Nashville musician Andrew Leahey has something better than a catchy tune. He’s got a survival story.
Leahey makes what has been described as heartland rock, radio-friendly tunes influenced by such icons as Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams. The 33-year-old University of Virginia graduate is a fifth-generation Richmond native who began his music career in the Henrico schools and eventually played locally with members of Rusted Cavalcade, Robbie King from Trillions, Matt Morton from David Shultz’s band — with an EP co-produced by James Mason, now of Avers.
In 2011, Leahey settled in Nashville. There he works as a musician and journalist for numerous publications, most notably as a staff country music writer for Rolling Stone magazine, which opened a Nashville office in 2014.
Things were going great until an undiagnosed brain tumor upended his life that same year, requiring immediate surgery and months of recuperation. At the time, he was unsure whether he would wake up still being able to hear — or even wake up at all.
Things went well (he lost only 25 percent of his hearing in one ear) and now he’s back touring ahead of an upcoming album titled “Skyline in Central Time” with his band, the Homestead. The record on the Thirty Tigers label of Jason Isbell and Lucinda Williams was produced by Ken Coomer, a co-founder of Wilco and ex-Uncle Tupelo drummer who has become a Grammy-winning producer.
Style spoke with Leahey just as he was leaving the home of Vince Gill, whom he was interviewing for Country Week magazine.
Style Weekly: One song on the upcoming album “When the Hinges Give” addresses your health scare. Can you talk about that piece?
Andrew Leahey: In the wake of the operation, I couldn’t lift anything over 5 pounds. The doctor told me to sit on the couch for three months. My wife had to put the guitar in my lap so I could write. But that song is about a conversation we had in the two months between my diagnosis and the operation. I was told there was a good chance I might come out of it without my hearing, or my balance, or maybe not come out of it at all. So that was a long time to think about it. The song was about trying to make the most of that time, not dwell on the bad news, while not ignoring it either. I cannot perform it now without getting a lump in my throat. But I think that’s what makes it a good song.
How did you hook up with Rolling Stone?
The Times-Dispatch used to have this supplement called In Sync, that was my very first gig writing for a paper. I remember writing about Prabir in his early band. I wrote about the X-Ray Dudes who went to Varina High School. Music journalism was always Plan B if my music didn’t take off. After U.Va., I got good offers in New York and Michigan to work as a journalist; but I was having a hard time spending my days writing about people who were doing what I wanted to be doing. Rolling Stone opened an office in Nashville and the senior editor was Joseph Hudak, who I had written for at Country Weekly. He brought me over. It’s all country-based, but their definition is pretty broad. I wrote about Jenny Lewis, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell. And I still freelance for a lot of other people as well.
So do you help Richmond bands get noticed by Rolling Stone? Lucy Dacus who you’re playing with at Hardywood was just in the magazine [watch for an upcoming Style story on her new album].
I read that, but I had nothing to do with it. Part of me is worried about passing stuff along. It becomes more and more of a conflict of interest. I don’t want someone to be mad if I can’t do that for them. I’m purely a staff writer now, not so much making editorial decisions. One of my other worries is I’m going to wind up on the road touring with a band that I’ve trashed before in print, and they’re going to kick my ass. ... When I started getting good jobs in music journalism, I put my music on the back burner. Then in my late 20s I wanted to get back into it. I was bashful to tell my Richmond friends I wanted to get back into it, since they kept right on playing through their 20s. But they were totally encouraging. I really owe the Richmond music community in general for that. I’m not so sure I would’ve gotten back into music without them.
What’s the best thing about being a musician in Nashville?
The blessing and curse of Nashville, I think, is there are so many great players here but they’re all in demand. I now have a rotating door of 10 musicians, but when I go out on the road it’s just a four piece. I have back-ups if musicians aren’t available. For a while I didn’t like that about Nashville, but now I think it’s cool. It makes you better as a musician, you’ve got to be sure you can steer the band in the right direction regardless of personnel. Plus it’s cool just to play with different musicians.
The outlaw country thing is back in a big way: Dave Cobb producing anti-mainstream artists such as Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. I was happy to read that Cobb took over the historic RCA Studio A which was slated to be turned into condos last time I was there.
Yeah, totally. Dave’s a friend. I would love to get him to produce, but it didn’t work out for this project. He’s got a good ear for great vocalists who are also great writers . . . I met Dave when I was writing a big article on Jason Isbell in 2013, and he was still running his studio out of his house. Cobb is crazy young when you consider the breadth of what he’s done. He’s very approachable and loves texting random things. Jason Isbell is the same way. They love talking to people about music.
Are you OK with the heartland-rock tag?
Yeah, I’m pretty happy with that description. I really love Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. To me, they make American rock and roll, that’s what I want us to do. Americana gets tossed around a lot. But to me, it’s the kind of music you want to hear driving down the highway with blue skies, exhaust, all that land flying by your window. It’s good company to be called heartland rock, I think. S
A release party on Saturday, Feb. 6, for Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Raspberry Stout features Andrew Leahey and the Homestead, Lucy Dacus, Samantha Pearl and Horsehead. See hardywood.com for start time.