute to the country singer, used the name “Lefty” Wilbury for his role in the fictional band The Traveling Wilburys, which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty.
Brennen Leigh’s new album signals that Frizzell’s influence has carried on to a new generation. One of the finest songs on The Box is “Unbroken Line,” a mournful tune about the spiritual continuity between those of us who are alive today and those who have passed on. The refrain of the song is “there is an unbroken line between you and me.” Leigh’s new album demonstrates an unbroken line of the influence of Frizzell on this young, innovative artist.
According to Leigh, Frizzell has long been an influence on her music.
“Before this, I wasn’t that familiar with the bigger part of his work. I got a copy of his box set and I also stumbled onto a compilation on vinyl from the ’60s. I’ve imitated him vocally in a superficial way for years. There is just something in his delivery. He was able to express what was going on in his brain. He must have worked at it for years. It’s not only his voice, but in his approach. He changed the way I sing.”
Frizzell may top the list of legacy artists whose names are frequently used in conversation sometimes for effect only. However, his music goes underappreciated. As Leigh stated: “A lot of people drop Lefty’s name, but few actually get him. He has informed my own work from way back.”
As this project reaches its completion, Leigh has come to a new resolve in her own approach to her music.
“I don’t know how to do a lot, but I know how to make country music,” she said. “I spent a lot of years knowing I’m never going to be doing ‘new’ country. In some circles it isn’t cool to be doing traditional country. You tend to get written off. But I love this kind of music. I’ve spent too much time apologizing for it. I’m not going to do that anymore.”
With sessions already in process, Leigh has included musical friends in her band for the project. They include Brad Fordham (bass), T Jerrod Bonta (piano), Noel McKay (guitar), Andy Lenz (fiddle), and James Shelton (pedal steel). The release date of the album is pending.