Brennen Leigh goes home again with Prairie Love Letter, a sweet and elegantly crafted collection of songs that brings the Red River Valley to life in vivid hues of family and struggle.
Leigh, who grew up playing bluegrass with her brother in Moorhead, Minnesota just east of Fargo and the North Dakota border, left the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the Lonestar State in 2002. Since immersing herself in the Austin music scene nearly two decades ago, Brennen has become somewhat of an underground icon having long been considered a songwriter’s songwriter and master musician.
Though Prairie Love Letter is her first album of exclusively original material since 2010’s The Box, Brennen has been anything but idle. She’s released a tribute to Lefty Frizzell, recorded and toured with her partner Noel McKay (as McKay & Leigh) as well as the band Antique Persuasion. Among others, her songs have been recorded by Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack, and Charley Crockett, while she’s also been a frequent collaborator with Jesse Dayton. Like Dayton, who’s music identifies with the geography and culture connecting Texas to Lousiana, Brennen’s heart is still very much rooted in the rich soil shared between North Dakota and Minnesota.
To hear her sing is to know the prairie wind before it turns icy, to smell the grass as it waves goodbye in the sunshine, but especially to appreciate that warmth as it welcomes you back.
AI- Prairie Love Letter balances a feeling between nostalgia and actuality. And I think that’s something really affecting people right now, being isolated. I’d wager you weren’t considering a global pandemic when you were writin’ and recording this album, but it certainly seems to fit in that groove.
BL- Certainly not! And thank you, because I was kind of worried about that. We finished it, got it mastered, and then it was like March (laughs) and that was right when the pandemic hit! So we just waited for a few months and there was a lot of different wisdom floating around, “Oh, don’t release anything during the pandemic!” Or, “Yes, release something! People need music!” And there was the worry that the subject matter was going to become obsolete over the course of the pandemic because things had changed so much universally and culturally. I’m finding to my pleasant surprise that’s not happening, that people are relating to it.
And there’s been a certain amount of prophecy, as I have heard, in a lot of the music that is being released. There have been conflicting ideas of what the best thing to do is. And as you say, pleasantly surprised to see so much fantastic music being produced and how odd it is that so much of it fits with what’s happening.
It must have been bubbling up or something, you know? It must be bigger. Our problems as a nation and a world must be bigger than this pandemic. And the pandemic was just those things coming to a head.
Your friend, Charley Crockett, told me, he said he, “didn’t need the revelations of 2020 to write about the things goin’ on in America.”
I couldn’t have put it better! I love Charley. He was writing about hard times and real subject matter and what’s going on in people’s hearts already.
This kind of falls in line with that because the Sequestered Songwriters series that you’ve been a part of– which has just been fantastic– the most recent one was George Jones. You did “The Door”. Charley was quick to jump into how in the ’60s and in the early ’70s, how dark country music got. And of course, George being one of the main progenitors of that. Do you feel that we have reached a point now where it’s time for that music to go to a different place?
For me, country music, which is the tradition that I come from has always spoken to and about real people and their struggles. We’ve deviated from that in the genre over the last 30 years or so. But I would say the best music is music that speaks to what’s really going on and is honest. How relevant is it right now to talk about a tailgate party or boating? I can’t see how that’s relatable to most people. To hear something like Charley’s new record, Welcome to Hard Times… That hits me right where it counts because it is hard times right now. I would say the answer is yes. I think it’s high time we started writing about reality again,
Country music has always been about more than just mud, blood, and beer. I feel like once upon a time it was much more confrontational than it is now. A song on your record, which I wouldn’t necessarily call confrontational, but it certainly is one of those songs that talk about a real-world struggle, and a real-world truth is “Billy & Beau”. I don’t know if you could have recorded and released that song 30 years ago, but it certainly does feel good right now.
Thank you. I had a little anxiety about releasing it because of the subject matter. I knew on some level for some people it would be considered controversial. But to me, it’s just a love story and a story about being young and a story about not being certain. And it’s a story about memories. So yeah, you couldn’t have released a song about being a gay teenager 30 years ago. Maybe you could. But now I’m finding that people are kind of hungry for it. There’s a giant group of people out there that aren’t being spoken to or about.
Once upon a time, [country music] was not an “old person’s” style of music. It was not an “old person” genre. I mean, it was very much of its moment. I feel like to a certain degree, culturally, it has come to be viewed as such and therefore people don’t attempt to tell those stories.
It’s been such a mess because it went from being considered this old person, conservative music in the ’80s and ’90s to now they’re trying to sort of pander to this young college crowd and soccer moms… And they don’t know what they’re doing (laughs)! But we’re talking about the mainstream here and what I do is a little different from that.
Do you feel that it is possibly going back to that younger listener who’s willing to be challenged?
