Making her Grand Old Opry debut on June 24th, with her follow up to last year’s Western Swing styled Obsessed With The West, Leigh ably demonstrates why she’s more than worthy of the honour with Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet, an outstanding album of more old time country and, as per the title, honky tonk tunes that has her joined by Marty Stuart on mandolin, producer Chris Scruggs on electric and acoustic guitars, pedal steel and dobro by Tommy Hannum, and both Scruggs and Rodney Crowell among the backing vocals.
Aaron Till on fiddle, it opens with ‘Running Out Of Hope, Arkansas’, the title a play on words with the county seat of Hempstead County serving as both a geographical reference point and a metaphor in a song about being stuck in a dead end life (“People only stop here because they’re passing through/ And I ring em up for diesel, cigarettes and Mountain Dew/They’re headed on to Dallas or Memphis, Tennessee/I’ve never been past Little Rock and I’m damn near thirty-three”) and finally leaving it in the rear-view mirror (“I’m only taking what’ll fit in my old duffelbag/And I won’t take a second look at that boarded up main drag/Send my mail to nowhere, disconnect my phone/It don’t matter where I’m headed; only that I’m gone…There’s endless miles of highway and I’m gonna see ‘em all from Wichita to Birmingham by way of St. Paul/I won’t slow to catch my breath ’till I reach that leaving sign and every inch of Arkansas is facing my behind”).
The play on words continues with Tessy Lou Williams co-write ‘Somebody’s Drinking About You’ that takes the familiar honky tonk crying in your beer scenario and upends it from the perspective of the woman being cheated on (“Do you make the first move/When you spot her across the bar/Is it easy to convince her/You’re everything you say you are/When you’re turning that motel key/Even for a moment do you think of me/What have you got yourself into/ Somebody’s drinking about you”).
Somewhere between Don Williams and Kitty Wells, Alec Newnam on upright bass and fiddle break from Till, the steady swaying ‘Red Flags You Were Waving’ is about not seeing the warning signs in a relationship (“You were soft and nice/I did not think twice/Cause attention I was craving/Without much ado, I ran straight through/The red flags you were waving/Hell hath no fire like blind desire/It’s too late soon as it catches/Out of hand like a broken dam/Or gasoline to matches”).
Keeping the Wells flag flying with a sprinkling of Lefty Frizzell and saloon piano, ‘I Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet’, about gentrification of the old bars (“Sometimes I feel I’ve got nowhere to go/’Cause they don’t make ’em like the ones I used to know/They’ve traded in the jukebox for a TV set/But I ain’t through honky tonkin’ yet”), delivers everything you could want from such a title.
She slows the pace for the steady walking rhythm ‘Mississippi Rendezvous’, another cheating song (“You leave Mobile and I’ll leave Slidell/Both headed for some Biloxi motel…Drowning out our shame, we fool ourselves again/ We know this thing is bound to come to an ending/But it sure feels good in the meantime pretending …You go back to yours and I’ll go back to mine/We’ve gotten good at acting like things are fine/He trusts me too much to ask me where I’ve been”), it’s so good it could have come from a My Darling Clementine album.
The tempo picks up again with the twangy, piano frills and kick drum thumping ‘Carole With An E’, a co-write with Oklahoma country singer-songwriter Mallory Eagle, a classic truck driving song in the tradition of Boxcar Willie and Dave Dudley complete with Eagle doing the CB radio spiel even if the melody slightly recalls Anne Murray’s Snowbird.
It’s back down the honky tonk with the unaccompanied opening ‘The Bar Should Say Thanks’, a wry barfly’s riposte to the ungrateful ‘uptight highbrows’ who’ve called a permanent closing time, declaring they don’t know what they’ve lost (“Even when my mind was a total blank/I was the life of the party/Before me it was just a quiet place/Couple of guys crying along with Hank/Now it’s the happening place to be/And it’s all because of me”). George Jones would have clutched it with both hands.
By way of a shift of touchstone, the spirit of Patsy Cline waltzes through ‘Every Time I Do’, the first with a writing contribution from partner Noel McKay, brushed drums, pedal steel, saloon piano courtesy of Micah Hulscher and another classic country lyrical twist in “Every time you call me up it gives me such a thrill/You always say you won’t, oh but I know that you will/Every time I do, I remember why I don’t”.
There’s a Johnny Cash train rhythm chug and twang, and another fiddle solo, to ‘Throwing Away A Precious Jewel’, a meeting with her lover’s ex and a chance to rub her mistakes in her face (“You took him for granted/You didn’t understand him/I don’t think you can ’cause you’re a fool…And for the life of me lord knows I just can’t see/Why he stayed with you all that time”).
The twang on full reverb, the second McKay co-write, ‘I’m Still Looking For You’, comes with an interesting backstory, the song being inspired by her dog, Bjorn, who she’d found dumped on a roadway (“You left me on the side of some back highway/As I watched your taillights getting farther away”) on the way back from a gig, and how he never quit hoping his owner would come back for him, always perking up when he saw a truck go by (“I hear your tires on the gravel it’s that same old sound/ I look outside and it’s just someone turning around/ Then I remember that I haven’t seen your face in a year or two”). Beyond that, telling of a broken relationship, she says it has a deeper meaning about how we become conditioned to expect the way we’ve been treated in the past to become the norm (“If I took you back and things were like they were back then/You’d probably only leave me on the highway again/You left your mark upon me like a scar or a faded tattoo”).
The penultimate track is the fingerpicked, fiddle flavoured, steel chiming cowboy country sounding ‘When Lonely Came To Town’, another bittersweet clever wordplay number, here using personification (“When lonely came to town/And showed up at my door/She scattered all her luggage on the floor/She sat down in the kitchen/Poured a glass of tea/ When lonely came to town to visit me/When lonely settled in/She moved from room-to-room/It was clear she wasn’t leaving soon/From now on we’d be together/Night and day”).
Opening and closing with fiddle, Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet ends with the third McKay co-write, a rockier, more driving number with hints of 60s girl group pop, ‘You Turned Into A Dragon’ is another break-up song, the protagonist taking revenge by having the tattoo of her enraged ex-lover (“All the screams and the threats/And the calls in the middle of the night/Only proved my decision to break up with you was right”) reworked to mirror his abusive nature (“And with a skillful hand/The tattoo man turned you into a dragon”).
Her music dedicated to keeping alive old school country but giving it a contemporary heartbeat that renders it fresh rather than a museum exhibit, Leigh is exactly the sort of jukebox you’d want to find in your favourite Western bar. Throw some sawdust on the floor, grab a cold one and a handful of dimes and let her play.
Artist’s website: www.brennenleigh.net
‘Carole With An E’ – official video: