There’s something to be said about hearing a song and being able to sense an artist’s heart in the music. No fillers to be found; just pure heart and soul.
The songs Dusty Leigh releases admittedly mean a lot to her; whether she had a hand in writing them or not, she won’t release a song that doesn’t make the hair on her arms stand up the way Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire and The Judds did for her. Whether it’s songs about loss, motherhood or the effects of drugs and alcohol, Leigh approaches each song with the care it deserves, all the while, being unafraid to expand her sonic horizons. That approach has culminated in the release of her debut collection of songs, aptly titled Roots & Dreams.
We chatted with Leigh about overcoming stage fright, all about the Roots & Dreams collection, what she hopes listeners take away from it, her plans for more new music and more!
Pro Country: Who were some of your early musical influences that had an impact on your sound?
Dusty Leigh: I was lucky enough to be brought up on an eclectic group of genres. My mom was a big 80s hair band fan, bands like Journey and Foreigner. My Dad loved Bob Seger, John Cougar and Joe Cocker. On the flip side, my mom was also big into George Jones, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. I got a good taste of quite a few genres, but I think the artists that I resonated most with because of their vocal ability and the ability to make the hair on your arms stand up were The Judds and Reba, and my all-time favorite is Dolly. I love her storytelling ability, but at the same time, she’s never too serious to make fun of herself. I love that she’s kind and how great of a person she is.
PC: What was it about those artists, and music in general, that was resonating with you so early in your life?
DL: I think it was the different variations of emotions that the songs made me feel. Even to this day, I’ll hear songs by Bob Seger and Joe Cocker, and they just have this feeling and emotion to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s happy, sad, sorry or something else, it’s just a matter of how they present themselves. A lot of music has that ability. Some can instantly make you happy, while others can make you cry for hours. That’s something that resonated with me, and that’s something that I try to invoke in the songs that I record and write.
PC: Your bio mentions that when you started performing, you experienced stage fright. How were you able to combat it and become more comfortable on stage?
DL: Peanut butter whiskey [laughs]. I’m not a huge drinker, but when I first started performing live, it was debilitating. I used to throw up before shows. I could barely control myself. I kind of got that under control, but I remember one show in particular when I was opening for Parmalee a few years ago, I called my dad right right before I went on saying that I couldn’t do it and that I was going to pull a Waylon Jennings. He told me to go find something to drink, take a shot and get on stage. I ended up getting Jack Daniels on the rocks about 36 seconds before I went onstage [laughs]. I don’t need it most of the time anymore, but it’s still fun to tear it up a little bit.
PC: At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue music as a career?
DL: I always wanted to pursue music, even when I was a kid. As a kid, I always loved to sing. Never in front of anybody, of course, but I was probably about 11 or 12 when my mom really took notice that I had a singing ability, and of course she dragged me to every talent show from here to Kingdom Come, which I blame for the stagefright [laughs]. I knew music was something that I wanted to do, and I grew up in an age where LeAnn Rimes had just made it big as a child star. I cut a demo when I was around 15 that was sent to BMI Records, and we had some conversations with them about doing some recording, but then my mom passed. Things kind of got pushed on the wayside, and the deal wasn’t that important when compared to that. I married young, and we were a military couple and had kids young. Music was always prevalent and I always sang the National Anthem for a lot of military things, but there was nothing really on a professional level. Once my kids got older, my husband secretly put a band together, basically knowing that I would go kicking and screaming, and then there was no turning back from there. It was always present since I was a kid, but it just didn’t function the way it should until I could no longer give excuses.
PC: You released “Like You Were Forbidden” with Dave Nudo in August of 2019. How did that collaboration come together?
DL: Dave had written the song and sent it to my husband, who called me on the way to work one morning asking me if I wanted to hear it. I immediately loved it, and I sent a text back asking if he thought Dave would let me sing it as a duet with him. I kind of said it as a joke, but he sent a screenshot back of a conversation he was having with Dave where he asked if I would want to do it with him as a duet. It went from there, and it turned into a duet and I love it!