I hope so. The thing that I’ve noticed over the last maybe five years is that the crowds are getting more diverse. I’m seeing people of all ages and different walks of life. To me, that’s really promising because early in my career, when I was still pretty young, all my fans were older than me. And that’s not the case anymore. Of course, scientifically that’s not going to be the case– because I’m getting older every day– but I see people of all ages and just interesting people. That really makes me feel good. It makes me want to keep doing it.
Did you intentionally set out to write a concept album about where you grew up or did it just sort of naturally evolve that way?
Both. I haven’t released an album of original songs since The Box in 2010. And then I did a duet album with Noel McKay in 2013, but as for my own original music, this is the first thing I’ve released in a decade. I guess the long story short, it’s been on my mind for a long time to take the region that I come from and do it some justice. Because there aren’t very many things written about that part of the world. It’s sort of a flyover area. The two most, probably widely recognized pieces of work about where I’m from are Fargo, the TV show and the movie, and Prairie Home Companion. Both of which I think are valid and pretty accurate in some ways. But like some parts of the American South, where I’m from kind of gets parodied and it gets written off as jokey– the funny accent and everything.
I’ve lived away from it now for 18 years. Going home and seeing it from a distance and kind of seeing it from the lens of a… I’m an honorary southerner. I see it for the cultural well that it is. It’s such a beautiful part of the country. The people are so interesting culturally, all the traditions that they carry and pass down, they’ve not really been written about recently. So that was one of the things I wanted to do. ‘Cause I saw a lot of beauty in the people I grew up around– my family and the farming communities around there, the native communities, and the Scandinavian traditions there are really interesting to me. But I couldn’t see it until I’d lived away. Took me a long time to see it, that it wasn’t somewhere boring and kind of exotic.
Some of those songs on Prairie Love Letter, they come not only from your personal experiences but the family that you speak about. You’ve got “The John Deere H” and “Yellow Cedar Waxwing”. Were these all stories that have been simmering for you for a while, or were they things that you rediscovered as you were putting this all together?
It was over a matter of years that I accumulated these songs. I like to listen to my dad tell stories. He’s a great storyteller, and he’ll just launch into one without warning. “The John Deere H” was one that I wanted to put into song for a long time because I love awkward farm machinery in lyrics. Farm equipment in lyrics really does it for me (laughs)! I just love that story of this little boy driving his tractor. The sad thing is they sold it not long after ’cause they moved into town. They moved into Fargo from New Rockford, which is where they were from. But then “Yellow Cedar Waxwing”, it’s just a story about a very vague memory of my grandmother taking me to pick juneberries. Of course, I romanticized it a little bit and like Mark Twain says this one has “some stretchers.” The whole record has stretchers in it. There’s some fictional characters. There are composite characters of a few different people I’ve known in my life. But I’d like to think they’re little movies and they all tie together.
You go back a ways with your producer, Robbie Fulks. I recently spoke to another one of your fellow Sequestered Songwriters, Adam Hood, who was in Macon recordin’ at our Capricorn Studios with Brent Cobb. And I’d asked him why he had Brent on board to produce. And he said, because, “Brent’s got a really cool opinion on what I sound like.” So I got to thinkin’, “Being such an eclectic cat, like Robbie is, I wonder what he thinks Brennen sounds like?”
That’s a good question (laughs)! I wanted Robbie to do it because I respect his literary sensibilities and I knew that from an editorial standpoint and from a songwriting standpoint, he would be able to take these songs and look at them, not as somebody that categorizes them into, “Okay, this one’s bluegrass, this one, we’re going to slap the bass and we’re going to slap some steel on this and we’re going to slap this or that…” He really got what I perceived to be emotionally involved with the songs and became very acquainted with them and thought very long and hard about how we should treat each song. I think that came out really beautifully in the long run.
I know you’re a big fan of the Carter Family and like them, you find yourself creating and recording music during an unprecedented time. With what they used to do, I always heard like this almost minor chord that was underneath everything. I think you and Robbie found that chord on this album. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. It’s a really interesting way of putting it. There is like a thread of melancholy maybe. I think Robbie has that in his music too. There’s a lot of joy in his music and I can’t like music if it doesn’t have any joy in it. I can’t enjoy a performance if it’s joyless. But I love sad music. I think the best songs are both.
One of the songs on this album, “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline”… Mercenaries, pepper spray, protests. I know that’s about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access pipeline, but at the same time, it really sounds like [everything else] goin’ on in the world today.
It’s a symptom of a bigger problem, isn’t it?
That one was written right after I heard about the standoff going on there. I was home, actually. I was visiting my folks and a friend of mine who’s from out there was telling me about it. I just got angry and wrote that. And I feel a bit conflicted because I’m not directly involved. I was not there. I don’t have any claim to that particular cause except that it makes me angry. So I wrote that that about and for the people that are most at risk of losing their heritage and their place. I get tongue-tied thinking about it ’cause it’s unfathomable to me that a corporation could do that. But on the other hand, I’m not surprised.
I think that goes back to what we were speaking about earlier. Just because we are not directly involved with an issue, that shouldn’t stop us from becoming angry and trying to step up and stand up and say something.
No, [but] there’s been a lot of talk about performative activism in the last six months. I’m trying to be conscious of that. But on the other hand, what I do is I write songs. That’s what I do with my feelings when I have them. That was what I could do in that moment was write that song and I’m hoping it has a future. If this record makes any money, maybe I can use that particular track to help fund some of the relief, some of the fight against them gettin’ their land torn up.
I like the sound of that idea.
Yeah, me too. I just need to figure out how to do it.
You state that this is the first album of original material that you’ve done in quite some time, however, that belittles how busy you tend to remain with so many different projects, so many different outfits you perform with. I know that has not been the case over this last six months, but you have to be one of the busiest people, just everybody that you play with and all the things that you do. Tell me what’s been keepin’ you busy?
Well, I was delusional enough to think that I was gonna have some downtime (laughs) when this pandemic started. I was like, ’cause I study Norwegian language, “I’m gonna do a Norwegian lesson every day! I’m gonna play my fiddle every day!” You name it! And it’s been just as busy, just in a different way. I haven’t been playing out. My last gig was on March 15th. That was my last gig. I went through a month of sort of sweating and panic not knowing what was happening and what I was gonna do and how I should spend my time. ‘Cause all of a sudden things just dropped off… The panic is there. It’s hard not to panic, but we’ve kind of settled into a semi-normal rhythm.
I co-write with friends. I’ll do a couple of co-writes every week. Most of them are via Zoom or Skype or something. A lot of things have been converted to online. “Send this video here, these folks need this video by this day, and send them this…” And some benefit stuff and some Zoom concerts and just the whole process of navigating the new way that things are has been disorienting and takin’ up a lot of energy. I do really miss playing for people.
Do you have a plan for when the album is released? Are you going to try to do a streaming concert to celebrate that?
I’m doing a show at the Station Inn in Nashville with no audience. It’ll be streamed on Station Inn TV, which is a great, really high quality, livestreaming channel that they’ve set up. I’ll have three of the musicians from the album there with me. I’ll have Noel McKay. I’ll have Dennis Crouch, who played all the bass, most of the bass on the record. I will have Jenee Fleenor who played some of the fiddle, and I’ll have Paul Kramer who played a lot of the mandolin and a lot of the fiddle. They’ll swap on fiddle and mandolin and it’ll be almost the band that was on the record but missing a few people, of course.
As you and Noel have done the Sequestered Songwriting series or little streaming performances, I’ve noticed in the background on some of those, your record collection. This is something I’ve spoken to nearly everybody about. Have you found yourself going back and getting into listening to music more? Because I know when you’re performing, when you’re writing, when you’re out working, you tend to get away from that appreciation. Have you found that coming back around for you?
For me, it hasn’t changed too much because I was always a “listen while driving” person. I listen to music every day of my life, but I will say I’ve had time to sit down and listen to some of my peers a little more. I never really did that. I’m ashamed to say, I would go to a friend’s show or something, but I never really went out and sought their records out and listened to their whole records. I was more of a go to their show and then go home and listen to some of the dead people that I’ve always listened to. But recently, I’ve been enjoying some of my friend’s music more deeply. Charley’s new record. Whitney Rose put out a record a couple of months ago…
I spoke to her right after everything went downhill.
Her release date was like right around then wasn’t it? Like a couple of weeks later? Yeah. My friends, Melissa Carper and Rebecca Patek, they go by Buffalo Gals. Melissa, she’s a co-writer of “Billy & Beau”. We’ve been friends a long time and written a lot together. They have some new music out too. I’ve also been tryin’ to discover people that I don’t know. I started listening to the Highwomen, Kelsey Waldon, and people in Nashville. I’ve always enjoyed going out and hearing music when I was here. People like Chris Scruggs. I tune into his livestream every week. ‘Cause I would go see him every week when I was in town! That’s been enjoyable!
Your friend, Jesse Dayton, just put out a new record not too long ago too. I’ve only gotten to hear a couple of tracks off of it. I have to get a copy of it on vinyl.
I need to dive into that too ’cause his records are always good.
I think it’s conceptual as well with them creating characters for the whole thing. He’s a kind of a character already (laughs)!
I was talking to Rodney Crowell about my new record, and he said one of the things that he really gravitates toward is music that has a sense of place. I think Jesse really does that. His music makes you feel like you’re in a certain place.
I certainly think that you have done that with Prairie Love Letter. I’ve been to that part of the world. And as a matter of fact, it might be my second favorite place outside of the South for just the people and the food. If it didn’t get so cold, I wouldn’t mind livin’ there!
That’s nice to hear because a lot of people just aren’t familiar with it, or they’re really turned off by the cold and they wouldn’t dream of going there. But you know, it’s a well kept secret and a really nice place to grow up.