Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter guitar playing duo and otherwise, Brennen Leigh and Noel Mckay though mindful of country music’s traditional ways they also have a hand on the pulse of the present.
Leigh looks like she was born and raised on the prairie, her fair skin and gentle approach. But looks can be deceiving because she can and does when the occasion calls write stinging open heart lyrics. She isn’t afraid of calling a spade a spade. It isn’t just an art thing, her music and that of Mckay houses a great deal of soul. Lee Ann Womack (‘sleeping with the devil’), Sunny Sweeney and others have recorded her songs while noel wrote a song, ‘el coyote’ with Guy Clark.
Noel Mckay has a great ear as a guitarist knowing and when to lend his vocal harmonies. He also has the rare gift knowing less quite often means more when it comes to playing. Everything they do together and apart is done with great taste, honesty and with the minimal effort. They are simply head and shoulders above others of their field.
“I had already produced an album by Noel and his brother, Hollin a few years earlier when Brennen and Noel asked if I would produce an album of modern duets they had written, and was more than happy to be asked. I loved the songs. No one else was writing songs like that, and pulling them off with such integrity. They understand the genre, inside out. Everything Noel and Brennen do fits the bill,” Gurf Morlix
When did you first start performing, Brennen?
I have been playing professionally since I was 14. My brother and I had a band together in Minnesota, and we travelled around on weekends and in the summer. I moved to Texas when I was about 19.
What made you move to Texas?
Texas has a good music scene. At the time it was really good for developing a career. I don’t know about now. I like it, but I think someone moving there now might have a slightly different perspective about it. It’s got bigger, more popular, more saturated. It’s been good for me adds Leigh.
Kerrville is a popular area musically down that way.
It’s close to Austin. It has it’s own little world.
Texas has a phenomenal history for singer-songwriters, especially during the 1970s when an amazing string of diversely talented writers surfaced.
Yes, it has. You have people like Guy Clark.
And you also have Townes Van Zandt.
Yes, and Cindy Walker (Western swing, country), the list just goes on. So it is easy to see why I as drawn to it.
How did your career progress after moving there?
I have been back and forth between there and Nashville, and also touring a lot. You can’t just stay in Austin to do what I want to do. So I tour a lot with Noel as a duo and our bluegrass band High Plains Jamboree.
I understand you also have another band?
Do you mean the side project I have, Antique Persuasion?
Yes, the one you made a tribute to the Carter Family (Don’t Forget Me Little Darling, Remembering The Carter Family).
We don’t play together as often I would like to. We might get together a couple of times a year. Unfortunately, it is less of a focus because Jenee (Fleenor) the fiddle player plays with Blake Shelton and Steven Tyler and people like that, and there is Brandon Rickman who is the lead singer of the Lonesome River Band. On the rare occasion we can meet up together we do something.
How did you and Noel first meet?
We met at a gig in 2002. He was playing with his brother Hollin at the time (The McKays), so a couple of sibling bands met up, coincidently, because we knew one another through the music scene.
One of the beauties of Texas seems to be people have greater freedom, musically, to go out and do what they want.
I think it is different for everyone. I think to somehow say Nashville is more commercial in general is a little bit of a myth, because there is an equal amount of what you might want to call over commercialised music that maybe focuses on the wrong thing in Texas. For example it is really hard for women to be played on the radio in Texas. In Nashville I don’t see that’s a problem at all there. There is also the really cool, East Nashville burgeoning scene. I think both places have good and bad. I wouldn’t say the pressure is less in Austin putting out art. You still have that same pressure that exists for all musicians. You have to continue to put out new songs, new records and to keep making your show better and better.
But a lot of this is of your making, you are continually trying to improve and bring new ideas to your music and songwriting.
Of course your environment factors in. There is a lot of hard working more working class musicians working in Austin. You can go out every night and see someone better than you laughs, Leigh. That’s really inspiring. You might go see someone like Redd Volkaert, Cindy Cashdollar, who actually doesn’t live there anymore, and you go, boy I have to go back home and practice!
You have a mutual love for quality acoustic guitars, and between you produce a beautiful sound?
Yes, we are both into guitar playing. The one I am using right now is one I borrowed from the New Madrids, but it’s a Martin, smiles Leigh.
How do you find writing together?
We write together, and separately, and we also write with other people. For myself I will come up with an idea and a writer friend of mine will usually come to mind right away.
So once you get a song started and going in a certain direction you will then make the decision whether it’s one to share with someone?
That’s pretty much how it works, and I think Noel is pretty much the same.
You also have this tribute to Lefty Frizzell, Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell how long have you been such a fan of his music?
I wasn’t as a child. I guess growing up in America unless you are not paying attention you can’t really fail to hear “Long Black Veil” or “Gone, Gone, Gone” or something like that on the Radio, if you have got a good classic station. Adding, my parents we big country fans. I really got into Lefty about ten years ago, starting with his 50s catalogue, which is a good place to start. In a couple of years I really got into his later catalogue, meaning the late 50s and mid-60s and it was those records that really inspired me to make the tribute album.
His last sessions on ABC Records I feel were rather special too.
He doesn’t have a lot of fillers in his catalogue of recordings.
As far as country music goes, and as a stylist he was one of the most influential acts ever.
He made such a mark in country music.
“Article From Life” has long been one of my favourites outside his hits.
