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East Coast honky tonker looks west

By Jeffrey B. Remz, November 1998

Danni Leigh isn't anxious about being "stuck" with the label, the "female Dwight Yoakam."

Just the opposite.

"I love it," says the 28-year-old Virginian, who just released her debut "29 Nights," on the phone from Kansas City. "I think that's one of the best compliments anybody can pay to me to be honest. When I think myself of comparisons, I don't come as musically inclined as Dwight is...I'm definitely on the right path. That's where I want to be. I've always been a fan of his. I respect what he does."

"Dwight was kind of this way with Buck," the honky tonker says of the role model idea. "It's an awful high standard you're putting me against...I hope they keep on saying it. That means I keep making the right move upwards to that status. It puts some pressure on you. I wouldn't want my next record to come and people say, 'you blew it.'"

Leigh, who has a Patsy Cline feel as well vocally, comes across as being confident of her abilities and isn't afraid to stick to her guns.

"I'm hoping when people hear it, they'll say that's that Danni Leigh chick. There are so many people who can absolutely sing circles around me, but I put my heart into it. I hope people appreciate it."

"When I came to Nashville, I knew what it was that I did best. I've always enjoyed the East Coast country. I love Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight. Being from the east coast, I kind of slam the two of them together."

Another reference point is current California tonker Heather Myles.

"I definitely wanted people to know what my sound was - who I was musically - through my first record," Leigh says. "When I got into writing, more detailed writing, I realized that a very easy of doing that - letting people know who you are musically and personally - is to write the songs. What better way is there to write a song and tell people what experiences you've been through."

For starters, Leigh grew up a few miles from Winchester, Va., the hometown of Cline.

At 19, she left for Orlando, figuring she would work for Disney and sing.

But Mickey Mouse wasn't her cup of tea. Instead, she engaged in a variety of jobs including bungee jumping, unloading trucks and bartending, while doing music on the side.

One night, a man in sunglasses came to check her out. Soon, she was out on the road with Artemus Pyle of Lynyrd Skynyrd fame doing funk and ska.

Figuring she went about as far as she could in Orlando, Leigh made it to Nashville, her ultimate destination. She waitressed at the Bluebird Cafe club, but kept a low profile singing-wise because she figured no one else was doing the kind of material she liked.

And she wanted to keep it that way.

She got a manager, signed with Decca last year and quickly started recording. She had a hand in writing 7 of 11 songs on the disc.

Leigh wrote "Beatin' My Head Against the Wall" with boyfriend Kenny Alpin. They scheduled a writing appointment, common in Nashville. "We don't have anything to write about, but let's try...I looked at him. 'Do you have anything to write about? - No, do you - no.'"

"I'm flipping through my book and tossed around several ideas, but nothing was all that good yet. I got very frustrated because we'd been working for a good couple of hours. In my frustration, I stood up, walked to the wall real fast and jerked my cowboy hat off real fast and I said 'Why 's it so hard today? It's like I'm trying to beat my head against wall...Ken had his mouth open and said 'there's our song." Somebody has to have written it - nope. I'd never had that title written down. I had never thought of that before. When I acted it out, it's perfect."

"The outside songs (are) songs I've been through. I'm not a very good liar. I did that when I was a kid."

"I figured that's not a good way to go in my music because it would come through right away."

For the most part, Leigh escapes recording songs palatable for the commercial masses infiltrating country today by producers Michael Knox and Mark Wright, a Decca executive. There are a few uptempo, hard-edged songs, but not enough to mess with her musical mission.

"Any good producer is going to want to produce a record that everybody is going to like," Leigh says. "Producers are going to go in there thinking who's this going to appeal to. That's their job, but it's not my job. I cut music that I love. It just so happens that it's called hillbilly country. Hillbilly country likes to rock a little bit."

Leigh prefers writing with other people. She penned two songs with Monte Warden, former lead singer of The Wagoneers.

"I'm not very good at writing on my own. I think co-writing is very good only because lots of times when you're alone you don't want to come and say you're weaknesses. You want to hide that. You don't want to admit that. It's easier for me to talk to them, have them ask me questions."

"I've come out of writer's rooms so angry that I wanted to stomp someone...I've come out of rooms angry."

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