Just when Americana music, and its sometime bland promotion, appears to be selling itself as a homogenised tub of nothingness, out comes an album of such folksy purity it serves to preserve life in the endangered genre.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh has done just that with her latest release Prairie Love Letter, a concept album of original songs which reflect her roots in the American Midwest.
“This is a collection of songs about my childhood home: the line between Western Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota,” Leigh says. “I have lived away for 18 years and been homesick every one of them.”
Prairie Love Letter is Leigh’s sixth album and again demonstrates not only her writing talent but renown musicianship as a guitarist/mandolinist. After all, the great Guy Clark once quipped, as only Guy could: “Brennen Leigh plays guitar like a motherfucker!”
And Guy’s old friend, Rodney Crowell, who has recorded Leigh’s songs, was quick to heap praise in the album’s liner notes: “Listen up and see for yourself how the music of an elegantly understated singer, songwriter, story-telling poet, landscape painter, passionate observer of the human condition, and cultural preservationist, enhanced by some of Nashville’s most intuitive players, just might boost our spirits during these troubled times."
There is no better cultural preservation than in the opening track, and the album’s single, “Don’t You Know I’m From Here.” It is Leigh’s “ode to going home” and she sings: I could get here with my eyes closed/And one hand on the wheel/ But I like to see the rows and rows of corn/It makes me feel like a kid again
“Billy & Beau” reflects on three friends growing up on the prairie. One is gay: The heart wants to go where the heart wants to go/And you can’t undo it/Billy never told me so but I just knew it/Billy loved Beau
“The John Deere H” is a foot-tapping, fiddle-fused tribute to Leigh’s dad. “The song is told from my dad’s point of view to the best of my ability. I didn’t know my grandfather Willis, the father in this song, but I feel like I know him through my dad’s stories.” – The H was made in a factory down in Waterloo/But my dad had got her second hand through some folks that we knew/She wasn’t sleek and she wasn’t fast/It took a while to get her going/But she beat a horse and a hand-held plough for cutting hay and hoeing
But it is not all childhood memories and bucolic beauty. “You’ve Never Been To North Dakota” is a first-person lament by an old woman forced out of her hometown due to oil company greed. And the foot-stomping “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline” details the struggle over native lands at Standing Rock Sacred Stone Camp, Dakota, in 2016 – You want to pump your poison into our water/You want to wreck this sacred burying ground/This piece of earth don’t belong to no one/And you ain’t laying no pipeline through this land
But for the most part Prairie Love Letter is just that – an album “full of love letters to the landscape and the characters who fill it.” There is no better personification than “I Love the Lonesome Prairie, “ clearly a stand-out track in which Leigh recounts a fleeting moment when she witnessed a storm in western Kansas where clouds were lit up with silent, pink lightning - If you’ve ever stood out on the lonesome prairie/And watched a thunderstorm roll in then you will see/Why I love the lonesome prairie and the prairie’s not lonesome to me
Rodney Crowell is right. This is the music of a understated singer, songwriter, story-telling poet, and landscape painter! And the Robbie Fulks-produced album must rank among her finest. But sadly it is unlikely to make a big impression on the banal Americana radio playlists or feature among the comfy award nominees. It is simply too pure an art-form for that sort of thing!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation