If a songwriter is truly passionate about his or her subject matter, chances are the songs will be both singular and relatable. Over the summer, Colter Wall released a collection of original Canadfian cowboy songs that no one knew they needed, but the project succeeded because of Wall’s full-hearted attention to his craft. Brennen Leigh’s latest album, Prairie Love Letter, is just that – a record dedicated to the area around the Minnesota-North Dakota state line, her birthplace. Even if it’s an area you’ve not been to, her absolute commitment to her songs, and to her home, will drop you straight onto the edge of America’s Great Plains.
The album leads off with “Don’t You Know I’m From Here,” which recalls Leigh’s return to her small hometown. The tune starts with idyllic acoustic guitar and mandolin, along with the anticipation of coming home – “I like to see the rows and rows of corn, it makes me feel/Like a kid again.” But this isn’t a songwriter’s warm, wartless recollection of a trip. It’s more like what yours or mine would be – not entirely successful and probably tinged with regret. The singer didn’t leave home on the best terms – “I looked down my nose at friends, turns out I might need them again.” She’s returning to something familiar, sure, but also a place she doesn’t entirely know anymore. As she encounters more than a few unfriendly faces, she realizes what many of us have: “Maybe this little town looked better in my rear view mirror.”
Small towns are also known for their unspoken truths, and Leigh finds one in “Billy and Beau.” Across the backdrop of field trips and 4-H fairs, three young folks share a bond until Billy leaves town, Beau disappears, and hearts are broken. Did Billy and Beau ever take a stab at romance? Leigh won’t give us that easy of an answer, but the sweetness and innocence of the three friends reminds us that, no matter the time or town in which you happen to grow up, “The heart wants to go where the heart wants to go and you can’t undo it.”
There’s an absolute timelessness to many of these songs, both in the stories they tell and the way that they’re told. “The John Deere H” is a string-band ode to Leigh’s father’s first time aboard a tractor and offers a glimpse into her family’s farm life. Plus, with lines like “He showed me how to check the spark and set that flywheel turning,” along with Leigh’s own homemade, child-like tractor sounds, it feels like that most rare of modern country songs – one that could’ve been written by someone who’s actually sat atop a John Deere. “There’s A Yellow Cedar Waxwing on the Juneberry Bush” combines stories from Leigh’s grandmother with gorgeous, Carter Family-like harmonies from Noel McKay and Courtney Patton. And “Little Blue Eyed Dog” is nothing but the unexpected joy of finding a lonely, bedraggled pup by the side of the road and doing the only thing one can do – “LIfe was lonely, life was rough/But now you’re going my way.” As Leigh reassures her new friend – “You just ran out of rotten luck” – rescue dog owners (like this one) may find themselves discreetly wiping their eyes.
Even in the most bucolic of settings, modern life impedes on Leigh’s Prairie. “You’ve Never Been To North Dakota,” paced by Shad Cobb’s fiddle, counters the simple beauty of the plains seen through the eyes of a lifelong resident with the invading energy industry (Leigh also rhymes the state’s name with “gently sung to sleep by a coyot-a,” which is my new favorite rhyme). And “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline” counters its barndance feel with fierce resistance to those same energy companies’ willful destruction of Native lands. However, even with all that going on, when Leigh raises her voice (always sublime, but never prettier than right here) to proclaim her affection for her home in “I Love the Lonesome Prairie,” you might be moved to dig out a map – the old-fashioned paper folding kind – and plot a trip back to your own hometown.
Prairie Love Letter was produced by Robbie Fulks, recorded and mixed by Steve Albini and Dave Sinko and mastered by Tommy Detamore. All songs were penned by Brennen Leigh, with co-writing credits going to Melissa Carper and Noel McKay. Musicians on the album include Fulks (acoustic guitar, banjo, harmony vocals), McKay (acoustic guitar, harmony vocals), Jenee Fleenor (fiddle), Paul Kramer (mandolin, fiddle), Dennis Crouch (bass), Shad Cobb (fiddle), Todd Phillips (bass), Matt Flinner (mandolin), Pete Finney (pedal steel), Tim O’Brien (fiddle, octave mandolin, harmony vocals), Alison Brown (banjo), Kaitlyn Raitz (cello), Pete Finney (steel guitar) and Courtney Patton (harmony vocals).
Go here to order Prairie Love Letter: https://www.brennenleigh.net/merchandise
Get info on Brennen Leigh’s September 19th album release live stream here: https://www.bandsintown.com/e/102340555