In country music, perhaps more than any genre, authenticity is key. If an artist is conforming with certain beliefs, just for the sake of fame and fortune, the camaraderie that an artist builds with their fan base is not truly genuine.
Leslie Tom is unashamed of who she is and what she represents, and it is that fearlessness that has allowed her to grow a loyal fan base all across the globe, and allows her to spread her brand of traditional country music.
After initially trying to find a record deal in Nashville, Leslie has done things her own way, building a following on her music and who she is as a person, not on her age, looks, or any of Nashville’s other clichés.
In this interview, hear from Tom about coming to the realization that a record deal in Nashville wasn’t her path, the stories behind some of her most personal songs, her newest album, “Ain’t It Something, Hank Williams,” and more!
Pro Country: Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Leslie Tom: Definitely Hank Williams. I know that may sound kind of cliché. My parents divorced when I was maybe a year old, then remarried within a year, and stayed married to the same people my entire life. My dad would come pick me up from my mom’s house, and he would play Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline; really, the old stuff. So those were my musical influences since the time I was 18 months-old.
PC: Was there a specific moment you knew you wanted to make music for a living?
LT: That’s a great question. I still don’t make it for a living, I make it for debt (laughs). I’m joking, but there’s three or four jobs that most people at my level have to have in order to keep doing what they love.
This is kind of strange, but I’ve always been involved with music. From the time I was in first grade, I went to a music academy in Corpus Christi, Texas called Chula Vista School of Fine Arts. It really just focused on art, whether it was literally art or music. I learned to play violin when I was six. When I was in second grade, we moved to a suburb of Corpus Christi, and I started playing piano until middle school. In middle school, I played the clarinet, and in high school, I was in choir. Music has always been a really important part of my life.
I got married the wrong time in 2000, and my ex-husband was a musician, so I was very supportive of his career. I guess it was about 2003 or 2004; before American Idol came out, NBC’s Today Show had this program where they were inviting people to come by and sing, and I had this goal in my mind that I was going to go audition for that show. The problem was that I had acute stage fright. Any time I would have any kind of performance, especially if I had to do it by myself, I would become violently ill and my voice wouldn’t work. So I ended up taking a group vocal class, and it was a really great experience because everybody was so supportive in that class. I’m sure we were all terrible, but the teacher was really nice, and I thought, “I really want to do this,” and then I started getting a high off of performing, even though I was so nervous. I told myself that I was going to keep doing it because I love to sing and I love the classic country, so that’s kind of how it all started.
PC: Were you feeling any type of pressure, internally or externally, as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your “High Maintenance” album?
LT: Not really. That was so long ago that things have changed. Back in those days, I really wanted a record deal. I was thinking that I was going to move to Nashville, and I was going to be the next big thing. I just remember my producer at the time, Bill Green, his wife had a promotions company, and they did radio promotions. They sat down with me and said, “Look, we know you love Martina McBride, but there already is a Martina McBride. You need to find out who you are as an artist and be yourself. Don’t try to replicate somebody else.” I started off by doing a bunch of Opry shows in Texas, and I would travel to all these shows and I would sing classic country songs. That was a really great way to cut my teeth because were, and I would assume still are primarily, elderly people, and they are so forgiving. They don’t care if you miss a note, or all the things that happen when you’re first starting to perform and entertain. I still get nervous, but nothing like it used to be.
PC: You mentioned that when you first moved to town, you were searching for a record deal. What was it like coming to the realization that getting a record deal might not be the path for you?
LT: It’s one of the hardest things I have ever had to accept. When I tell you it was painful, I couldn’t even go back to Nashville for a while. I can remember living there, and I was dating the right husband that I’m married to now, and we went to a Coldplay concert at Bridgestone arena. We had been out on the boat, and perhaps I had consumed a couple of cocktails and not in my right mind, but I remember going into the ladies’ restroom in Bridgestone Arena, going in to a stall, calling my dad in Texas, bawling my eyes out, saying, “It’s over. It’s never going to happen for me. The dream is over.” I don’t remember what he said, I just remember being literally doubled over with pain. All of these things that I wanted for myself were never going to happen. Here’s the interesting thing; it had nothing to do with music. It had everything to do with how old I was.
PC: What kind of validation do you feel now that you’ve gained a fan base and have been getting attraction without a label?
