by: Thomas D. Mooney
There’s plenty of things I enjoy about being the editor of New Slang. But, undoubtedly the most enjoyment I get is seeing growth and process. You get to see firsthand the journey of a songwriter. Usually, unbeknownst to them, I’m constantly making observations and mental notes–good and bad–about them and their work until I end up writing something about them at a later time.
The first time I met Benton Leachman was on a weekend evening on the old back patio at Blue Light. Charlie Shafter had just finished sound checking. K. Phillips, who was opening up that night, was spray painting t-shirts he was going to sell later that night. That night, the clean-cut Buddy Holly lookalike sipped his Lonestar while we spoke about various aspects of the music scene.
That version of Benton Leachman couldn’t have made Bury The Hatchet. He wouldn’t have. I don’t want to harp on Leachman being green as a songwriter. Everyone is at some point–even say a Bob Dylan.
That’s not the point though. It’s that a songwriter–even when he’s releasing his first full-length album–has typically already done some trekking through the woods to get to that point. Bury the Hatchet isn’t the starting point; it’s the result of finding who Leachman is as an artist.
Over the past year, I’ve been getting sent rough cuts and mixes of songs from Bury the Hatchet. The growing feeling was that Leachman wasn’t satisfied with just writing down great lyrics for songs. He wanted these songs to be as fully formed as they could possibly get.
He wanted a sound and style that was translucent yet flexible. You’re able to describe the album in a neat two sentence blurb and talk about Bury the Hatchet for days. It’s never boring and ebbs and flows over serious subjects just as easily as it does pleasant material.
BTH sonically sounds brilliant. It pops in all the right places. It’s ear candy. Producer Jon Taylor has worked with and recorded more than his share of Lubbock artists at his Mount Vernon Studios. He’s helped create some great albums over the past few years. But this is the best work I think he’s ever done. I can’t really stress this enough. It’s lively when the song calls for it. It’s calm and serene at the moments. Taylor really had the pulse of the album.
At 10 tracks, Leachman covers a lot of ground. He kicks the album off with the “Desire,” fun jangly Tom Petty-Ryan Adams anthem of careless young love. His clever wordplay of the chorus is refreshing showing that young love doesn’t have to be as trivial as pickup trucks, dirt roads, or Tuesday nights.
Songs like the fiddle-infused “Pride” and “Run” capture the countrier aspects of Leachman songwriting roots–though, they’re firmly in new age of country music leaning toward the likes of Turnpike Troubadours and Dirty River Boys. There’s a familiar, homely airiness to both tracks.
“Bury the Hatchet” and “Cross to Bear” are the two true standout tracks from the album. They’re sincere lover-be-scorned songs that Leachman tells from first-person. “Cross to Bear” starts off with some of the most blunt lines I’ve heard in a song: I think I hate you and I want him dead. But I think I’ll take all this hurt and I’ll just rhyme these words instead.
They set the table and situation about as quick as possible. It’s also probably the most passive aggressive thing said by a Lubbock songwriter since Buddy Holly throughout the line “That’ll be the Day.” The direct simplicity is incredible. It’s something everyone’s thought, but only Leachman wrote it down in a song.
There’s very few shortcomings on Leachman’s debut. Which, I don’t wan to say is a complete surprise or anything, but I’m not sure even Leachman would have guessed he’d have created such a well-balanced album the first time around. But he did.
Leachman has surged into lead pack of Lubbock songwriters. He’s not necessarily barged in with a loud, boisterous yell. But, in his own way, declared his arrival. There’s no way around it. After Bury the Hatchet, you can’t dismiss him as an “up-and-comer” who needs a few years of growth. There’s no time like the present.
We caught up with the Lubbock singer-songwriter last week to talk about the release of Bury the Hatchet, which will officially be released today. Leachman and company will be playing an album release show at The Blue Light tonight. Fellow Lubbock songsmith, Kenneth O’Meara will be opening things up.
