It's no surprise that singer/songwriter Tom Leach is being viewed as this generation's new country original. Nor is it a stretch to hold him up in comparison to the above named icons to emphasize that originality.
The only real surprise is that Leach is making music in the first place.
Leach's northern family moved to an Atlanta suburb during his formative years, resulting in a normal upbringing devoid of traditional Southern culture.
After high school, Leach studied painting at the University of Georgia in Athens in the early '80's, a time and a region that was particularly fertile for music. Still, he was not seduced by the atmosphere that inspired the likes of R.E.M., Mitch Easter and Pylon.
"Music was never really something that I wanted to do," Leach says from his current Boston home and base of operations. "I painted in college, then I dropped out and loafed for awhile. I used to go see every show that came, but by the end of it I had stopped going out, and I didn't really want to have anything to do with people who made music. I stayed away from them, and that continued when I moved to Boston because the rock scene was kind of ugly."
After Leach's marriage and relocation to Boston, fate intervened in a terrible fashion.
Leach's wife deserted him.
In his loneliness and anguish, he turned to an outlet he had previously discounted: music.
In listening to the likes of Haggard and Cash, Leach found his own muse. W with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a borrowed four-track recorder, Leach healed and purged his soul by writing, performing and recording over 100 songs in his spartan apartment.
Leach would have been content to leave his therapeutic tapes in a drawer. But he occasionally played them for select friends, who invariably asked him for a copy. One such copy wound up in the hands of Slow River Records' head George Howard, who contacted Leach and asked about releasing some of the songs as is, with virtually no studio sweetening.
"When I made that (first album), I wasn't expecting it to be available for people to hear," says Leach. "It was a pleasant surprise. When George said he wanted to put it out, I was flabbergasted. He seemed to believe in it. I never thought people would want to hear something so crude and personal."
The process of culling 16 songs from the 100 in Leach's tape archive proved to be a challenge. The quality of Leach's experimental recording, rather than quality of the song itself, proved to be the hurdle to clear.
"The songs that we picked for the record were basically the songs we could mix," says Leach of the selection process. "The way that I recorded most of the stuff was ass backwards, I guess you'd call it. When you have four tracks, you can pan and get up to, say, nine things on four tracks. We'd pull a song off one of the cassettes I had done, and give it to the engineer, and there'd be vocals and guitar and drums on one track and a tambourine on another, so there was not a whole lot that the engineers could do. We picked what we could work with sonically. It's not the best sounding record in the world, but that's what we used."
The resulting self-titled album became one of 1997's most talked-about releases. Reviews of the intensely personal and painful album were almost universally positive. Most were glowing in their praise of Leach as a gifted and original songwriter, picking up on the very real influences of Haggard and Cash.
Knowing that there would be a long gap between Leach's debut and his first work recorded specifically for Slow River, and in answer to fans who were clamoring for material by Leach and his new found band, Howard and Leach devised a plan to record live at Boston's New Alliance studio with an intimate audience of friends and fans.
The interim EP, "Tom Leach with Band: Recorded Live in Person," is a 23-minute marvel of raw performance and verve, a ragged and coarse rave-up that captures the true spirit of Leach on stage. (The disc is currently available only at Leach's shows, through Slow River by mail order or via the Internet at www.slowriver.com.)
Leach is currently at work on his next album, his first work in a real studio with real production values. His current plans are to finish recording by the end of November and then put together a UK/Scotland tour (where he has already toured twice since his first album). The new album should be ready to go by spring 1999.
"I did some recording down in Nashville, and that was a great experience," Leach says of the new album's sessions. "We're about halfway done. It's a brand new experience for me, and I don't want to overthink it, but I don't want to underthink it either. It's great, because it's sort of like a first record, but it's also sort of like a second record. And now it's sort of like a third record."
The biggest departure for Leach on his new recording has been the input of other people. His first album was a completely solitary experience, and the live EP was nothing more than Leach and the band plugging in and someone rolling tape. The process of actually crafting an album has been trailblazing for Leach.
"I'm not used to having other people around when I'm recording," says Leach. "I guess George is producing. That's what he calls it. We're kind of co-producing. His way of producing is to just kind of let things happen and maybe make a suggestion once in a while, and then go back to his crossword puzzle. That's the nature of our relationship."
The new album will likely feature members of labelmate Josh Rouse's band and Leach's own Boston band, as well as some guitar contributed by Merle Haggard's guitarist, Redd Volkaert.
The material that Leach is bringing to these sessions is a mixture of songs that have been around for awhile and a few new things written specifically for the album. With so many changes in his usual mode of operation, Leach is striving to keep his original intentions in mind on his new recordings.
"The great thing about working on a four-track is you can try anything and things don't exactly have to add up, and the instrumentation can be different from song to song, and I kind of want to keep that feeling," says Leach. "There's a way to make a coherent album out of it that way, I hope. I wanted to work with a bunch of different people on this record, and that's what we've done. But people work differently. And that, to me, is an exciting way to work through a record. New records today seem to sound like they come from just one place. To me, that's boring."
"But they're my songs, and I'll be singing them, so they'll come from that one place. I just want to try different things and make it something that I would listen to."