SPOTLIGHT: Brennen Leigh Teams Up With Asleep at the Wheel for ‘Obsessed With the West’
Photo by Lyza Renee
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brennen Leigh is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for May 2022. Look for more about Leigh and her new album, Obsessed With the West, out this Friday on Signature Sounds, all month long.
When Brennen Leigh was a teenager, she stumbled upon an old wedding gift her parents had been given.
“It was [Fathers and Sons (1974)], a double record with Bob Wills [& His Texas Playboys] on one side and Asleep at the Wheel on the other, and my brother and I devoured that record. We would hear this weirdo yelling,” she says, imitating Wills’ signature high-pitched howl. “It just came from outer space. And we became enamored with this whole idea of Texas. It just seemed like this magical fairyland of Mexican food and dancehalls.”
Just a few years later, she would make it her home, confirming that first impression.
Country music wasn’t new to Leigh. Growing up in Minnesota and North Dakota, it wasn’t even called “country music” in her house, she says. “It was just music. I didn’t understand probably till I was 10 that there was other music besides country,” she laughs. Her parents were fans, raising her on Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, traditional tunes like “Wreck of the Old 97,” and weekend airings of Austin City Limits. “My dad would entertain my brother and me by playing guitar and singing,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a chance. I was totally indoctrinated from a very young age.”
It was this particular double record, though, that began Leigh’s love affair with Western swing, a multilayered genre rich with history, dating back to the 1920s. Elements of jazz, blues, polka, and rural country music make up a sound that has had many lives, from its 1930s and 1940s peak with bandleaders like Wills and Hank Thompson to a revival and renewed appreciation in the outlaw country scene in the 1970s and 1980s, when artists like George Strait, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings paid homage to the influential stuff on which they were raised.
The record also marked Leigh’s introduction to Asleep at the Wheel, the seminal Western swing band of the last 50 years that celebrated their golden anniversary with the release of Half a Hundred Years in 2021. In the 15 years or so Leigh called Austin, Texas, home before moving to Nashville in 2017, they became friends and peers. Leigh would run into bandleader Ray Benson around town and casually “muse about making a record sometime.”
Leigh had built a solid reputation as a sought-after songwriter and beloved performer. Amid writing songs recorded by artists including Charley Crockett, Rodney Crowell, and Lee Ann Womack, Leigh perfected the art of the concept albums with Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell (2015) and Prairie Love Letter (2020).
For his part, Benson says, “I just observed as a fan for a while. Probably was [Holdin’ Our Own], the duet record she did with Jesse Dayton, that really drew me in. I had her come sit in a couple of times and we always talked about doing a record or something, but the timing never lined up.”
Then, in 2021, the stars aligned. “I don’t know if it was moving to Nashville and kind of having some distance from all the Texas culture that made me want to pick it up and listen to it again,” she says of her rediscovery of Bob Wills and Asleep at the Wheel. “But I was like, ‘Let’s make a Western swing album.’” Conversations with producer Sam Seifert ensued, and within a few months, Leigh had written and co-written more than 30 songs. They’d soon be narrowed down to the dozen that appear on Obsessed With the West, a collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel, out this Friday on Signature Sounds.
Leigh, Benson and his band, and a slew of collaborators including Leigh’s partner, Noel McKay, renowned steel guitarist Chris Scruggs, and multi-instrumentalist Paul Kramer assembled at Benson’s Austin studio Bismeaux on the Hill to record songs like “If Tommy Duncan’s Voice was Booze” and “Cottonwood Fuzz.”
Preserving the Past
Obsessed with the West scratches a lot of itches for Leigh, an adventurous artist wholly and authentically herself. It is, in every way, a love letter to a sound that means the world to her, one that changed the very fiber of her being. Though this is her first official foray into the genre, it has been inside her all this time, waiting for the right moment to come out.
“My friend Chris Scruggs says a lot of talent is just obsession,” she says. “I mean, talent exists, of course, in the natural sense of the word. But you can’t help but embody some of the things that you’ve been obsessed with your whole life. And being 15, driving down a dirt road in North Dakota, theoretically you had a cassette tape on repeat with ‘New Spanish Two Step’ and ‘San Antonio Rose’ and ‘Maiden Prayer.’ There’s no way you’re not gonna sponge that up.”
Leigh takes a lot of pride in representing Western swing and country music, from her performance style down to the clothes on her back. “I’ve realized it’s our heritage. It’s something to preserve and be proud of, so as flamboyantly country as I can be, I am fine with that,” she says.
“To me it’s just kind of spiritual. It’s like, show up in your Sunday best and give people the truest thing that you can give them. I’ve learned that any time I kind of flirted with the less authentic side of myself where appearances are concerned, I’ve failed to connect with people as much. Saying ‘I’m proud of this,’ and showing that in your appearance and your carriage is important to me. I think our genre deserves to be respected and loved and fed and watered. This is our music, this is intelligent music, this is classy, brilliant music.”
