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Brennen Leigh ain't through Honky Tonkin' yet

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Country music has a long, long list of greats. There's Hank, and there's Cash and Carter and Dolly and Loretta. And we could go on and on and on. Now, these days, country radio has strayed from that classic sound, but not so our next guest. In her own words, she ain't through honky-tonkin' yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T THROUGH HONKY TONKIN' YET")

BRENNEN LEIGH: (Singing) But I ain't through honky-tonkin' yet.

GONYEA: Brennen Leigh describes her new record as vintage country. And we're catching up with her out on the road somewhere in the U.K., I understand, promoting it.

Brennen, welcome.

LEIGH: Thank you for having me, Don. And, yeah, I'm talking to you from London.

GONYEA: How do you define that honky-tonk sound? I mean, what are the ingredients? What are the arrangements? What are the instruments?

LEIGH: I don't think we need to define country music in a narrow way. It's a huge umbrella. There are a lot of different kinds of country, and I think we have kind of a strange, awkward authenticity obsession in our genre. And we do a lot of quibbling back and forth about what's real country and what isn't. You know, is it real country if it doesn't have a steel guitar? Is it real country if it mentions a cellphone? Do we want it to be a museum relic that's perfectly preserved and never changes, or do we want it to be relevant to real life?

GONYEA: I admit that when I first heard your song "Every Time I Do," it felt like you were channeling, not impersonating, but channeling the great Patsy Cline.

LEIGH: That's been said about that track. And it's a compliment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY TIME I DO")

LEIGH: (Singing) Every time I do, I remember why I don't. Lying to myself when I say that I won't.

There was just an honesty to songs that I think people were really tapped into in those days. If you look at some of the songs from even the '40s and '50s, I feel like one thing we really had going for us in those days was we had this raw human emotion. We had things like shame and regret that were right at the center of the songwriting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY TIME I DO")

LEIGH: (Singing) I'd like to lose your number and forget your name.

You know, Patsy Cline would be a great example of somebody that - she was just this raw nerve of a soul in her singing and the songs that she would choose.

GONYEA: You've given us a song about a woman in what maybe has traditionally been thought of as a man's job, and it's called "Carole With An E." Let's give a listen to a bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLE WITH AN E")

LEIGH: (Singing) She ain't afraid of any grade. She's doin' her thing in the left-hand lane. There ain't no town clown gonna slow her down or rain on her parade. In pearls and kitten heels, she'll slam that hammer down on 18 wheels. Red Sovine blastin' ever lastin', how I'd like to be like Carole with an E.

GONYEA: Where did this character, where did this song come from?

LEIGH: I wrote "Carol With An E" with my friend Mallory Eagle, who's a songwriter from Oklahoma. And Mallory had a neighbor who was a long-haul trucker named Carole. And we became fascinated with this character. She was this little lady who had chosen the truckin' life as her career. And she would wear little kitten heels and pearls and had really nice nails and just not necessarily what you would think of as a trucker uniform. And she became sort of a movement for us. We talk about Carole energy. We all need a little Carole energy, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLE WITH AN E")

LEIGH: (Singing) ...on 18 wheels. Red Sovine blastin' ever lastin', how I'd like to be like Carole with an E.

GONYEA: Your career in country music has been based in Austin, Texas, and in Nashville, but your roots run along that Minnesota-North Dakota border. That's where you're from. How does that part of the country shape what is your country music sound?

LEIGH: You know, my mom and dad were big country music fans. Are - my mom and dad are big country music fans. And I raided their record collection and was playing on the floor when they would have, you know, pickin' parties and things like that. So sometimes my folks would have people over and they would play, you know, whatever songs they knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RED FLAGS YOU WERE WAVING")

LEIGH: (Singing) 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. I jumped right in when you pulled the pin, my higher self denyin'. Like a moth to flame, I set my aim on the red flags you were flyin'.

GONYEA: The red flags you were waving. Tell us about this song.

LEIGH: This was - obviously the idea of a red flag is sort of a modern, you know, buzzword, something that you hear a lot now - nowadays about dating and relationships and things like that. So no one would have used this word in 1965, but I liked it so much 'cause it was - you know, I could write about just a kamikaze dive towards something that's really bad for you. And, you know, in this case, a person.

GONYEA: I want to go out on the song, "The Bar Should Say Thanks." I mean, it's chock-full of a bunch of those country music cliches, but I say that as a compliment. I mean, it's great, and it's funny, and it's real.

LEIGH: Thank you. My brother Seth and I wrote this song together. Like a lot of great song ideas, we overheard something. And in this case, it was a friend of the family who had said - was kind of rambling about something and said the bar should thank me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BAR SHOULD SAY THANKS")

LEIGH: (Singing) The bar should say thanks for all the good times I brought with me. Even when my mind was a total blank, I was a life of the party.

One of my favorite things in country music is alcoholic denial. When you're in this overconfident kind of haze and the audience of the song understands what's going on, but the singer, the narrator of the song, doesn't. I really appreciate and enjoy the challenge of writing a song like that.

GONYEA: George Jones had quite a career with songs like this.

LEIGH: You took the words right out of my mouth. A song like "She Thinks I Still Care" - he doesn't know he still cares, but we do.

GONYEA: What's it like when you play these songs live? Do you feel people are maybe transported in some way?

LEIGH: I like to look out and be able to see identification. When people laugh at the same things I laugh at or they get emotional about the same things I do, I feel like I'm making the connection that I want to make. I was sort of mimicking when I was in my teens and beyond - you know, mimicking Hank Williams and mimicking, you know, someone like Tom T. Hall. But, you know, I'm starting to get the stories because I've been around a little longer and that feels more genuine. I can actually write from life.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Brennen Leigh. Her new record "Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet" is out now. Brennen Leigh, thank you so much for joining us.

LEIGH: Don, thank you for having me on the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BAR SHOULD SAY THANKS")

LEIGH: (Singing) And it's all because of me. The bar should say thanks. Who they wake up each night... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.