Are you ready for the country?
By John Lamb, editor
High Plains Reader - 7/112002
Cover photo by Zach Echola, cover design by Raul Gomez
When George Strait and Alan Jackson released "Murder on Music Row" in 2000, the single threw the Nashville establishment harder than a bucking bronc. The song, written by country classicist Larry Cordle, laments the music industry's wayward ideals, forgoing traditional country sounds for the more radio-friendly pop of pretty faces like Shania Twain. Although Strait and Jackson took home a Country Music Association Award for the song, it would appear Nashville has been slow to take note. Time and again Music City has chosen to push appearance ahead of performance in an effort to transform country music into big business. Big hats, big smiles, tiny outfits and tight jeans are stressed at the expense of talent and integrity.
Still, there are a handful of artists who have managed to rise above programming politics to make a name for themselves and the music they believe in. Dwight Yoakam crosses between traditional honky tonk and rock faster than you can count the stitching in his jeans. Allison Kraus has quietly become a leading voice and a late night talk show regular. Even skeptical critics have been forced to acknowledge that the Dixie Chicks are more than just a Texas trio of pretty faces, as they bring radio back to country roots.
These are the people Brennen Leigh admires, the artists she hopes to emulate in her own path down the country roads she hopes will lead to Nashville. And if that means she has to step on the rhinestone studded boots of pop stars posing as country artists, so be it. Like any recent high school graduate, Brennen Leigh shoots from the hip, unafraid to speak her mind. Unlike most other youngsters, though, Leigh has the voice and talent to back it up. These days her favorite target is what comes out of Nashville and passes for country on the radio.
"Don't even get me started," she warns, holding up a cautious hand. But it's too late. The subject has been breached and she lets loose a tirade that would make anyone who didn't know her think she was a bitter veteran of music industry politics, not an 18-year-old playing to support her debut CD. By the end she collapses back into her seat, summarizing with a sigh, "Anyone who pays good attention to what (Nashville) is putting out right now knows it has no value."
She has a love-hate relationship with Music City and has yet to rectify her feelings for the place she loves for what it is-the home of a wide range of great music-and despises for what it represents-a shallow industry desperate to make a quick buck.
She shares this view with her brother/collaborator, Seth Hulbert, who muses, "Nashville is just throwing shit at the wall right now to see what sticks."
"And nothing is sticking," she chimes back.
The Moorhead singer/songwriter is too busy to be consumed by her own seething. She continues todevelop her own style and sound, readying herself for a move to Texas at summer's end. While Texas may be a few hundred miles removed from her ultimate goal, of play a regular gig on Lower Broadway in Nashville, it will offer an opportunity for Brennen and Seth to hone their skills in a lively music scene.
"Texas is it's own scene. It's like nowhere else," Brennen says.
"There are more honky tonks in Texas than there are cows in North Dakota. There are always places to play," Seth adds with a slight smile.
Separated by four years, the duo is a study in contrasts, the difference being accentuated with Brennen assuming her middle name for the stage. More mature than most recent high school graduates, she carries her tall, slender frame with a casual grace, able to saunter in cowboy boots like she was born in them. As assertive and opinionated as she is amiable and outgoing, she has no problem speaking her mind. Seth, on the other hand, is more reticent, entirely comfortable with his younger sister taking the spotlight. For every bit as expressive as Brennen is, Seth is just as stoic.
Their personalities parlay themselves into their instruments. Brennen began playing guitar when she was 12, but fell in love with the playfulness of the mandolin at first sight, and sound, two years ago. While Brennen's mandolin carries the melodies on their CD, "Lonesome, Wild & Blue," Seth is more the journeyman guitar player, keeping the songs moving, carefully picking his spots to step into the spotlight, then ease back into the background.
The CD is a brilliant bit of American music revival. Packed with 16 songs, the disc ranges seamlessly from bluegrass standards to classic ballads, mariachi trumpets to Texas swing, honky tonk to delta blues. The album is split between originals and covers of Greg Brown, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Steve Earle, Fred McDowell and the Louvin Brothers, and eases from one song to the next without a trace of where the classics stop and an original begins.
Quick to give credit where credit is due, Brennen heaps praise on the album's contributors and collaborators.
"We were pretty damn lucky to get all of the people we got to play on this album," she says, when asked if it was hard to find people in the Red River Valley who understood what she wanted. She cites what each musician brought, from Trevor Keiger's inspired fiddle to Martin Vigesaa's dobro and Bill Law's rhythmic bass, but points to Matt Raum who lent guitar, banjo, mandolin backround vocals and leadership to the project. She adds that Mike and Linda Coates, whose label, Barking Dog Records, released the album, did a remarkable job with their first country release.
Of the originals, Brennen is the main writer, with most of the tracks being penned within a year of the album's release late last spring, while Seth co-wrote one with his sister, and another, the epic, "The Legend of Benny Ambrose" with his father. Brennen says she'll write down a handful of songs only to find one worth keeping. Seth is more self-critical and doesn't feel the songs he's written had a place on the album.
Brennen cites artists like Earle, the maverick Nashville outcast with inspiring her narrative story-song numbers and returns the favor with a cover of the bittersweet "I'm Still in Love with You." The track is a duet with her friend, Fargo singer Colden Naslund, whose voice is every bit as smooth as Vince Gill's, making the coupling more effective when paired with Brennen's weary tone.
Heartbreak may seem an unlikely subject for an 18-year old to sing about, but it's one her seductive voice allows her to pull off with ease. Often compared to Tanya Tucker, though she insists she tries to sing like Hank Williams, Brennen's voice is more mature than her age suggests. She recalls a show where an older man approached her and confided, "You captured the feelings of a 40-year old man going through a divorce."
The crowds at the duo's shows are always an unexpected mix. Sometimes it's older people who thank the pair for playing songs they hadn't heard in years. Other times it's a lone thrasher in a Pantera shirt, head-banging to bluegrass.
She says generally people will come to shows out of curiosity, not knowing what to expect. From time to time, someone will request a Shania Twain song, and Brennen will be forced to quip, "Actually, we mostly play country," only to watch a look of bewilderment creep across the audience member's face.
More and more frequently crowds will request songs from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Brennen sees this as a reassuring sign that some of the things right with country music are getting to people, even if they don't realize the song is likely twice as old as they are.
The duo has put in thier time on the road, earning their dues at a range of eventful shows near and far. From the crab bar in Florida to the Ethiopian restaurant in Minneapolis where they were an international hit, to a smoky bar in Chicago where they walked away with four dollars in tips, and two nights in a Wichita pub where they cleared a couple hundred dollars out of the jar. They played a four-minute set in front of thousands at the Minnesota State Fair, only to find out after they had finished that Seth's guitar wasn't miked.
"It could very well be the biggest show we will ever play and nobody heard us," she sighs.
All of which begs the question: Would a young performer so upset with contemporary country music trends set aside her beliefs and play to tens of thousands of people at We Fest, where the Guess Who and the Doobie Brothers will share the stage with Junior Brown and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?
"I'd love to play in front of tha many people," she says with a smile. "In fact I got an emailfrom someone asking me to get in touch with them about We Fest. I was so excited, until I found out they just wanted me to sell roses there."
The big break at We Fest may be elusive this year, but she insists she'd be just as happy playing a regular gig in Nashville.
The way her career is taking off, it would take more than a charge of wild horses to keep her from both.
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