Photo: Brooke Hamilton Art by Canyon Miller
In various reviews of Brennen Leigh’s spectacular new album, Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet, the music is described as vintage, old, retro. The same thing happened with Melissa Carper’s Ramblin’ Soul a few months ago. To be sure, the language was not intended to insult. Both records were critically acclaimed, hailed for their beautiful adherence to country music’s original sounds and stylings.
But still, to the casual observer, the words can leave the impression that the art itself is somehow of the past, irrelevant to our hyper modern times. When I asked Leigh and Carper what they thought of the descriptions, both expressed a certain level of squeamishness. “It feels a little bit like it diminishes the art form,” said Leigh. “It’s based in tradition, but that doesn’t make it culturally obsolete.”
Leigh and Carper just finished an extended tour with Kelly Willis, another country artist whose music sounds like the genre did in earlier eras, a musical direction she chose over a less fulfilling career making pop country. All three are part of a wave of artists driving a glistening revival of traditional country and folk music. Leigh’s record recently reached number six on the Americana charts. Carper’s Ramblin’ Soul earned a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of best Country albums last year.
One of the traditions from classic country music that Brennen Leigh likes to employ is the use of dramatic irony—the device in storytelling where the audience is a beat ahead of the storyteller. George Jones has an entire canon of songs in this form. In Leigh’s “The Bar Should Say Thanks,” the narrator lacks the self-awareness to see their alcoholic denial, but everyone else clearly can.
Maybe a form of dramatic irony is what’s at play with the music of Leigh—and indeed, the whole revival. The savvy audience buying their records understands something essential that certain critics and cultural gatekeepers haven’t fully grasped yet: This music isn’t stuck in the past at all, it’s an arrow pointed at the future.
Look no further than the fact that Leigh, Carper, and Willis are on tour together at all. It’s evidence alone that this isn’t your grandpa’s country music circuit. The Nashville establishment asserted for decades that the audience for female artists just doesn’t exist, an assumption that was used to limit radio play and venue access—which of course, made it exceedingly difficult for female artists to find big audiences.
But today’s revival is different. Women artists are at the forefront, helping propel an era of honest, raw, and original storytelling. They’re being supported by a network of upstart labels, music platforms, festivals, managers, and publicists dedicated to promoting the very best of the art form. And as it turns out, when barriers between female artists and prospective audiences are removed, the audiences arrive. Evidently, if you unbuild it, they will come.
“I’ve come to believe that we have some spiritual gifts as women,” Leigh said. “Our intuition and are our feelings are actually our strengths. And that’s what you need for songwriting some of the time. We’ve had it rougher than men, and so we do have to be creative and resourceful. And that’s helpful in storytelling.”
On this, the broader culture has reached consensus. Taylor Swift is the biggest star in pop music. Beyonce recently became the winningest Grammy artist in history. Greta Gerwig, Jane Campion, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Sharon Horgan are producing exquisite television and film, breathing fresh life into those mediums and transforming the art of visual storytelling.
As for Leigh, she is revered within the independent country music scene for her songwriting prowess and musicianship. When I first embarked on my study of this music community, it seemed I couldn’t have a conversation without her name coming up.
“Brennen is as pure as it gets, and she comes from a place of honesty,” Sierra Ferrell told me. “You quickly find yourself lost in her quick-witted words and enveloped in a story you can’t wait to hear unfold. If you’re lucky enough to catch her perform, you won’t forget.”
In “Every Time I Do” and “The Red Flags You Were Waving,” two songs off the new album, Leigh produces achingly honest prayers of self-awareness. The latter is told through a narrator who ignores relationship warning signs and falls for someone they know they shouldn’t. There are times when a song acts just like a dam or wind turbine, when the precise sequence of words, set to the right music, and sung with raw emotion, all combine to generate power. The listener feels the surge, the spark that comes from being recognized. This song is exactly how I feel.