LT: I think it’s a lot more rewarding, because people are so kind and they don’t care how old I am. They don’t care what I look like. Especially in Europe, people are so great over there, they love traditional country music. I do feel like there is a bit of an uptick in our kind of music, even though it’s still a niche, there is a bit of an uptick where people are kind of going back to that sound. It’s not coming out of Nashville so much. I hate to say this, but I haven’t listened to a real radio station in years. I listen to XM if I’m in the car, and I listen to Spotify. I’ve found some really great artists on Spotify. Also, just talking to other people, and asking who they are listening to. I think it’s really great to see this movement of people who are either the Ameri-politan movement, which is more of the outlaw/honky tonk or western swing and that movement.
I love that we have a label where we can kind of fit in, because what is being pushed out by the mainstream is not, in my opinion, country music. It’s really hard, as an artist, to think that some of these people are terrible, like the music is terrible. And yet these are the people who are getting all the glory for being these great artists. It’s hard for me, and women are definitely not getting much love out of Nashville. So all of those things are a bit challenging for me. I have a six-year-old daughter, so I’m very sensitive to this; about being authentic to who I am, and not hiding things like my age. When I was in Nashville, if you were older than 25, and I was 30 when I moved to Nashville, then forget it. You are done. It had nothing to do with music or songwriting or anything. It was just about the number.
One of my dreams since I cut my first record in 2006 was to write a song with Becky Hobbs. I cut a bunch of songs on my first record that Becky wrote, and I just have so much respect for her as a writer and as a woman. There’s this unspoken rule in Nashville who is more successful than you to write. It’s just one of those weird things. If you’re there playing the game, I can understand why some people feel that way, because it took them 20 years to get to the point where they were able to write with somebody who has had a hit. I kind of get where they’re coming from, but I also think it’s a little bit weird, because it doesn’t apply if you’re an artist that somebody has taken a liking to, then you can write with somebody more advanced. If you’re a songwriter, there’s just this weird game that you have to play.
I am a rule follower by nature. I’m somebody who is very respectful. I lack self-confidence in that realm sometimes, especially when it comes to Nashville, because people can be so mean. I made a decision a couple of years ago; I don’t care what anybody thinks, if there’s somebody I really want to write with, I’m just going to ask the question. If they say no, they say no. I’ve known Becky for many years, and we went and had coffee while I was in town writing, and I told her, “Becky, it has been a goal of mine to write with you for 10 years. I have been working and working and working, and I’m in a place now where I feel like I could provide something that you could contribute to.” She told me absolutely. We talked, and we had this really in-depth conversation about age and women and how you look. She told me, “I’m so proud of you for standing up for yourself. Quite frankly, it’s bullshit that if you’re over 25, all of a sudden, you’re irrelevant. In any other industry, if you’re in your 40s and 50s, you’re in the peak of your career and doing great things.” So I thought that even though it’s hard, because I don’t want to be dismissed as irrelevant because of my age, I don’t want to perpetuate that cycle, and I don’t want my daughter to think that she can’t do something because someone tells her she can’t because she’s a girl or because of her age or how she looks. Because of that, I’ve made it my mission to be honest about my age, I’m 42, and just own it. Even though sometimes it’s hard (laughs).
PC: “I’ll Take the Fifth” has become one of your signature songs. What do you think it is about that song that has struck a chord with people the way it has?
LT: It is just good ol’ country music. Becky Hobbs wrote that song, and I love her. It’s one of those songs that is perfect because of its play on words. I think it just speaks to people!
PC: “I’m Together Again” from “The Second Act” EP is one of the standout songs in your catalog. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind that song?
LT: It was after I married the wrong one. I wrote that with Billy O’Rourke. I remember after I got divorced in 2006, it was right when my first record came out. Even though I felt like a caged bird finally spreading her wings to fly, it was really freaking hard. It was an amical divorce, my ex-husband is a really great person, we just never should have been together. It’s one of those things that happens when you get married at 23 years-old. It was like I jumped from the frying pan into the fryer, the first guy that I dated for an extended period of time was a thousand times worse than my ex-husband would have ever been on his worst day. I felt like I was never going to get my life together again, and it felt like things were never going to be back to what felt normal. So that song was me saying, “Okay, I’ve got my pickup, I’ve got my own little house, I’m together again. I never thought I would be able to look in the mirror again and be proud of what I saw staring back at me, but it’s okay, I’m going to get past it. I’m getting past it, and I’m getting to a better place, and I’ve got people that love me, and it’s okay.” I wanted it to be okay for other people who were going through a really difficult time as well.