New Slang: So you’ve been working on making this album for a while now. And now, there’s just about a week until you’re releasing it–when it becomes an actual static thing. I know there’s been a lot of hard work put into Bury the Hatchet by yourself and Jon [Taylor]. What was the most frustrating moment of making this album?
Benton Leachman: Most frustrating was probably when I first started working with Jon. I went in there with a full band and we were trying to recreate our live sound. Jon just didn’t think our live sound matched up to the potential of the songs. Which, looking back now, I have to completely agree. But at first, there was a lot of emotion involved. You know, the band wanted to be on the record. I don’t blame them. I would too. They were great players. Really fun to play with, but they weren’t accustomed to the studio environment. So dealing with the band drama and dealing with Jon’s producer attitude was a little bit complicated. Whenever I enrolled into law school though, I ended up disbanding and that sort of opened that up. Jon was able to do whatever he wanted. By that point, I had decided I could put my full faith into Jon. It started moving quickly at that point.
NS: Yeah. What’s it been, about two years working on the album?
BL: Yeah. It’ll have been exactly two years three days before the release show. January 20 with our first recording session.
NS: I was going to ask you about the band aspect as well. Law school was really the reason you ended up disbanding “The Benton Leachman Band.” I guess you could call that the catalyst for the album (Which, is also really strange. You’d think that enrolling into law school would slow down the album making process). What do you think that album would have sounded like had you pushed through with the band and done it in, let’s say a couple months?
BL: Had I done that record in a month or something, it’d have sounded like a very poor attempt at someone trying to be Randy Rogers [laughs]. That’s just the honest truth. At the time, I was just completely a fangirl for Randy Rogers and his music. I think that Jon–and Red Shahan probably a little more–they kind of pushed me away from that style. They wanted me to find my own style. Thank goodness too because otherwise, the product wouldn’t be as good–and I probably wouldn’t be doing an interview New Slang [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. I guess it’s always going to be an ongoing process, but you can certainly see the transition from being more Texas Country to more of an Americana style now. Do you now even realize there’s been that transition? Like can you see a timeline in your head of that gradual process or do you just see the two points of then and now?
BL: You know, the other day when Jon and I were driving back from getting the masters and he forced me to listen to the first ever recording we had done together. It was so painful to listen to.
NS: What was it?
BL: It was “Pride.” So we played the first recording of it in the car and Austin McManus is in the backseat and he’s just laughing about it and shouting at me, “What were you thinking?” It was really a humbling experience to have this kid who looks up to me as a songwriter now telling me how much I sucked [laughs]. I guess I’m getting a little off topic, but to answer your question, my memories regarding writing those songs are pretty clear. If you wanted me to, I could go back and tell you who I was listening to around the time I wrote the song and the style I was trying to capture with that song. I guess the biggest change along the way was that I stopped trying to put my style in a box. I thought to make a name for yourself in “Texas Country Music”–whatever that is, as we’ve discussed before many times–was to play what was topping the Texas Country Music charts. Venturing out and exploring different styles and not be afraid to write something that was outside the box, that helped me grow the most. Once you’re not afraid to write in any genre, then the possibilities are endless.
NS: What was the most difficult song on the album to write?
BL: I guess the most difficult from an emotional standpoint, that was “Safety Net.” I wrote that shortly after my two friends, Shad Durham and Kyle Isbell, they had both just committed suicide. I was trying to write something that reflected an anti-suicide platform as well as be sensitive to the event that just had happened. That was just really painful. We weren’t the best friends, but it really hit close to home. These were people I’d see every week. We’d have beers together. Shoot the shit. That kind of thing. Additionally, I was going through some relationship problems with the girl I was seeing at the time. I just felt that was a culmination of weighty subjects that were happening around me and that were difficult to deal with as a writer.