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release solo music for the first time with your single “Ninety Nine Halos” in February of 2020?
DL: “Ninety Nine Halos” is really special to me. Dave Nudo wrote the song, and I worked with Dave to make it my own. It’s an ode to my dad, who passed away in 2016. We wrote it three years ago. For people that had met my dad, they could understand it, but my goal in doing that song was for all the people that didn’t have the pleasure of meeting my dad, they would get an overview of why I thought he walked on water. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve made it through that song without crying, and then I look out in the crowd and other people are crying, and I’m also sympathy crier, so I lose it again [laughs]. The first time I sang that song, I was more nervous about getting through it and performing it in a way that would make my dad proud. It was never really a nervous, stagefright thing, I wanted people to resonate with the song the way I do, and make them feel like I do. I’m thankful that it was my first single because I have so much passion behind it. Everything else from there was gravy for me [laughs].
PC: “Ninety Nine Halos” has since gone on to earn nearly 25,000 streams since its release. Is there a certain level of validation that comes with seeing that number on your debut release?
DL: I tend not to look at the numbers, and I don’t mean this to sound big-headed or ungrateful, but I feel like it should always remain about the music and not be so much of a popularity contest. I’m definitely so thankful for everybody who loves it and the people who have bought and streamed it, because that was ultimately my goal. I think it’s resonating because everybody has lost somebody, and I feel like people can use that song to resonate with their loss or the way they’re feeling about a loss. I lost my mother at 15, and I think maybe the difference for me was at 15, you’re a kid and don’t really understand the way that your adulthood is going to be shaped because of that. And then losing my dad in my thirties, I felt like that was harder to deal with. My main focus with that song was to let people see the raw emotion of it. One thing I do during shows is tell people the back story. Usually when you’re out at a honky tonk with people having a good time, it’s tough to just hit them with a debbie downer [laughs]. I try to tell people so they understand why I’ve killed their buzz. I feel like that might help a little bit. It’s not just another sad song, I feel like it gives people a reason to listen to the lyrics.
PC: “These Troubled Times” is the lead track of your two-song single Roots & Dreams, Vol. 1 and was written by Corey Grubb. Can you talk about what drew you to cut the song?
DL: Corey is a good friend of ours, and he’s an amazing songwriter. It comes together for him so easily, and he’s just so comfortable in his own writing. He’s got a really classic, folky sound that kind of reminds me of early John Prine. He sent me that song, and I asked him if I could cut it because I liked it that much! It was a little bit different than “Behind the Whiskey,” and I wanted to have something a little lighthearted. I’m drawn to ballads; I’m a very nostalgic, emotional singer. I love those sappy songs that tap into your emotions and throw your heart on the ground and stomp on it, but I love cutting loose and having a good time as well.
PC: “Oh, Atlanta” is a track that has been made famous by Little Feat and Allison Krauss. What drew you to cut the song and include it on Roots & Dreams, Vol. 1?
DL: When Allison’s debut CD came out in 1995, there were two songs on the album that I was super drawn to. The first one was “Oh, Atlanta,” and I remember driving in the car with my mom, and she was the one that said it was a cover of a Little Feat song. I loved the song and loved listening to her version of it, and then I got to see her live a couple times; I love the way that they do that song live. I just always wanted to do a version of that it. I’ve been doing it at karaoke for a long time. It’s another folky, bluegrass type of song. I recorded that here in Boise, and we did it in one take. I had so much fun. It’s also such a crowd favorite when we play it live; we always get such a great response from it.
PC: “Behind the Whiskey” is the opening track on Roots and Dreams, Vol. 2 and a song you had a hand in writing. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the song?
