Maybe it’s because the Super Bowl just ended, but it occurs to me that country music can be a lot like football – it’s not that tough to be a big star in your small hometown, but when you head off to the big city (for college or to chase the music biz full-time), you quickly come to realize what “big fish in a small pond” really means. When Mac Leaphart left South Carolina after recording his first album to make his mark in Nashville, he got a quick education in how hard it really is to write a big hit song. Unbowed, he set about improving his craft, joining writers’ circles and releasing two more albums. Now, his most recent release, Music City Joke, is named after that road full of struggle and battling back, and it shows him ready to share some of the lessons he’s learned.
Music City Joke begins with a song about a guy who’s had it tough from the get-go. “El Paso Kid” is a reworked tune from Leaphart’s 2015 album Low in the Saddle, Long in the Tooth. This time around, the songwriter dials down the honky-tonk of the original and adds a violin part from multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin to tell us about hard-luck Buddy, the mixed-race kid from a reluctant, drunk mom who “left him down on cradle row.” Mac and Buddy share a tenacity, though, and maybe even a bit of off-kilter optimism – “Knew his life wasn’t in vain/It was just unplanned.” And it’s the tenacity that the songwriter comes to admire – “There’s a special place in heaven for those who scrap for a fighting chance.”
Simple, sad country love songs are always welcome here, and Leaphart has a good one in “The Same Thing.” With an arrangement somewhere between country and folk (acoustic guitar and pedal steel are prominent, along with beautiful backing vocals from Carey Kotsianis), this one’s all about regret and acceptance – “I stood in place and watched two lovers sway/Never saw you coming/But I watched you walk away.” There’s a drinking song, too – of course there is – but not quite in the way you’re thinking. “Blame on the Bottle” features the singer’s encounter with someone we’ve all met – the self-righteous teetotaler. Leaphart, though, puts the responsibility where it belongs – on the drinker, not the drink: “”Don’t put the blame on the bottle, now that you’ve got yourself dry.” In other words, don’t blame the booze for those times you were a boozy a-hole.
Leaphart’s look at personal responsibility naturally extends to his own career. The title track is a steel-driven country rocker where the singer tackles the artist’s toughest fight – just trying to write a good damn song. What should come naturally – “It seemed so easy, couldn’t be that hard/Writing one of those songs coming from those cars” – turns out to be a grind, and there aren’t any shortcuts – “A beaten path up a worn out hill/And nobody hands the map back down.” Plus, one more complication – his own integrity: “It’s tough to sing a song I can’t stand behind.” It’s that insistence upon writing good material that will (hopefully) keep Leaphart – now a husband, father and leader of his own songwriters’ night – in Music City, and in business, for a long time.
Music City Joke was produced, engineered and mixed by Brad Jones and mastered by Jim Demain. All songs were written by Mac Leaphart, with co-writing credits going to Jones and Aaron Raitiere. Additional musicians include Jones (bass, mandolin, harmonium, backing vocals), Raitiere (backing vocals), Fats Kaplin (violin, pedal steel), Will Kimbrough (electric and acoustic guitar), Logan Todd (drums, percussion), Matt Menefee (acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin), Ben Jackson (drums, percussion) and Glen Martian and Carey Kotsianis (backing vocals).
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Division Street,” with its coming-down-off-a-wild-night feel, complete with the killer line, “Morning slips through the night like defeat.”
Find Music City Joke on your favorite streaming service beginning February 12, and go to https://macleaphart.com/home for more information.