NS: The title track, “Bury the Hatchet,” you’ve been carrying that around for a while. We’ve heard you play it acoustic. I guess in my head, the way I thought it was going to be and how it is on the album, they’re two different things. It came out great, but I was expecting something different I guess. You went ahead and included an acoustic version of it to though.
BL: Yeah, the title track I wrote while I was in Andy Wilkinson’s songwriting class. That was actually what I ended up using as my final project for the class. I guess the reason we ended up adding that acoustic track was because that was the actual first ever recording of that song. I finished writing it and it was around three in the morning here at this house. I just went into my bathroom. My roommates were all asleep. I poured myself a glass of bourbon. I opened up GarageBand on my laptop and tracked it all basically in one sitting. I went back and put a lead guitar acoustic track over it once the whiskey had sat it. I thought that’d be a good idea [laughs]. It ended up being cool. But I guess it’s the most honest presentation of the song that exists. I also wanted to do the song justice by giving it full band production. I don’t think it captured the raw emotion as well though. It has this lonely, frustrated tone that a full band version doesn’t quite present as well.
NS: Speaking of Andy, he’s on “The Zombie Song.” That features a cool little intro and outro. Who’s idea was it to kind of bookend the song with that?
BL: The Andy Wilkinson spoken word parts, that was my idea. It comes from really the reason I wrote the song in the first place. The song is a parody of sorts. It’s a critique on the whole American obsession with zombies. I had been watching a zombie film at the time–I can’t remember what–but at the beginning they have some hellfire Baptist preacher quoting some scripture that’s completely out of context, but I guess could be a reference to zombies. So I thought, what better way to start the song off by poking fun at those kind of people. I hope that point gets across. It’s just making fun of zombie culture in America.
NS: Yeah. I thought it was great. So Brian McRae.
BL: Brian McRae.
NS: So he’s kind of become Lubbock’s–and especially Jon’s–secret weapon of sorts. How was working with him?
BL: Yeah. I met him through Jon. In fact, the first song he ever tracked with Jon was “Pride.” I was blown away by how professional it sounded the first time I heard it. I was a little worried because it didn’t sound like our live sound, but in the back of my head, I was just thinking about how cool it was [laughs]. But yeah, Brian and I got to work quite a bit on this record. He’s so easy to work with. He’s open to all kinds of styles and suggestions. A lot of times he’d go in there and I’d think that it was all too complicated for this song–or that it was plainly just too good for the song. He’d then make it more simple and it’d still be incredible. His playing blows me away. Every time I see him play, I see something new that I learn. I reevaluate every time if I should even consider myself a guitar player [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Knowing that you can call him to play on your album and to play in a band with you, has that effected your songwriting now? Let me write a song in which I know his guitar playing will really be showcased here and here kind of thing.
BL: Yeah. It effects the way I write now because I don’t have to provide the finesse or lead idea any more. I can just write the song. We can go in and recreate the structure together later. He’s going to make it better than I ever could by myself. I guess it put less work on me honestly.
NS: How many songs did you end up dropping over the course of the album? What songs ended up getting dropped because you just didn’t think they were good enough or ready?
BL: I guess we ended up tracking 12 songs and as you know, it’s down to 10 on the official release. Really, all the cutting cutting happened in the pre-production phase. I had recorded all these acoustic demos and it was pretty clear right away which were making the cut. We got rid of those more juvenile songs that were just lacking and focused on those that had a purpose and something to say.
NS: I can think of a few examples of artists around here who didn’t rush to record their first EP or album until they really were ready. Great example is Dave [Martinez]. His EP is incredible and at least partially that’s due to him waiting for those right songs to be written. I can only assume that even though it’s been a long process, you’re glad you didn’t go and record those first 10 songs you wrote like a bunch of people we know do.
BL: Definitely. The first 10 songs I demoed out with Jon, I look back now and I’m embarrassed. The exception to that is “Pride.” I’m really proud of where that’s come from. The others though, I don’t play now.