In the opening track of her new album, Brennen Leigh asserts that despite a lengthy stretch of sobriety, “If Tommy Duncan’s Voice Was Booze”, she’d “stay drunk all the time”; but if melody was paint and Leigh the brush, even Albert Bierstadt couldn’t have captured a more sweeping view than Obsessed With The West. Leigh and her cadre of Western Swing enthusiasts led by maestro Ray Benson (Asleep At The Wheel) elevate tradition with big room, Texas-sized numbers as danceable as they are evocative, calling out soloists and capturing the spirit of yesteryear while maintaining the same depth and intimacy of songwriting that Leigh displayed on her previous outing, the excellent and personal Prairie Love Letter. Standouts include the jazz-laced “If I Treated You Like You Treated Me” (featuring Lonestar legacy Emily Gimble), the charmingly wry “Tell Him I’m Dead” (a duet with Wheel fiddler Katie Shore), the smokin’ “Comin’ In Hot” with its high-hatted steel wizardry (courtesy of Chris Scruggs), the dreamy yearn of the title track, and its stunning companion, an ode to Depression-era horse operas and Roy Rogers dubbed “Riding Off Onto Sunset Boulevard”. Obsessed With The West is esteemed with nostalgia and skill, rich in destiny and subtle blues, and the perfect piece to accompany any evening across hardwood floors or under open skies.
AI- I think when you and I spoke back in September of 2020, you were still in Austin. Tell me about making the switch to Nashville. And did you need that distance to write a Texas Swing album kinda like you needed it to write about Minnesota for Prairie Love Letter?
BL- (Laughs) Well, good memory, first of all! And yes! You answered your own question! I’ve actually been in Nashville about five years now, but I had gone back to Texas to record with Ray and the band. When I moved, it was like 2016 maybe, or 17, I can’t remember which. I’d been obsessed with Western Swing as a young person, as a kid, and something about moving there was influential– but I will say there’s some good Western Swing musicians in Nashville, too! Maybe I just needed the distance from Texas, but I went through sort of a second revival with it, started listening to more Bob Wills– mostly Bob Wills, to be honest– and some of Tommy Duncan’s solo recordings from later and really got inspired by that.
Certainly making a Western Swing album with Asleep At The Wheel seems like the most normal thing in the world. Did you have that plan from the beginning when you sat down to write these kinds of songs?
Normally, this is not how I would write a record. I would normally write a record gradually over a matter of years and then– not intentionally, to make the record– I would just gather things that had a cohesive subject matter and sound and make a record that way. But in this case, we got to talking about doing this around January of 2021, and then by April, I had written 30 songs that could have fit into that vein. So I really went to town on making a special effort to write specifically Western Swing and cowboy stuff. My spirit animal for that whole thing was Cindy Walker. I was trying to get a ’40s Western Swing sound as the songwriting goes. We pulled it down to 12 songs, and when I got to Austin in April last year, we recorded 12 tunes in a week!
Tell me about Cindy Walker’s effect on it because I confess, I wasn’t really familiar with her until I started getting ready for this interview. And then I realized how many songs I was aware of that she’d written! But all it took was 10 seconds of Cindy’s version of “Dusty Skies” to appreciate her influence on you and this album.
Oh, thank you! That’s a compliment! She wrote, I don’t know the exact number, but something like 38 songs for Bob Wills, and many of them hold up to this day– they’re standards. She also wrote songs for other people. She had an illustrious and long career, but the songs she did write, they sound like they were written from heaven! The melody is just unmistakable, there’s nothing derivative there, and the lyrics are sharp. She, to me, was the gold standard.
You recorded at Ray’s studio in Austin?
I know some of the guest stars– Ray told me Chris Scruggs had come in to do it, and of course, you name check him in “In Texas With A Band”. I believe you call out to Paul Kramer– and is that Floyd Domino you mentioned on the piano?
Yeah! Good ear! When Bob Wills was hollerin’, sometimes he’d go, “Domino!” out of the blue, you know, and I asked Ray if anyone had ever called Floyd out like that, and I don’t think they had (laughs), funny enough! Of course, Floyd was an absolute joy to work with– as was Chris and as was Paul! Just a wonderful mix of people. and we had so much fun!
Any other guest worth mentioning? I know Katie Shore and the rest of Asleep At The Wheel is in there, but I don’t have the liner notes.
I had Emily Gimble, former Wheel member, come in and sing a duet with me…
And a direct link back to the original Texas Swing lineage!
Correct! Her granddad bein’ Johnny Gimble! And of course. Emily is one of my favorite singers, so she came in and sang a song called “If I Treated You Like You Treat Me” that I wrote with Noel McKay. We had Noel come in and sing some harmony, we had Melissa Carper and Beth Chrisman come in and sing a little bit, Ginny Mac came in and played accordion… I’m sure I’m forgetting someone! Katie Shore and I wrote a tune together called “Tell Him I’m Dead,” and then she sings a duet with me on that.
