Country music is the stories of people and the places they’re from, with the varied and vast experiences of individuals from rural areas and even cities all coming together to form the rich tapestry that has made country music vital and diverse for so many decades. But of course as time has pressed on, regional dialects and local modes of music making have continued to be bled out of the music, along with personal perspectives tied to specific locales in favor of homogeneous one-size-fits-all offerings for radio formats formulated to appeal coast to coast.
For many years, Brennen Leigh was synonymous with country music in Austin, TX, where she was one of the stalwarts and fulcrums of the city’s music scene, performing with her own band, playing crucial roles in the projects of others, and generally being a proponent and booster of country music in the city. A few years ago she left Austin like so many of its most talented musicians have, and now Brennen is Nashville’s asset to brag about, playing on Lower Broadway at Layla’s and Robert’s Western World, as well as the historic Station Inn where so many of her heroes took the stage.
But her newest solo album is not about either of these towns. Instead it centers its attention on the Upper Midwest, and specifically the Minnesota and North Dakota region where Brennen grew up and first found her love for roots music and refined her chops in country and bluegrass. Conceptualized under the attempt to capture the hidden beauty and quaint serenity of the region, Prairie Love Letter is a passion project delivered with love and longing for a time and place apart from our own that is a shade more peaceful and easy.
It’s easy to soliloquize the expansive mountains or the rolling sea. It’s another to find inspiration in the expansive stillness of America’s midriff. But as Brennen Leigh can attest from her intimate acquaintance, those who’ve stood out in the vastness of the plains as a thunderstorm rolls in, or experienced the simplicity of life in a rural town or family farm, or been dazzled by the Northern Lights that you’ll never believe the brilliance of unless you’ve beheld them with your own eyes, the Upper Midwest holds a magic all its own.
In not one love letter, but 12 of them, Brennen Leigh puts words to the emotions that come welling up in memories of life on the Northern Plains, from the people in songs like “Billy & Beau” and “The North Dakota Cowboy,” to the places like the moving turn at the end of “Elizabeth, Minnesota.” Sometimes the picture is painted just as much or more with the sounds as the words like in the simple, but loving and forlorn, “I Love The Lonesome Prairie.”
The music of Prairie Love Letter is elemental—as simply stated as the region—revitalizing old time and early bluagrass modes into original songs mostly written by Brennen with glorious specificity that makes stories come to life in your imagination, embellished by appearances by long-time collaborator Noel McKay, contributions from Melissa Carper and Courtney Patton, and a host of quality pickers in sessions produced by Robbie Fulks. No drums are present on this mostly acoustic record.
With the heavily thematic specificity of approach to Prairie Love Letter, the album may not have as many “hits” so to speak as the 2019 release McKay & Leigh where Brennen assembled some of the best cuts of her mid career in one place. But the album is more cohesiveness in its storytelling, while “Don’t You Know I’m From Here” is as quality of a Brennen Leigh songs as any.
Some may also scoff at the message of “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline” as a foray into divisive subject matter. But it would be a dereliction when broaching the subject of North Dakota to not bring up how the petroleum industry looms large in the region in a very polarizing manner for locals and natives. By the end you also may feel a little tired about hearing about the same subject matter. But each individual effort remains special.
Brennen Leigh has always been regarded as a preeminent contributor to country music by those who know her. The issue has always been that she’s much more content haunting old bars on a nightly basis, and penning cuts for more widely-recognizable names like Lee Ann Womack and Sunny Sweeney than trying to fit herself into more commercially fulfilling roles. She can’t be anything but herself, and in Prairie Love Letter, Brennen is probably even more herself elemental self than in any other work to date.
7.5 of 10
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