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Danni Leigh: no worries with a "Shot of Whiskey and a Prayer"

By Joel Bernstein, March 2001

Today's country music business is such a pressure cooker. Usually in interviews, a young artist with a new album expresses fears that if the album isn't a hit, they'll be dropped by their label.

Danni Leigh has been freed from those worries. When "A Shot Of Whiskey And a Prayer," hit the streets in February, Leigh already knew it wasn't going to be a hit.

And she'd been already been dropped from her label months before.

"It's the strangest thing I've experienced yet, the whole Sony thing," Leigh says.

The young Virginian is no stranger to music industry strangeness. Her first label, Decca, folded shortly after the release of her debut, "29 Nights." That's when she signed with Sony's Monument label, which was flying high with The Dixie Chicks.

Monument released the first single, "Honey I Do," with a big splash. There was a video and label showcases all over the country.

The single couldn't crack the Top 50. With top hits getting played for 30 weeks or more, getting a new artist to chart at all really isn't so bad, but try getting a major label to accept that. Her album, scheduled for last summer, was postponed.

The next single, Charlie Robison's "I Don't Feel That Way Anymore," was released with considerably less promotion and then got pulled when it wasn't getting much action.

"Sitting down, we decided it wasn't going to work. I felt they had lost steam with me. It was mutual."

Leigh feels like she learned something from the experience. "Don't spend it all on the first single. Then, you can't get out from underneath what you've already spent."

The album was scrapped, apparently never to see the light of day. Then, according to Leigh, "It's a very odd circumstance. Calls had already been made by the distribution department. They said 'We've got pretty good phones on this. We should try putting it out in limited quantities. We could recoup some of our costs...They're trying to put it out where the fans are asking for it."

She remains labelless, but Leigh has plenty of options.

"I just want my creative freedom. Creatively, I know myself well. Labels should get out of the way, and let artists do what they do. Artists need to start standing up and saying 'That's not me. I don't want to cut that song.' Some artists have forgotten who they are or don't even know. The artists need to start taking responsibility. I'm done with (major labels). I want to try doing things the way that's best for me musically."

Leigh is often called "the female Dwight Yoakam." - based on both her musical and visual style. "To me that's a compliment," says Leigh. "He has all the integrity in the world. He's never compromised. His image has always been so tasteful."

When they were touring together last year, "We laughed about it a lot...I started doing the hat over my eyes a long time ago. I've always liked a little bit of privacy, mystery. It's intriguing to people. I asked Dwight if it offended him, and he said absolutely not. I can't say enough great things about him."

Buck Owens, the king of Bakersfield, provided good advice. "He said, 'People have to compare you to someone else. They need a frame of reference. As long as they're comparing you to someone who is actually an influence, isn't that what you want?'"

From the time she was three years old, Leigh was telling everyone she would be a country music star. "When you get to be about 16, people start feeding you that pressure. 'What are you really going to do?' Guidance counselors start to doubt you."

Leigh didn't head straight to Nashville though. "I went to Orlando when I was 19. I didn't know enough musically. I wanted to find myself. I did a lot of cover songs, trying to figure out what I did better." Leigh also tried writing some songs, but "they really stunk back then."

Leigh's songs no longer stink. ' Around the time she signed to Decca, Leigh wrote a hit for Tracy Byrd "I Want To Feel That Way Again."

"I'm a strange songwriter," she explains. "It takes complete silence and no distractions for me to write. I have to write it down or tape it right then. Something has struck an emotion that's memorable. A lot of times you don't have the capability to write the entire song just then, but get something down on paper or tape. I won't ever be the type of songwriter to put out 500 songs in a short time. This year, I've got more songs coming out that I wrote myself."

For Leigh, the hardest part of songwriting was "I didn't want to admit how I was feeling emotionally. (A co-writer) would have to drag it out of me. You want to be able to trust the people you're writing with. Lately, I've been able to release my own emotions better. I've become a huge part of every song I write."

Despite her own increased songwriting, Leigh turned to some older material to fill out her album.

And rather than mine the usual veins, she dug deep for some hidden nuggets - in particular, "Honey I Do" and "Chain Gang" from overlooked great albums by, respectively, Stacy Dean Campbell and Bobby Lee Springfield.

"I was always a big fan of Stacy Dean. I was looking first at (his) 'Hurt City.' Such a great track. Sometimes you don't want to repeat something that was so good in the first place. Springfield was a character. In small circles, he's huge. He had his own TV show. 'Chain Gang' sounded like something I'd write."

For this album, "Richard (Bennett) and Emory (Gordy Jr.) set out to 'whatever happens in the studio goes to tape.' The musicians you choose are artists in their own right. A producer dictating what they should play is only stifling. They broke down the demo to acoustic guitar, gave it to the musicians that way and let them do what they do. On old records, you can hear the mistakes. The beautiful part of music is that it's a natural thing You could hear everyone's heart beating."

"I would love for commercial radio to play my music...I can only do what is honest musically. This album is what I considered to be extremely commercially viable."

Without a label to promote her, Leigh has to find ways to keep herself in the public eye. Her website will have copies of her album to sell even if some stores don't. She'll be touring a lot. Plans were just announced for Leigh to tour with Seattle honky-tonk band The Souvenirs serving as her backup band, while also getting to do some of their own material. The expenses of touring without a label to pay for it are so high that arrangements like this are likely to become more common. "You have to be willing to do it without showboating," Leigh says. "I'm going out in a van. I've had to find people that committed."

And there's the international market. With its industry less dependent on radio, Europe has always been a big area for traditional country artists. "We're going over again in June. I've been able to create an international market. Other countries find out about us through video. It does so much for me to travel outside the country."

"I'm happy. I may sing sad songs, but I'm having the time of my life doing what I love to do. As long as there are people who want to see me play my music, I'll get out there to play it."