I didn’t do very much with that record, I’m surprised you even know about that song, that’s impressive! We put that record out in 2012, and literally two weeks after the CD release party, 23 weeks pregnant, and went in to pre-term labor while we were on vacation in New York, and I was basically on bedrest in an apartment in Manhattan for three months. It was a really horrible time in my life, thank God everything turned out okay, but that record did nothing, we did a CD release party, and that was it.
PC: Why did you decide to make your third project a self-titled EP?
LT: I had a new producer, new found self-esteem, it was me. I’m here, I’m doing this, I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of the music we’re putting out, proud of the studio musicians that we worked with, so proud of the guys that are in my band, and I’m so honored to be able to work with John Macy and be on his label, Coastal Bend Music. So I thought, it’s just me. This is me, take it or leave it. I’m not trying to pull a fast one on anybody and be something I’m not. This is me, this is what I feel like right now, and this is what we’re doing!
PC: “Every Other Friday” is a powerful song on your self-titled EP. Was it almost cathartic to put that experience into words in that way?
LT: Oh my gosh, I just got a lump in my throat when you said that. I wrote that song with Linda Koehl, and it’s about my dad. I remember Linda and I were sitting in her house, and I said, “We have to write a song about my dad.” I’m sure this happens to a lot of people; you go through times where you’re not as close to your parents. My dad and I had gone through some struggles. After my daughter was born, all of the things that seemed like they mattered all seemed so trivial. What really mattered to me is the influence my dad really did have on my life. After I became a parent, I very quickly realized that at any moment in time, we may lose our minds and yell at our kids, but you’re doing the very best that you can in that moment. I think I just had this realization that no parent is perfect, and my dad was doing the best that he could back then. One of those things I can do is say thank you so much for every other Friday. When I was riding shotgun in my dad’s F-150, and he would play those classic country songs. Those things matter. I can tell you my dad is almost 72, and I’ve seen him cry when his sister passed away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1998, and when his mom died. I texted him after we finished the song, and I asked, “Can you get to a quiet place? I’ve written something with Linda, and I need you to listen to it uninterrupted.” My dad is just a south Texas cowboy, he’s not an emotional man at all. I texted him the song, and he told me that he was literally crying.
The first time I played it for him was at a bar in Austin. He just ran up to the stage, in front of everybody, and hugged me and cried, and I cried, and we all cried. It’s one of those songs that will always have a special meaning to me and my dad, because sometimes, I think we don’t have the words to say how we’re feeling about somebody, and if you’ve been given the gift from God to put it in a song, maybe it says it better than we can ever say it in our own words.
PC: “Didn’t Think Twice” is a great tribute to your grandfather. How important was it for you to pay tribute and honor him in that way?
LT: That song has meant as much to me as almost anything I’ve ever written. Amazingly enough, it keeps growing legs, so we are getting ready to re-release that with new lyrics on June 6, which is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It is in a documentary called “The Path to the Past,” and another grandchild of a solider that was a tank driver in the 3rd Armored Division like my grandfather. His grandson has written and released this documentary. We connected through the 3rd Armored Division Association Veterans, and he put “Didn’t Think Twice” in the documentary. We’ve done a new video, Billy O’Rourke and I updated the lyrics, and it’s very specific to World War II veterans through this re-release. The original version was more generic, and hopefully any veteran could identify with it, but this new version is specifically for World War II.
For me, my calling from Christ and what God has put on my heart to do with any kind of extra money that I get, or any sort of philanthropic work that I do will always be a couple of things: active-duty military and their families, veterans, or police officers, because my brother is a police officer. Those are my three areas that I work, and when we released “Didn’t Think Twice” in 2017, 100% of the proceeds went to the Travis Manion Foundation, which was incredible. I think we’ve been able to raise awareness of veterans’ issues with that song. It’s a great way to show respect for the men and women who have served at our live shows, and I may actually get to go back in September to the 75th anniversary of the 3rd Armored Division’s last days in Belgium and France, and play it over there, which would be incredible too. It’s definitely a song that means a lot to me.
PC: “Ain’t It Something, Hank Williams” is an interesting album of covers and Hank-inspired originals. How did the idea to do that kind of album come to you?
