Mac Leaphart’s Music City Joke is a hilarious and poignant take on the industry and life that juxtaposes expectation against experience for a helluva punchline. After a health scare briefly left him on the shelf in 2012, a re-energized Leaphart left the bars and clubs of South Carolina to take his chances in the halls and rounds of Nashville. Throughout MCJ, Mac chronicles the songwriter’s condition, evolution, and commitment to the craft in often brutally honest shades of honky tonk n’ rock n’ roll. Mac Leaphart knows the truth can hurt when you laugh, but no matter how rough it gets, the pain’s worth it once you get the joke.
AI- The “Ballad of Bob Yamaha” is my new favorite song. I don’t remember when I have laughed so hard at a song– or really at myself if I’m being honest! Tell me you recorded that on a cheap pawn shop special!
What was that guitar? I talked to Brad Jones, who produced it, I was like, “You gotta have a terrible guitar, right?” The guitar that we used was so bad that I almost changed the title! There’s some really good Yamahas. I was just thinkin’ a Yamaha was kind of a typical instrument that I remember seeing at my buddy’s houses– like their dad had played or something– and it wasn’t gettin’ played. But it was really small, and kind of a parlor-size. The pickguard was actually not a pickguard at all. It was just painted on!
I hope you got a picture of that!
I got it somewhere! The action was really high and it was pretty tough to play. But yeah, I think that got the point across. It was probably worse than originally intended!
Like a lot of songwriters, I understand that you spent some time lookin’ for those big radio hits. And you found a whole new, different perspective. What did you learn doing that? And is that still something that you are wrestlin’ with or workin’ at?
I’m workin’ on it. I wouldn’t say I’m wrestling with it anymore because I’m just in a really good place, more as an artist now. When I moved to Nashville, I had been living in Charleston, South Carolina. I was playin’ bars and probably heard a song– whatever’s popular on the radio– and thought, “Well, hell, I could probably do that!” So I went to Nashville and worked really hard writing three or four times a week. Well, maybe not that much, but a lot, doin’ the co-writing thing. I guess it made me more open to ideas and not being so stuck in my own head.
When you co-write– especially a good co-write– you’re writing with somebody else and two heads can be better than one. Sometimes it’s not. It depends on what you’re writing. But I think it really opened me up to just different styles and really tryin’ to connect more with an audience– not just writing what I thought was cool but really workin’ on the craft and getting some different perspectives on the craft.
I’m glad you bring up the co-writing. I read an interview you did a few years ago where you talked about that subject, and it was kinda like, “Well, neither one of us is going to play this. What’s the point?” Is that a dilemma that you still wrestle with? Because it sounds like somethin’ that you’ve fairly well embraced and might even be enjoying to some extent.
That was a pretty pessimistic perspective back then, but it is kinda true, especially when there’s guys, maybe like I am. I moved to Nashville thinkin’ I’d write smash hit country songs. If you’re writing with somebody else that’s more like you– an artist that’s probably a little more Americana– and you’re sittin’ there tryin’ to write songs for the radio, when you get that song done, it just sits there if it’s not something that I would play as an artist.
A lot of these songs that I wrote, nothin’ was happenin’ with them. But one of ’em actually made the CD! There’s a song on the CD called “The Same Thing”, which I wrote with my buddy, Tim Jones. I don’t know if you know Tim? He was in a band called Truth & Salvage Co. He plays in Whiskey Wolves of the West now. He’s been a friend for a while, and we wrote “The Same Thing”. I probably thought that was more of a mainstream-style track. When I was goin’ through the songs to send Brad Jones, the guy that produced the record, to possibly go on the album, I sent him a song called “Every Day”. He really liked that one and he said, “Do you have any more like ‘Every Day’?” I was like, “No, I don’t think so.” Then I remembered it was just sittin’ on my iTunes somewhere and I was like, “This might work!” And he really liked it. So sometimes, maybe I’m not as good of a judge of my own songs as I think I am because that one, I like it now, but it was definitely not one that if I hadn’t used a producer, I don’t think I would have chosen that song to be on the record.
How did you get hooked up with Brad Jones?
He’d been on my radar for a long time because I just really liked the Hayes Carll records he made. I got pushed by some friends who were like, “Man, I think you should go with a producer this time.” I’d never really worked with one. You know what AllMusic is?
I just went on the database. I already knew that Brad had worked with Hayes Carll, but I went through and any records that I liked, I went on AllMusic and saw who worked on ’em. And then I did a quick Google search and anybody that had a contact that was available… I reached out to about five guys, took meetings with two, and I just liked Brad the best. It was really great to have an objective ear and [to be] working with somebody that I trusted. And I definitely trusted Brad because he’d made Hayes Carll records that are some of my favorites. So if he said something that I, initially, was like, “I don’t know about that,” I would go ahead and try it anyway. And he was always right. It was always the right idea to take the song.
And his studio, Alex The Great Studio. That looks like such a cool, comfortable place to record. Very lived in. Do you think that rubbed off on the songs?
Yeah, the performances probably– and the guys that I worked with. Brad chose a majority of the musicians. The only guy that I brought in was the guy that played drums [Logan Todd]. Fats Kaplin played steel and fiddle, and Will Kimbrough played guitar. They were all used to workin’ with Brad and workin’ in that studio. So I think that probably helped a little bit. A good vibe is always gonna be beneficial, and that studio has a lot of vibes.
Who was that doin’ the backup singin’ with you? The female voice?
Her name is Carey Kotsianis. Great, great vocalist. Cool girl.
I know some of these songs have been around for a little bit. When were you puttin’ all this together? Was this pre-pandemic or during the pandemic that you went into the studio?
The week we went was phase one in Nashville. So it was literally the first week that people were tryin’ to get back out there. We had pushed it back. I think the original plan was April. We pushed and then I think we got there right at the end of May into June.
Did you do any new writing leading into that?
No, I think most of it was just arrangement stuff. There was one track that was relatively new, I guess, new enough that when I heard the final version, I didn’t like it. It wasn’t where it should be. So I decided to take that one off and we went back in and recorded “Honey Shake” instead. I’m glad we recorded “Honey Shake” because Southern Rock and original rock n’ roll, Chuck Berry-type stuff is a big influence on me. And that influence wasn’t on this record until “Honey Shake”. Most of the stuff I was doin’ in terms of writing was just rewrite, arrangement stuff, maybe changin’ a lyric here or there. A lot of these songs I’d been sittin’ on for at least a few months, if not a few years. I take a lot of time between albums, usually.
I saw an interview where you talked about being a father and writing songs while you’re takin’ care of your son. And you told the neighbors, “If you see me talkin’ to myself, I’m not talkin’ to myself, I’m writin’ a song,” and I thought that was great because I’ve had that same experience. I got a daughter, she’s four, and you’ll be tryin’ to work and do other things while you’re tryin’ to do that because time becomes so precious. I know a lot of folks do it with great success, but can you imagine trying to do that at any other point in time in your life and career?
No. And you know, it’s interesting because I think, strangely, it’s made me a better songwriter. It’s definitely made me more efficient as a songwriter. Before I got married and had kids, I was essentially playin’ bars at night to make money and I’d have all day to write songs. I might wake up in the mornin’ and exercise a little bit, work on a song for a few hours, go do something, come back, work on it for a few more hours. Now, if I have three hours, it’s like focus! And you can’t just sit there and say, “I got three hours! I got to write a song!” If I could, that would be great! I can’t. But just sayin’, “Okay, let’s see, my wife is workin’, I got my son– but I can put my guitar on and work on guitar playin’ while walkin’ around or just work out lyrics in my head!” Not every song has to be like go in your room and shut the door and don’t let anybody bother you for a few hours. You gotta find interesting ways to get it done.
You talk about those early days. The song “Division Street”. That’s where you lived when you first got to Nashville, right? How much is fact and fiction in that song?
I think it’s all true. I can’t think of anything that happened in that song that didn’t happen. The thing about the guy pissin’ my bed, that definitely happened.
So do you feel like at this point in time that you’re right where you’re supposed to be?
As an artist? I’m where I’m supposed to be now. I’m always excited about what’s next. And a lot of times I worry if the well’s ever gonna run dry. But I like where I am right now. I’m really excited about this album in a way that I never have been before. I feel like it’s the only album I’ve made that I’ve actually really enjoyed listening to, and I think maybe that’s because other albums I’ve made, I wouldn’t call myself a producer, but it was usually me and an engineer and we were just throwin’ ideas out there and we’d bring in our buddies. I did a lot of the work. I played a lot of guitar. On this one, except on “Honey Shake”, I only played acoustic guitar. I did all the guitars on “Honey Shake”. When I’m listenin’ back to the record and I listen to Fats Kaplin or Will Kimbrough doin’ their great parts, it’s almost like I’m listenin’ to somebody else. So many people were involved in making this album what it is. Normally, in the past, it’s just been myself and some friends. Which is fun too! But this was a different, cool experience for me.