I love that one, and I love the tune “I Don’t Want Someone Who Don’t Want Me”. There’s a playfulness, a particular cleverness that I think is inherent to Western Swing music that whether the song is happy or sad is always there. Are you conscious of that when you’re writing a song for this particular style of music?
Yeah, and that to me is one of the fun things about Western Swing specifically. My previous record had some humorous moments, but really it was a more serious, introspective kind of record. And while there are some kind of more melancholy love songs and things on this record, the playfulness— and that’s a good word– is the defining quality. Western Swing, it’s wild, and it kinda winks at you! It’s an opportunity for me to show off the band– and the songs have to be good! I think in any kind of music you can’t cover up a mediocre song with great playing, and so the hardest thing for me during this was to write things that were worthy of the band.
I love the title track, “Obsessed With The West”. You bring up the previous album, and I feel like that song actually could have been on Prairie Love Letter, possibly even written by the version of you that was dreaming about those things.
To me, it kind of does have that feel. And that one, I wouldn’t characterize that as a Western Swing song. To me, it’s like more of what I would call a cowboy vibe, kind of a wistful ode. It’s a poem at heart. So yeah, to me, that ties together, but there are a couple of that style on the record.
I love the romanticism of all of it, and I don’t think that’s any more apparent anywhere else on the record more than with “Riding Off Onto Sunset Boulevard. That’s my favorite song on the album. I’m a Western enthusiast.
Oh, thank you! You know, that’s about Roy Rogers.
The whole time I could hear Roy or the Sons of the Pioneers doing that!
Thank you! Do you know The Farmer and Adele? Have you heard of them?
I’m gonna say no.
You should! They’re a Western Swing and cowboy band out of Nashville. I actually wrote that with them and Noel McKay, and we were studying Roy Rogers and his story. It was about being a cowboy movie star and having this mystique, but also actually being in sort of a cushy situation, where you’re coming off the dusty trail, but you’ve been in costume and makeup all morning (laughs)!
I was actually explaining to my daughter about Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers and all those old serials just a couple of weeks ago. I don’t remember what we were listening to– it was somebody covering “Cool Water”– and so I was telling her about that. Sometimes she tunes me out, but for some reason, that particular song had got in her head!
That’s a beautiful song! And I love those, you know, the Marty Robbins gunfighter ballads and Don Edwards and some of the Slim Whitman stuff, and then the Sons of the Pioneers– to me that is just the stuff! When I’m drivin’ out west, that is where my music goes.
That would be a cool project for you to do, an album of gunfighter ballads. either original or chosen.
Sometime, I’ll do a record that’s more in that vein. It definitely will be original songs, but I’ve always wanted to write a Western novel in song, you know, a theme record that’s got a little bit of Louis L’Amour in there (laughs), a little bit of McMurtry, that kind of thing. That Western storytelling style is so wonderful!
Now on “Comin’ In Hot”, just a ridiculously cool instrumental part is that pedal steel solo– is that Flavio Pasquetto playin’ on that track?
That’s actually Chris Scruggs.
That’s Chris on the pedal steel?
Well, the console steel, the table steel, but yes!
As he drops into that solo, it just kinda pulls the air outta the room, and you’re like, “What was that?” Tell me about the recording process– were y’all able to be in a room together like the way they did those old band recordings? Does Ray have that space?
We were all in one room, and honestly, I don’t like to record any other way because the sound of a live band is everyone in one room! I understand there are reasons why people wanna isolate and they wanna overdub, but to me, that’s the closest thing to the real thing. So, you know, why not? And I could look people in the eye! This was just coming out of COVID lockdown, so some of the time (laughs), we had Chris on the porch! We had people spread out, we were masked, and then when I had to sing, I was not, but it was interesting! Really fun though!
And speaking of that, you’ve got a wonderful run of dates set up to do with Asleep At The Wheel as the full ensemble! The album’s out on May 6th, and I think May 5th is when you start out doin’ that run of shows with them. You’ve gotta be looking forward to that– bein’ able to take these songs out and play ’em the way they were arranged and recorded. Is that a luxury? Do you get to do that often, have the big full band like that?
No, it’s a huge honor! Playing with them and being on stage with them, it just feels like you’re inside of this wall of perfect sound. Really great energy– and you know, they’re in their 50th year of being a band! Obviously, there’s been some turnover with personnel, but Ray, I think a lot of what’s made him so successful and unique is that he’s never stopped learning and never stopped being excited about music. He’s always got new ideas, so that freshness comes through in their sound. You can hear joy!