Songwriter Profile – Connie Leigh

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Connie LeighConnie Leigh is what might be called the songwriter’s songwriter. So many fellow writers have great things to say about her; Mark Brinkman describes her songs as “genuine, heartfelt and powerful;” Larry Cordle says this about her song writing abilities, “She has plenty to say and I love how she goes about saying it. Her songs reflect the things she has lived and observed in this life & her way of communicating them to us is absolutely wonderful to me”; and Larry Shell describes her contributions to a songwriter session that the duo had with Larry Cordle, “She had wonderful ideas and a fresh approach to some old themes in bluegrass and country music.”

She writes from the heart and isn’t ashamed to do so and as Jerry Salley comments, “Her songs are real, the characters in them are real and they connect with ‘real’ people.” The listener can easily understand and appreciate her words.

Leigh has been intrigued by music as far back as she can remember. At the age of 10 she was writing poetry and rhyming words. When 12 she began learning to play the guitar and by 15 she was beginning to write songs.

She has always had a desire to listen to music with a mountain sound. When her family relocated from Ohio to the hills of east Kentucky, she found an album of Flatt and Scruggs at the house they moved into. Connie would play it over and over and sing along with it. It was bluegrass music that she could best relate to and it has always remained deep in her soul.

However, she devoted many years to singing and recording Gospel music and believing that to stay true to the church she should limit herself to that style of music. Two life-changing events led to Connie realizing that the church could sometimes be unpardonable and she vowed to pour her heart into new bluegrass songs.

After finding that the album of bluegrass songs wasn’t going to earn her a recording contract, Connie was persuaded to focus on song writing and pitch her songs to other artists. A handful of top bluegrass artists liked her material so much that they recorded some of her songs. That was in 2005 and since then her songs have become even more highly sought-after.

That said, Connie remains very much down to earth, literally, helping her husband on their farm at Swifton in northeast Arkansas, from where she spoke to me about her song writing ……..

Who was the first bluegrass songwriter to make an impression on you and why?

I don’t know if Hank Sr. is considered a bluegrass writer or just country, but he has a profound effect on my song writing. I haven’t really studied his life story as far as how he grew up, but there was something about his writing that lets me know he had a dark, lonesome ole soul just like me. Things happened in my life that left me with a lot of emotion, and it comes out in a lot of my songs. Other writers who I admire are Larry Cordle, Larry Shell, Jerry Salley, and Carl Jackson. When I listen to a song, if it can touch the depths of my soul with a moral that is strong enough to catch my attention and strong enough to make me stop and think, then that writer has served their purpose in writing that song.

When did you start writing songs?

As a young teenager, I liked to enter local contests such as the 4-H competitions and beauty pageants. I was always so skinny and plain; I tried to have a better chance with the contests by writing my own songs. I wrote my first song at the age of 14.

When did you start writing bluegrass songs?

Although I only sang gospel music for quite a few years, I would have to say that my songs have always been classified as bluegrass. In 2002, I had major life changes occurring, and in my anguish, I began pouring my feelings into secular bluegrass songs. Attending the churches that I did in east Kentucky, it seemed that everything you did was judged one way or the other. Secular bluegrass music would have been considered a sin by many, so if it hadn’t been for pastors refusing to let me sing because of the word divorce, I probably would have never felt it was okay to write anything than gospel music. I am not saying I think divorce is great, but God knew my circumstances, and I didn’t do anything wrong. So I finally figured out that if people were going to judge me, they would do it no matter what I did. So I began combining writing secular music along with my gospel songs in the early 2000’s.

It is said that your song writing is an “emotional release”; is it cathartic also? Can you give examples please?

Yes, many of my songs would be derived from my own life and personal experiences. It has already been told that the song Behind Those Big Closed Doors contains events from my childhood in it. I wanted that song to have a strong moral and it does. People seem focused on the part that says she lost her innocence at four. The real moral of the story is about never judging other people; because honestly, only God knows what each of us have encountered in this life. We are unique individuals, and each of us handle life’s experiences in different ways.

Another of my songs that is cathartic would be I’ll Be Here Waiting for You. I recorded it on the Hillbilly Girl CD, and probably anyone listening to it would assume that it is about a woman in love with a married man. It is actually about my mother and sister. A few years ago, my mother informed me she didn’t want a relationship with me, yet she was extremely close with my sister. In my heart, I kept asking myself why she couldn’t love me as well as my sister. So I wrote that song with them in my mind and changed the characters as in a man and woman scenario. I write a lot of my songs like that. You would think it is a love song, but it isn’t at all.