DL: That song was written with my husband and our bass player. It’s a song about watching alcohol and drugs have their effects on people. It’s a ballad and a tearjerker, of course, but a lot of people can relate to it. We actually recorded that song before I was signed to a label. We had put it out independently, and we got really good feedback from it. I felt like there could be so much more to it, so when I signed with EMG Records, I wanted to do justice to that song. I wanted to hear it on an elevated level, and I knew it had that potential. We pitched it to the label, and we rearranged it just a little bit to make it a little more cohesive, and when I got it back from mastering, I loved it. I felt like it had the edge that it needed, and we’ve gotten such a great response. When we had to pull it down off of the platforms when I signed, I got a lot of messages about that [laughs]. I was telling people to just be patient and that there would be a new version. So far from what I’ve heard, they approve of the new version!
PC: “Alone Another Night” from Roots & Dreams, Vol. 2 is a heavy-hitting, emotional song about regrets. Was it at all important to have an introspective song of that nature included on this release? What do you hope listeners take away from the song?
DL: We get a lot of songs pitched to us. I listen to all of them, but I can honestly say within the first 10 or 15 seconds, I can tell whether or not it’s a song that I will record. I say that because my dad always told me that if I’m singing a song or writing a song, you have to make people believe it. If you don’t feel the emotion or the message that you’re trying to convey, they won’t either. That’s something that I really hold close to me. I know that instrumentation can be changed, but it has to be a song that I can 100% stand by. When I heard that song, I didn’t even make it to the chorus, and I told my husband that I loved it. It was kind of an outside perspective, hindsight being 20/20 song. I really liked the vocal challenge that it provided. Aside from the duet and “Ninety Nine Halos,” which were also a bit challenging, I kind of wanted to step out of my comfort zone and dip my toes into a little bit more of an alternative country sound. That’s a little bit different from what I normally do, and I like the challenge that it provided. It’s a song that I worked on for a good couple of months because I really wanted to give it my all and be able to say that it was a song that I really worked on, because I want people to be able to believe it the way that I did.
PC: “Alone Another Night” has already earned well over 30,000 combined streams. What do you think it is about that song that is allowing it to connect with listeners the way it has?
DL: I’d like to think it’s the song’s message about letting go of our struggles that resonated with people. That’s what grabbed my attention when I first heard it. It’s a lyrically written question about where we could be if we let go of our insecurities and made strides in the right direction; the possibilities would be endless and it gives people hope.
PC: “Make Me Stay” is sonically unique from all of the other songs on the Roots & Dreams collection. Can you talk about the sonic inspiration you approached the song with?
DL: The final cut of this song is quite a bit different than the demo. It was one of the only songs I had an immediate vision for how I wanted it to sound musically. I knew I wanted a defining cello presence as well as additional string notes throughout the track because I felt like it would tie the melodic aspects of the lyric together. It made it easy to find the emotion in my voice when adding the vocal tracks.
PC: “AdriAnna” is a song you co-wrote with your husband, as well as Joel Rodely, about your daughter. What has that song meant to both yourself and your family?
DL: “AdriAnna” came at a time when our youngest daughter was in middle school, and like our own struggles during that time, it had been a difficult transition for her: bullies, new surroundings, etc. As a parent, there’s times you feel so helpless in helping your children navigate the difficulties of growing up. Things are so different, kids are much more bold in their cruel intentions than I think they were when we were kids. Social media can be a horrible platform to destroy someone, and those effects are everlasting.
As a mom and a singer/song-writer, I can express my hopes and thoughts much better in a song than a face-to-face pep talk that doesn’t provide much relief. I never imagined it would be a song that resonated so well amongst other parents and their kids!
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from the entire Roots & Dreams collection after listening all the way through?
DL: I hope listeners can hear the heart and dedication I poured into picking out/writing each song that made this EP. It was the fulfillment of my childhood dream and the first accomplishment after signing with my label. I am proud of how it turned out and hope they’re songs that continue to reach people and are listened to for years to come.
PC: Of the things you can control, what are your plans for 2021?
DL: 2021 is full of surprises! Some I’m not at liberty to share just yet, but one I can share is I have already picked the songs for my next album. I hit the studio next week to begin recording and can’t wait to finish up a few songs I’m writing for it too!
*Dusty’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*
**All images courtesy of Dusty Leigh website**