MOORHEAD, Minn. — Brennen Leigh lived down in Texas for over a decade, but always felt more at home up North.
“I was homesick and just kept writing songs about back home. It just kept popping up,” the Moorhead native says.
The songs that bubbled up over the last five years or so all gelled into the singer’s new album, “Prairie Love Letter.”
A title could not be more apt for Leigh’s first new record of original material since 2010. The singer-guitarist left Moorhead in 2002 looking for bigger stages and new audiences. She found both in Austin, Texas, but also found that a big part of her heart remained in the Red River Valley.
“You have to get away to really see where you come from,” she says from her home in Nashville, Tenn., where she’s lived for the past couple of years. “When you grow up there, it’s boring. There are a lot of things I didn’t see until I left. There’s a real culture there.”
That feeling is expressed in the album's opening track, “Don’t You Know I’m From Here.”
The tune may not be exactly autobiographical, but lines like “maybe this little town looked better in the rearview mirror” ring true.
In the number, she even refers to her accent dropping from the sharp “you betcha” to the drawn out “y’all” of the South, without mocking what has become known as the “Fargo” accent.
“It’s part of your identity,” she says. “I want people there to know, your accent is beautiful. Don’t ever wish it would go away.”
Leigh never turned her back on her family or friends back home as the narrator in that song does. In fact, in other numbers, like “Billy and Beau” and “The North Dakota Cowboy,” she sings of old friends, ending the latter with, “I still look for him in Fargo every time I’m back in town.” She won’t say who it is, only that it was drawn from someone she once knew, with elements of others added in.
She spreads her love all across the states. She sings the praises of Minnesota’s lakes country in “Elizabeth Minnesota” and “There’s a Yellow Cedar Waxwing on the Juneberry Bush.”
“I love that lake country and farm country where they meet,” she says.
She turns her attention to western North Dakota and the oil boom in “You’ve Never Been to North Dakota” and “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline.”
The latter came from a place of anger when she saw what oil companies were doing to the environment and communities, but she stresses her frustration was strictly aimed at the companies, not the employees.
“I can’t fault who has gone to work out there. Everyone needs to make a living. It was more about corporate interests from out of state,” she says.
Leigh says it’s unfortunate that people either think of the oil boom — or now the state being a coronavirus hotspot — when they think of North Dakota, adding that when she was in Texas, she would talk to some people who couldn’t place the state on a map.
“I often felt like I was from outer space,” she says. “I want others to see the beauty in it that I see.”
She paints those pictures in old-style ballads, like “I Love the Lonesome Prairie” and “Prairie Funeral.”
“‘Prairie Funeral’ still gets me choked up,” she says of her ode to the old pioneers. “I know it's egocentric to say your own song touches you. It’s a song about changes and the loss of the old ways. That’s what I go back to and think about.”
Others are seeing the beauty in the land through her work. In the album's liner notes, country star and sometime collaborator Rodney Crowell likens Leigh to the musical offspring of singer-songwriters Loretta Lynn and Guy Clark.
Crowell isn’t the only one who gets it. Alt country singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks liked what he saw and heard in Leigh and agreed to produce the album.
“I couldn’t have had a better person produce this record,” she says. “He acquaints himself so deeply with the material. His strongest suit was climbing into the songs emotionally. He wanted to tell a story with an arc.”
Similarly she praises Steve Albini for recording and engineering some of the tunes. Albini is hardly a Nashville name as the Chicago-based artist is better known for recording alt rock bands like Nirvana and Pixies.
“Steve has a great ear. It’s not genre-specific, he just hears well. He operates by sense,” she says.
Proud of the album, she’s anxious for others to hear it, but in the midst of a pandemic, traditional ways of promoting an album, particularly touring, are not an option. In addition to various dates around the country, she had to cancel tours to Norway and the United Kingdom.
“The sad thing in all of this for me, I’d really hoped doing this would bring me home more. I know people back home will relate to it most of all.”
Hear or buy the album at https://brennenleigh.bandcamp.com/album/prairie-love-letter.