What inspires you to write?

I am inspired by life, people, movies and just many things. I got the idea of Sadie’s Got Her New Dress On from the movie Scarlet O’Hara. There’s a scene that she had gotten so poor she couldn’t buy material to have a dress made and she used her expensive draperies. I love watching movies about how people struggled during that time and I got to thinking about how people used to consider you an old maid if you hadn’t married at an early age back then. Somehow, in my mind, I created the idea of Sadie.

You have three CD releases of your own; what was the first of your songs that was recorded by someone else and how did that happen?

I have actually recorded five recordings and the first song anyone ever recorded of mine was the gospel group Kevin Spencer and Friends. I had written a song called Let’s Feel That Spirit Again and while going to hear him in a concert, I handed him one of my cassettes and told him I had written all the songs on it. He called me about a month later and told me he would like to record that song. The next song I had cut was by another gospel group The Singing Cookes. It was a song I had written in the late 1990s called The Soldier and the Blind Boy. It talks of how the blind boy can see the soldier’s pain, who has lost both legs due to war.

Who else has recorded songs written by you?

Since adding secular songs to my writing catalog in 2005, I have had cuts by Larry Stephenson, Rhonda Vincent, Larry Sparks, Doyle Lawson, Dale Ann Bradley and others.

What have been the most successful songs that you have written and who recorded them?

Sadie’s Got Her New Dress On was recorded by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and stayed at the number one spot on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts for five consecutive months in 2007. Rita Mae which was recorded by Dale Ann Bradley; it also reached the number one position and in September of 2007, Sadie was at number one and Rita Mae was at number two. A song that Rhonda Vincent recorded on her last album also reached the number one spot on the Sirius Count Down Yonder chart for the most requested song of the week. That song was about my ex husband and the title was Who’s Cryin’ Baby? I wrote it the day I left him to file for divorce.

Which song that you have written gives you the most satisfaction and why?

Well, it takes a whole lot to make me cry. There have been a couple of songs I have written that were so powerful while writing, that I had to walk away from and come back to them because they made me cry trying to write them. One was the song Casualty of War, recorded by Larry Sparks, and another is going to be released on The Circuit Riders new album shortly called Four Yellow Roses. I feel they are two of my best songs ever put together. The Four Yellow Roses is about a woman trying to drink his memory away and although you will be led to think it is a man she is mourning. It shockingly tells of the tragic accident that took her little four year old boy away from her. So each Sunday she takes four yellow roses to his grave; one for each year he lived. It is a haunting song.

You have written songs with others. Who are they and what were the songs concerned?

I have written several songs with Larry Shell and Larry Cordle. We always have such fun writing together. We wrote a song called Don’t Take me Tonight that we all three love. It is about a woman who traded her red velvet church pew for a seat on a lonely old bar stool and it has a very strong message. We also wrote a great song called America, Where Have you Gone. It has some things in it that I am sure some might disagree with, but it is our beliefs, and I feel like, if you are afraid to stand up for what you believe, you are never true to yourself.

There is a young woman named Eirka Chambers that I co-wrote a song with while I was in Nashville one night. We had talked of going out to sing karaoke, but instead, I asked that we stay in. We ended up writing one of the most moving, beautiful songs I have ever felt inside me. It is called Sweet Willow Tree. It has the Cox Family sound to it. Other writers I have written with include Buddy Cannon, Ronnie Bowman, Jerry Salley, Tom T and Dixie Hall, and Rhonda Vincent.

What are the most recent songs that you have written and by whom are they being recorded?

Lately, I have been writing more by myself instead of co-writing. I have plans to release a recording of all new original songs hopefully this fall. There will be some of bluegrass music’s best pickers and artists on it with me. I am excited about that.

The Lonesome River Band has a new release with a song that I co-wrote with Larry Cordle called Mollie. Rhonda Vincent is releasing a song that we co-wrote on her upcoming album. Balsam Range is releasing the song I mentioned earlier that Shell, Cordle and I wrote, Don’t Take me Tonight. The Circuit Riders are releasing a gospel song I wrote called When I Bid This World Adieu as well as the sad song Four Yellow Roses. Larry Stephenson is also releasing two fun, upbeat songs I wrote called The Legend of Rhodie Mae and Holler Girl Thrills. I think he is a great bluegrass singer and his voice will do such justice to those songs. They both kind of have the Sadie feel to them.

Another new song is The Writing’s All Over the Wall, that Cordle and I wrote. It’s a duet on Alecia Nugent’s new album.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.