“When I was young, seems I had no one, and the natural state was wishing//You were like daylight after dark of night, thought you had what I was missing//You dressed my wounds and you learned my tunes, and I thought I needed saving//From a self-waged war, so I ran straight for, the red flags you were waving.”
Besides acting like a power station, this song is one that people will cite as evidence of Leigh’s songwriting genius. When I asked her about the intricate rhyming structure she said: “I like a song where the hook is right before the last word, and the last word changes. It’s kind of a trick I like to use sometimes. It also adds to the element of surprise, which I like in lyrics.”
She pointed out that the element of surprise in these particular lyrics also serves to mimic the deceptions and acts of manipulation by the predatory character in the song.
When she sings that chorus, it’s not longing you hear in her voice. It’s rebellion.
Leigh’s music—and that of her peers—is on the forefront of other cultural trends as well. Two decades into the Internet Age, we can now clearly see some of the societal effects. The collapse of the monoculture and erosion of public trust have left people searching for meaning—and community—in things that are closer to home. For some people, that manifests in the movement towards localism, farmer’s markets, craft beer, DIY-ism. For others, it means embracing their innate identity.
True country music has always sprung from those same wells, born of musical traditions brought by various immigrant communities, fused with Black and indigenous influences, and forged uniquely region by region across the wildness of this continent. By focusing her songcrafting on the genre’s roots, at this moment in time, Leigh is reflecting a larger societal instinct to reclaim previous ways of living.
The title track on I Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet is a perfect expression of this idea. On the surface, it’s a lament for bygone venues—and days. But the song is not an expression of grief, it is a defiant rallying cry. “Maybe I’ll find one of those old familiar places, where they pour the coldest beer that you can get//I’ll look around and see my new friends’ smiling faces, no I ain’t through honky tonkin’ yet.” When she sings that chorus, it’s not longing you hear in her voice. It’s rebellion.
“No, it’s not so much about the venues as it is a larger cultural shift,” Leigh said when we spoke. “It’s things that are no longer lauded and appreciated the way they should be, the cultural traditions we have. I’m not letting go of them. Country music in all its forms is our birthright as Americans. It’s something everyone can enjoy. For me, it’s not about preserving it as a perfect museum artifact, but keeping it relevant, because country music is relevant to our lives as we know them now.”
For people who are responding to the uncertainty of our times by acknowledging and embracing their connection to place, Leigh’s music—and, again, the music of this community—is providing expression to that yearning.
Her 2020 album, Prairie Love Letter, is exactly as the title suggests. Leigh hails from the North Dakota/Minnesota border and produced a collection of local portraits. The opening song, “Don’t You Know I’m From Here,” captures that feeling of trying to return to your heart’s home and finding that the region has lost its connection to you. And then in 2022, she released Obsessed with the West with Asleep at the Wheel, trading the Midwestern, Scandinavian-influenced stylings for Western Swing and Texas sounds. Both records are contemporary soundtracks for people whose identity is intertwined with those regions.
This music is often described as nostalgic. Again, the label is a misnomer. Anyone who has gazed upon the stunning imagery coming from the Webb Telescope this past year has learned that the device is staring billions of years into the past. Because of the speed by which light travels, and how far the telescope can peer into the distance, the images we’re seeing are coming from the very origins of the universe.
“We are finding galaxies further back than we knew were possible,” Jane Rigby, the top NASA scientist working on the project recently told the New Yorker. “We’re seeing back in time to about three hundred million years after the big bang. Where we had ignorance, we now have beautiful data.”
Beautiful data. Rigby and her colleagues are not capturing the universe’s baby photos for the purpose of nostalgia. They are looking into the past to uncover truths that will transform our understanding of the present—and shine a little light into the dark tunnel of the future.
Maybe that’s the appropriate analogy for Leigh’s music. Each of her songs is like a separate, beautiful, heavenly image from the Webb Telescope. The music does transport us back in time, where it gives us the opportunity to re-discover something that made the moment special, and pull its truth forward into our teetering times.