Just as Merle Haggard recruited members of the Texas Playboys for western swing project A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) (1970), Brennen Leigh called on the country sub-genre's greatest living practitioners, Asleep at the Wheel, for new album Obsessed With the West (out May 6 via Signature Sounds).
Most notably, Asleep at the Wheel bandleader and Obsessed With the West producer Ray Benson helped Leigh strike the right balance between musical homage and self expression.
"He's maintained his connection to the genre and also managed to be an innovator," Leigh told Wide Open Country about Benson. "To me, that's very symbiotic because I think the spirit of western swing or any true American music form is innovation. It's ironic that we try to copy these art forms note for note and become sort of a museum artifact when we're doing these traditional music forms like bluegrass, country, blues. We try to make ourselves identical to the artists and things that were happening in their day. But the irony of that for me is that those art forms were so influential and monumental because of the innovation."
Leigh wrote or co-wrote 30 western swing tunes inspired by songwriting legend Cindy Walker before narrowing down the tracklist to the jazz-influenced "I Was Just Thinking of You," the trail ballad-style title track and 10 other fresh selections.
"Basically, it was for quality control," Leigh said of a prolific stretch of creativity. "I wanted to try and compete with the quality of some of those classics, which was a huge challenge.
"It's really hard to write a simple song," she continued. "A lot of these Cindy Walker tunes are two verses over the same form with a solo in the middle or one verse and one chorus. Her writing was so perfect that she didn't need relish. She didn't need to say anything more than she said. Writing in that narrow sweet spot is a real challenge."
Working with enough Asleep at the Wheel members to fill a Texas dancehall stage (namely "Tell Him I'm Dead" collaborator Katie Shore) plus multi-instrumentalist Paul Kramer and two members of musical families (Emily Gimble and Chris Scruggs) allowed for spontaneity and camraderie during the live recording process.
"It was incredible to have everyone on it that was there," Leigh said. "Chris Scruggs and Paul Kramer, I brought them down from Nashville. And just working with the Wheel and Emily... I've said this a lot, but it's probably the most fun session that I've had. They're all delightful and fun. You can hear fun and joy in music, and you can hear the lack of it in music. That was there."
Leigh has several gigs with Asleep at the Wheel on the horizon, including a May 6 album release show at Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, Mo.
"My 15-year-old self is freaking out because my brother and I rode around Fargo when we were growing up and listened to Wheel records," she added. "Also, being on stage with them feels like being inside a big, beautiful wave of sound. Being part of that extended family has been a gift in my life and a positive life change for me."
Obsessed With the West opens the latest chapter of Leigh's varied career, which has earned endorsements from Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark and brought us everything from a Lefty Frizzell covers album (2015) to the Great Plains-inspired Prairie Love Letter (2020) and multiple duet projects with Noel McKay. This time around, Leigh conquered a new challenge that built off a lifetime of listening to Benson, Asleep at the Wheel and their musical forbears.
"What keeps me going as a writer is going through phases," she said. "My friend Chris Scruggs said recently —and I don't know if this is original to him— that a lot of talent is just obsession. I agree with that wholeheartedly. You just get obsessed with something so much that you grind it into your head. For me, these songs were ground into my head by listening to them on records and cassette tapes when I was a kid."
Obsessed With the West Tracklist
1. "If Tommy Duncan's Voice Was Booze"
2. "In Texas With A Band" (Featuring Ray Benson)
3. "If I Treated You Like You Treat Me" (Featuring Emily Gimble)
4. "Same Dream"
5. "Tell Him I'm Dead" (Featuring Katie Shore)
6. "Obsessed With The West"
7. "Comin' In Hot"
8. "I Was Just Thinking Of You"
9. "I Don't Want Someone Who Don't Want Me"
10. "Riding Off Onto Sunset Boulevard"
11. "You're Doing It Wrong"
12. "Cottonwood Fuzz"