LT: I think it’s really hard to cover Hank Williams. He is one of the most prolific songwriters in American history as far as I’m concerned. He was the father of all kinds of music, but more specifically, my kind of music. It’s hard to take his songs that are so well-known and cover them, so we decided to do some covers that are kind of in our own way, re-doing them a little more modern, but still paying tribute to him. Then I thought, instead of doing an album of covers, which is not really my jam, I want to write some songs about Hank Williams. We wrote a song called “Audrey’s Song,” it’s a song about if I were Audrey Williams, and my husband divorced me, and married somebody else pretty quickly, how would I feel about that? We wanted to write a song to pay tribute to what she was probably going through. I think just overall, what his influence has been in the history of American music, and specifically country music, I was a little bit nervous about what people were going to think of the record. From a media standpoint, I cannot believe the reviews that we’ve received and the support. I’ve been nominated for a couple of awards, which is really exciting! It’s a record I’m really proud of, because it’s pretty different, but we’re staying pretty true to our sound, so it was a fun project to do!
PC: Where do you sense that you’ve grown the most since your “High Maintenance” album?
LT: I think everywhere. If you’re not growing in 13 years, then there’s probably something wrong. You need to take a step back and figure out what you’re doing incorrectly. I feel like I’m a stronger songwriter, and I think a lot of that has to do with just living life, and having a lot of life experiences. I pretty much write with the same people, and I don’t expand that circle very often, because to me, songwriting is so personal. I usually write about something that I’ve lived; very rarely do I write about something that I haven’t been a part of, or that I’m not truly inspired by.
I learned how to play guitar, which is something that I thought I would never be able to do, even though I’ve played a bazillion instruments, guitar has been super stinkin’ hard for me. I don’t aspire to be a lead guitar player, I’d rather surround myself with really strong musicians, but the fact that I can sit down with a guitar and sing a song by myself, or go to my daughter’s Kindergarten class and sing Christmas carols, it has been awesome. That is a huge accomplishment in itself, even though I’m not very good, and I own that. I can do it well enough. So I think I’ve just grown overall.
I’m still the same girl I was 13 years ago; I still have the same insecurities that I have to work on, I still care what people think about me, I don’t like when people are mean, all those things are still there. But I’m also a lot stronger, and I work really hard to be authentic. I think that is so important. In a world that is full of people who have Photoshopped images everywhere, things that aren’t the reality of how life is every single day, so I try to be authentic and kind and understand that when I meet people, everybody has their own experiences that lead them to where they are; they may think differently than me or look differently than me or have different backgrounds than me, but that’s okay. I try to find common ground, and I think that’s how we bridge that gap with what feels like a gaping hole in our society right now. Those things are important. I think the more that I get out and meet people and be open to things that are very different, the more I grow. I’m very proud of that, because I grew up in a very conservative family that has done things the same way for years and years, and that’s okay, but I don’t think I quite understood how awesome it is to be around people that are very different than me until I opened my mind. I’ve changed a lot as a person.
PC: You’ve played with or opened for major artists such as the Lee Roy Parnell, Gene Watson, and Josh Turner, among others. What can you take away from those experiences that can help you in your own career?
LT: Lee Roy is so nice. He’s just a good, down-home guy. Every time I’ve been around him; and it was a lot more earlier because my ex-husband played in his band, so I was always around him, and he was just a really great guy.
I played with Gene Watson in Scandinavia in 2008, and his voice is just so beautiful. He was very kind and a really nice guy, as was Johnny Bush, who also played at that show. To me, it’s important to be kind to people, especially people who are spending their hard-earned dollars to come watch you sing. You damn well better be nice to those people, because the minute you start getting high on your own horse, that’s the minute you get knocked off.
PC: What are your plans for 2019?
LT: So many great things! We are working on a new project, and I don’t know that it’s going to be an album. Originally, it was like, “Okay! I’m working on my fifth record!” John and I have talked about it, and CDs just don’t sell anymore. So do we want to spend thousands of dollars pressing CDs that are not going to sell, or do we want to come up with something creative and new, so we are working through that. I have about four songs so far, which is exciting, and we have quite a few more that are in the hopper and ready to go. I’m going to be shaking up my live shows a little bit; we’re going to incorporate some new music, so that’s really exciting! I hope to be able to announce some new festivals for this summer quickly, and one of them will literally be a dream come true for me, but the contract is not completely executed, and until it is, I don’t want to say anything yet. But we will probably go down to Texas and do some stuff, hopefully we’re going to be in Wyoming and Colorado. So playing a lot of the same places, putting out new music, and seeing how things go!