I think our genre deserves to be respected and loved and fed and watered. This is our music, this is intelligent music, this is classy, brilliant music.
This feeling of genuine affection seeps into the whimsical arrangements and playful harmonizing on Obsessed with the West. It was, for many of the contributing musicians, the first time back in a studio since the pandemic had upended their livelihoods, and there is an undeniable feeling of celebration and utter joyfulness that emanates from these songs. Maybe none more so than the blissful title track, in which Leigh sings:
I’m obsessed with the West, that rule-less old gal
Always coming or going, she can’t be corralled
Her buzzing cicadas, her chalky white rocks
Her high dancing grasses, her black buzzard flocks
I’m obsessed with the West, her tough leaning trees
Her hawks on her high lines, her core reaching freeze
Her murderous hailstorms, her squalls, and cyclones
Her blooming pink cactus, her weather bleached bones
Oh, it’s her I can’t keep from, that old love affair
Though she pelts me with sleet and ties knots in my hair
I’m obsessed with the West, that rugged old broad
That unbroken wild pony, that opus of God
“It exceeded my dreams about what it would sound like. It kind of caught that beautiful Western cowboy spirit,” says Leigh of the song and Ginny Mac’s dreamy accordion accompaniment.
It was a rewarding challenge to reconcile preservation of a traditional sound with something current, finding ways to speak to the present through a lens of the past. “I didn’t feel like I had to work very hard at making sure the tradition came forward, ’cause [the Wheel is] the best in the universe at that,” Leigh says. “So my duty was in the songwriting, to try to make the best songs that I knew they could bring out in the most vibrant way. And when we went in the studio we just produced everything on the spot. Song by song, we would play it and then see what happened. It was a very natural realization of the songs. Those guys are experts. It was probably the most fun session I’ve ever done.”
This is Benson’s signature method. “It allows spontaneity and creativity which is, to me, the key to recording, especially a genre like Western swing. If everything has been ‘decided,’ it can come off stiff and predictable,” says Benson, who also helped produce Obsessed With the West.
Whether in her honeyed duets with vocalists like Emily Gimble (“If I Treated You Like You Treat Me”) and Katie Shore (the hilarious showstopper “Tell Him I’m Dead”) or in her playful back-and-forth with Benson on the gem “In Texas With a Band,” Leigh sounds like she’s having the time of her life, like she’s right where she belongs.
Benson, of course, has his favorites. Specifically the fiery “Comin’ in Hot” (a funny, riled-up romp about touring musicians running late with buoyant harmonies from Melissa Carper and Beth Chrisman) and the swoony romance “Same Dream” (with McKay’s soft backup vocals).
“Both showcase to me what Western swing is about,” he says. “Songs showcasing hot pickin’ and songs you can dance to. ‘Same Dream,’ to me, sounds like a Western swing standard. That’s what makes Brennen so incredible. She can write a song that is timeless.”
Learning from Mentors
As the saying goes, behind every great man is an even greater woman. To get in the right headspace for Obsessed With the West, Leigh credits prolific songwriter Cindy Walker, who wrote countless hits for Wills in the 1940s.
“Cindy Walker was a huge influence for me on this. I had her in my mind this entire time … And I was mainlining the Bob Wills Tiffany Transcriptions the whole time,” she adds. Her musical theater roots proved useful, too. “As a kid I was really into Oklahoma and The Wizard of Oz. I love the way those songs are structured. ‘Over the Rainbow’ is a perfect song. ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ is a perfect song. There’s really not much of a jump at all from those tunes to Cindy Walker’s tunes or Bob Wills’ tunes.”
Of course, working alongside a band as iconic and respected in the Western swing world as Asleep at the Wheel didn’t hurt much either. “They’ve just had this incredibly illustrious career and they’ve evolved, and I think that’s why they’re in their 50th year. Ray clearly has this insatiable need to continue being creative and come up with new things. He’s just so full of life,” she says. “Being on stage with them feels like you’re inside of this ocean of music.”
Benson confirms the chemistry as the driving force behind his long, storied journey since 1970. “I feel extremely lucky and honored to have been asked to sing and play guitar with, produce, and manage so many of my heroes and up-and-coming acts who look to me for musical guidance or business advice,” he says. “So how that equates to Asleep at the Wheel is kind of the same. It’s a collaboration of the talents that are assembled and ever-changing, and I’m just there to lead everyone through it.”
Though it’s often warned you should never meet your heroes, Leigh says her experience with the group she first laid ears on so many years ago has been nothing less than sublime.
“I’m not starstruck or anything cause they’ve all been so warm and kind, they treat me like family. But I did pinch myself a few times and say, ‘Fifteen-year-old me is flipping out right now.’”