Brennen Leigh

Honky Tonk Woman
Brennen Leigh
Brennen Leigh: Kaitlyn Rait.

Country singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Brennen Leigh has no shortage of gifts, ably documented on her latest album, Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet, and it’s heart-yanking single “Running Out of Hope, Arkansas.” But Leigh’s brand of country ain’t sweet or sugary; she prefers the tough honky-tonk sounds of the ’60s, demonstrated through her own guitar work plus studio aces like Chris Scruggs, steeler Tommy Hannum, and Marty Stuart on mando. Here, Brennen takes us into the studio and explains how to make a fierce country record just like they did 55 years ago.

When you write a song, do you start with the lyrics or the guitar chords?
I start with an idea, usually. It could be a hook or title; then I come up with a melody and build around it. I’ll occasionally have a melody with no words, or a poem with no music, and go backwards, but usually I write both at the same time. For writing at home, I have a ’40s Harmony archtop called The Buckaroo. If I’m on the road, it’s my ’78 D-35.

“Running Out of Hope, Arkansas” grabs the listener right away. There’s the full band version on the album with great pedal-steel, but then your solo-acoustic version on Youtube.
The Youtube video is a one-shot live to tape, so yeah, that’s me. I modified the solo a little to account for having to accompany myself on rhythm.

You’ve got some killer players on the record. Describe the process of getting an A-Team band of Nashville aces into the studio?
I asked Chris Scruggs, who produced the album, to be in charge of choosing players. We made the final decisions together and I think we found the best people for the job – people who play with emotion and creativity. Everyone is different when it comes to hiring, but I err on the side of people I feel connected to in a more-personal way, whether it’s road musicians or studio musicians.

Who plays that badass twang intro to “Carole with an E”?
That’s Chris on the electric guitar! He’s the very best. We recorded at Sound Emporium, in Nashville, and almost everything was cut in under a week. We overdubbed harmonies and such, but that “everyone in the same room” feel is real, because we were.

When did you start playing?
I picked up guitar when I was 12. My first was a cheap Stella that was sitting around the house, and a Squier Strat was my first electric for no other reason than I liked the color.

Who are your guitar and mandolin influences?
The first song I learned was “Wreck of the Old 97,” because it was one my dad played. Though he was only a porch picker, his playing influenced me. I’m a student of the “Carter Scratch” technique you hear on a lot of early country records – melody on the low strings, rhythm on the high strings. My favorites are Norman Blake, the Delmore Brothers, Doc Watson, and Maybelle Carter. I got my first mandolin when I was 17 and made a mix tape of a bunch of Bill Monroe solos back to back. I used to play along with it. But I’d say my number one mandolin influence is Ira Louvin, of the Louvin Brothers.

There was a certain ’60s Nashville style that we associate with orchestral strings and a softer sound, but then there’s honky-tonk Nashville.
So much great music came out of that era in this city, but I’m especially partial to what was happening on the more-hillbilly/less-cosmopolitan side. Albums that people like me were making around 1968. It’s hard to differentiate the styles in words because there was so much crossover, but the more hillbilly, the better. I prefer a solo split between dobro, steel, and fiddle, instead of string arrangements. That’s my thing.

You’ve said, “I’m in love with this idea of the real Nashville. The idyllic golden age… around 1967-’68, because of the alchemy, the explosion that occurred.” Which albums and artists come to mind when you think of that era?
The LPs people like George Jones and Melba Montgomery, Tom T. Hall, Connie Smith, and Dolly Parton were making. Listen to Weldon Myrick’s steel-guitar kick on “The Hinges on the Door.” That’s country to me. Back then, it was all about the songs – everyone coming together to make the songs come through in the best way possible. There was a fearlessness, a creativity I don’t think has been rivaled since. But I try.

This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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