That was a fine example of him in his prime. He was in the zone. It might have been a little bit crazy for me to go off and do this Lefty thing. I learned doing it how a great many people don’t know who he was. For me he a great superstar, but there are people who don’t have a clue, they might have heard the name but knew anything about him. For someone so influential it’s amazing. Maybe I could reach some of the younger audience.
Keith Whitley was among those influenced by him you had, his version of the song “I Never Walk Around Mirrors” (a co-write by Lefty with Sanger D. Shafer) like with much of his singing owed much to Lefty. Merle Haggard was hugely influenced by him, and to a lesser degree Clint Black; the list goes on. Willie Nelson like too has also recorded a tribute album.
Merle and Lefty were great friends.
How about the Carter Family, how big a part has their music played in developing your musical style / direction.
Yes, I am. They were my big guitar influence with me.
How about songwriters?
That is a tough question. Technically, anything that hits you on the head, whether you like it or not you can’t ignore it. Noel is a big influence. We are always bouncing ideas off each other. We are also both influenced by Guy Clark. He was a good friend of us both. Noel introduced me to him six or seven years ago, and somebody like John Prine. I like a really well written song. One that is airtight. That tells the story in a good way. I like a song that’s like a movie and you get lost within. Like watching a movie, but you aren’t distracted by bad acting or the bad screenplay you are completely sucked into it.
A song that takes the listener away from everything, and after three or whatever minutes thinks they feel like they have been taken away on a memorable journey.
Yes, thats kind you say, I want to hear that again! There are some great songs out there. Like when you hear a song and say, I wish I had written that! Tom T. Hall he’s a big influence she excitingly adds. He gets into a zone, and has never written a bad song. He may have, but not put them on record.
What is going to be your next project, another duo album?
High Plains Jamboree our bluegrass band is touring a lot now. That’s our main thing right now. It is about to tour Alaska and it’s a big state! We are doing the IBMA, Bluegrass Rambler and Americana Fest, St. Louis Folk Fest and we’re doing, a festival in Cleveland, the band is doing bunch of touring this fall. I am also overdue to make a solo record, but don’t know when I am going to fit that in but have to. Noel and I will get together sometime to do something.
Noel, what is your main role in the duo, to keep things tight?
I suppose so. Initially we wrote love songs together and made a record out of them. As our project as a duo progresses and evolves we find that we have got that way. Now, I think we have become an act who does a song swop more than anything these days; we just put our best individual songs out there when we perform together. So that is the majority of what we do now, the minority of our act is those duets. But, every now and again we’ll look at one another and say we need to write more duets. So that is not something that’s entirely in out past.
Who have been you greatest influences?
Well, a couple of different people. I started playing guitar when I was nine, but I really had this renaissance in my writing and music when I was in my early twenties, twenty two or twenty three and I heard a Lucinda Williams record, the self-titled one she made in 1988 and it blow my mind and had a big impact on me. As much and if not more from that record Gurf Morlix; his guitar playing and production style, and his harmony singing on that record had a big impact on me. As you may know we got to know Gurf later and he produced a record I made with my brother The McKay Brothers in 2003. Then he produced the Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay record that came out about for years.
When I was twenty-four I was playing the Jimmie Rodgers Festival in Kerrville, and the headliners were Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Kathleen Hudson the organiser dragged Guy by the arm out to the audience and forced him to listen to our set and I guess he liked it. I remember looking that day out at the audience and thought it was going terribly! However, after the show there was Guy, and he introduced himself and said he loved the music, and there were a couple of songs he particularly liked a lot. He handed me his address, he had written it on a piece of paper in pencil and said send me everything you have got. It was his address in Nashville, so I did that. Guy Clark has really been the main influence in terms of music in my life, as a singer, as a songwriter and as a person. I stayed in touch and friends with him. We lived on Nashville for a while and we got really close during that time period, and I was going to his house two or three times a week when we were there. So, mostly, Guy Clark, and some other people too. John Prine has influenced me a lot. I’ve already mentioned Lucinda Williams, and Brennen she is a great writer (a really clever, a fantastically smart writer).
You mention Guy with much fondness. He has written with a number of young aspiring songwriters (‘El Coyote’ written with Noel was arguably the best song on his final record, My Favorite Picture Of You), him doing this has on its own left a great legacy. The way he took people under his wing, iron out their faults to make them better writers and I guess people too.
That’s true. I am glad and proud to be able to call myself one of them.
Darrell Scott is another to have benefited (and written with him too) from his words of wisdom.
Brennen played Mountain Stage a couple of months or so ago, and I was her accompanist and I got to meet him. It was about a week after Guy died and we traded Guy Clark stories along with Hayes Carll backstage. It was a sad, but cool moment reflects McKay.
Verlon Thompson was another who became close to Guy.
Yes, Verlon is one of my favourite people in the whole world. He is a great musician, guitar player and songwriter.
Going back a few years I remember thinking what a great guitar player Guy was. In later years he let someone else, Verlon do the bulk of it.
I played a festival with him in the Netherlands around 2005/06 that was when he first got sick, and when I first noticed he was sick and had lost his hair. Shortly after he died someone gave me a recording of one of his shows from 2006; one he did near San Antonio, TX and I had forgotten just how great a guitar player he was. I think the illness and the treatment for it had a negative impact on his ability to play guitar towards the end. He was a terrific musician and guitar.
What have you coming up music wise?
In addition to High Plains Jamboree I have a solo record I am working on. It will be my third and I shall reconvene on it after I get back to Austin. I have to do some singing and get some frosting instrumentation on it and then it will be ready to throw out there.