Somewhere out there on the proverbial great American highway, Carole with an E is riding high up in the driver's seat of her 18 wheeler, rollin' down that old double yellow line. Can you see her?
Carole with an E, as she always introduces herself, stars in a colorful character line up on Brennen Leigh's latest album, Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet, out June 16. Petite and proud, Carole's guileless and impossible to bluff, and she does it all in pearls and kitten heels. Co-written with Mallory Eagle and inspired by Eagle's former neighbor, "Carole with an E," is the female trucker song we've always needed, perhaps without even realizing it.
"To me, a lady trucker is just like a lady musician. Like 'try me, you can't kill me, I'm like a cockroach.' Maybe that's why I relate to Carole so hard, is she's just a tough broad," Leigh says.
Like Carole, Leigh's cut a fearless path through country music, coolly shifting from traditional country to folk-infused ballads to Western swing and everywhere in between. For her latest album, she inhabits her favorite Nashville, its "Golden era," as she calls it — the late 1960s.
"They just were not ashamed of who they were, this was hillbilly music; it was so confident," Leigh says.
Growing up, Brennen Leigh's parents sang together around the house, harmonizing to pass the time and occasionally to entertain a few guests. On the stereo, they played classics: Bob Wills, The Everly Brothers, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. Leigh learned to pick guitar for her own amusement and that music was for her first and foremost. Even once she started performing for others, she kept making the music she wanted to put on the record player.
"[Country music] is our birthright, it's a national treasure, it's the greatest music in the world. I just want to share it," Leigh says.
Leigh cut her teeth opening for Ralph Stanley and later Guy Clark. Over the years she's collaborated with Noel McKay, Ray Benson/Asleep at the Wheel and Melissa Carper and written for Charley Crockett, Lee Anne Womack and Rodney Crowell (who lent his backing vocals to Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet). This spring, Leigh played reopening weekend at Dallas Texas' storied Longhorn Ballroom and on June 24 she'll debut on the Grand Ole Opry.
Leigh is at her best honoring the things she holds dear; her previous two albums, Obsessed With The West (backed by Asleep at the Wheel) and Prairie Love Letter, paid homage to her early musical inspiration: Western music and her Midwestern roots, respectively.
As did Leigh's Nashville golden era, Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet thrives on guitar: steel guitar, electric guitar, rhythm guitar, sparkly Nashville tuned guitar, bold, soggy intros and liquid harmonies, and oodles of twang. To round out the album's sonic world, producer and guitarist Chris Scruggs, who also plays bass guitar in Marty Stuart's band, pulled together guest and session musicians who sprinkle in fiddle, bass, drums, piano and mandolin.
"She sounds so natural in each setting," Scruggs says. "I think that Brennen is a great musical ambassador for all forms of country music, because she loves all of it."
To begin, Leigh sets off on a road trip, "Running out of Hope, Arkansas," misery in the rearview mirror. Stopping off in heartbreak town, she chastises a cheating partner in "Somebody's Drinking About You," before charging headlong into chagrin with "The Red Flags You Were Flying." In a roadside juke joint, the album's title track delivers its takeaway: "I Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet."
Some of country music history's greatest songwriters spun stories of regret, shame and soul-deep sadness, but these days, "the song from the perspective of the wrongdoer is kind of taboo," Leigh says. "We've sanitized it a little bit and I was trying to bring some of that real life dirt into the subject matter."
Throughout the album, Leigh conjures relatable, flawed and unsavory characters: spurned exes, an overzealous bar regular who fancies himself God's gift, and two lovers who know their affair is doomed. She finishes the album redeemed with "You Turned into a Dragon," an intoxicating, nebulous tale about an old lover and a shape-shifting tattoo.
"Carole with an E" rolls into town mid-album, escorted by Scruggs' hyper-compressed squawking Fender Telecaster, putting "the honk in honky tonk," as he says. Reminiscent of Red Sovine and C.W. McCall's trucker anthems, the track also nods to Kay Adams' "Little Pink Mack," a rare female kindred spirit to Carole.
As the dominant mode of transportation shifted from trains to individual vehicles, so too country music moved on from "Wabash Cannonball" and "Wreck of the Old '97" to romanticize 18-wheelers, Scruggs says. Existing in their own vernacular subculture, songs inspired by long haul truck driver culture, particularly its jargon, pack rapid-fire narration and colloquialism into a high-energy propulsion designed to make the miles pass in a flash.
"That stuff is high art. There's not better poetry in any book," Leigh says. "The trucker is like the cowboy, this legend of American lore."
And similar to the oft gender-restrictive cowboy legends, most of the women in trucker songs remain behind the counter serving coffee. But Carole with an E hits the road with the best of 'em.
"It's not meant to have any type of like a cute retro gimmick to it," Scruggs says. "[Leigh's] someone who's alive today, writing about her experiences in the here and the now. I guess that's kind of like country music has always been. It's people existing in the moment, standing at a microphone, singing about things that are timeless, while invoking a sound of a bygone era."
Leigh's ode to the past is more prescient than a simple nostalgia-based revival though. "We're still here,' she says, and 'we ain't through honky-tonkin' yet.'"
READ MORE: Schoolteacher Turned Honky-Tonk Queen Summer Dean's 'The Biggest Life' Celebrates Women Who Don't Conform
Enjoy Country Music?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.