Where to start with Danni Leigh? Every man I know points out the obvious attributes; the woman is drop-dead, drool-on-the-table, slap-your-mama gorgeous. And looks like she’ll kick your ass if you say so impolitely. Mercy. In Nashville nowadays that’s a surefire ticket to a record contract and a sweet little thing’s God-given fifteen minutes (Mindy McCready, anyone?). Ms. Leigh’s publicity folks certainly know the power of beauty’s allure, as evidenced by the model-worthy promo pics on her website. But listen before you look and I think you’ll find that you fall in love with Danni Leigh for reasons far different and infinitely better than those you might expect.
While that looks hook can draw testosterone-laden alpha males to shows, thankfully Ms. Leigh has her soul set on offering a bit more. On her third album, Danni showcases the personal and resonating sort of performance that has made her career one of substance in the early going. And Divide and Conquer is a personal effort, make no mistake about it. The successor to 29 Nights and A Shot of Whiskey and a Prayer, both of which painted Danni as a traditional country crooner with the Clairol starlets dead in her crosshairs, this disc showcases a vocalist who knows where she came from and is damn sure aware of where she wants to go. Produced by Pete Anderson and compiled entirely by Danni herself, it’s a musical odyssey that in some places touches autobiography and in others just touches the rest of us right where we live.
Some have compared Leigh to country neo-traditional outlaw Dwight Yoakam (cue the Pete Anderson connection, but you knew that), and the two share a mutual admiration in tandem with several projects they have collaborated on. But while Dwight tends to pen his own tunes, on this album Danni shows a Strait-like potential for picking excellent songs to make her own. The two she does share writing credits on, though, are standouts and they offer up enticingly distinct and separate styles.
Divide and Conquer starts off stronger than a double Jack straight up. “He Used To Say That To Me,” penned by Jim Lauderdale and John Scott Sherrill, is exactly what bittersweet country music has always been about. Warm, voluptuous vocals wrap around the lyrics and intertwine with a steel guitar crying in the night for what once was and now is again-but over there, with someone new. This one burns just like that first gulp of Jasper Newton Daniel’s finest, and leaves the same silky smooth taste on your palate as its first rush wanes. Traditional roots country at its finest.
Lucky Lawrence wrote track two, “My Last Chance Is Gone.” The mood changes here, as does the musical accompaniment. Sparer with haunting drum a bit more prominent, the song moves through pre-dawn hours on the strength of a beautiful voice steeped in Marlboros. Amazing how Ms. Leigh switches from honky tonker to torch crooner so easily, and how deeply into melancholy she’ll take you before this song winds down.
But then, just about sunrise, the Mighty King of Love, Phil Lee, hands Danni a rocking number that puts everything right back into perspective. “Somebody Ought To Do Something About That Girl” goes back to cut number one, squares off with the heartache of the second track, and decides that woman is in need of a talking to. It’s false bravado, and it’s also way too close to home for comfort. Phil’s version says the guy needs the talking to, Danni’s says it’s the woman, and you know what — the truth turns out to be the same for both sexes. This is a prime example of an artist choosing material she understands and can bring to pulsating life on her own terms. A compliment to Lee and Leigh.
“House of Pain,” (Brett Beavers) stays in the tear-jerking honky tonk vein, and then suddenly the album shifts into placidly soothing balladry with Malcolm Holcombe’s “A Far Cry From Here.” This sounds a hell of a lot like Guy Clark, and the spare acoustic guitar babbles softly across the stones of a broken relationship like the Rio Grande towards Tom Russell’s hacienda. Breathtakingly beautiful, this song.
Striking in its disparate nature, Abra Moore’s “Don’t Feel Like Crying” brings a funkier groove and breathier vocals into the mix. Truthfully, this cut feels a bit like She-Daisy, and seems out of place on this disc. But it is well done, and the percussion track is one of the cooler you’ll hear on a country album.
Leigh penned the next one, “Yesterday,” with Michael Lunn and Michael Noble. Sounds a bit like . . . (you ready for this?) . . . early Amy Grant. (That’s not a bad thing. I mean before Grant went all Christian Nashville drivel, when she still had life and soul in the naïve crevices of her voice and lyrics). And the song’s autobiographical tone, the theme of crawling out from under yesterday and moving on, is exactly what Divide and Conquer is all about.
Lauderdale also handled writing chores on the next tune, “Sometimes,” which Leigh pulls off here as a Sheryl Crow-type story song. I can do without it, but Crow fans will be all over this one. And hey, Ms. Crow did just garner a country Grammy nomination for her work on that Hank Williams tribute album, so maybe it fits after all.
Danni and Doug Swander wrote the penultimate cut here, “Last Train to San Antone,” and it’s a song Leigh calls one of her all-time favorites. Should be, it’s the best damn song on the album. Danni, if you’re reading this, I’d like to just say. . . more, please.
Again carried along on acoustic guitar, it’s a songwriter type tune that’s perfectly suited for the introspective and haunting nuances of Danni’s pipes. I can’t get this song to stop playing on that speaker in my brain, so I’ll just pour me another tumbler of whiskey and keep being happy about it.
And then, the title cut. Guitar work straight out of Chris Isaak’s library or a Tarantino film, full of southwestern imagery and desert skies. Leigh really stretches her wings here, stepping out into ranges and vibratos unheard anywhere else on this disc. There’s a little bit of soul and gospel in the mix, and percussion like rattlesnakes hissing on the road we all must walk if we really do want to Divide and Conquer.
So, fellas, go to Danni’s shows to look if you want. But get the wax outta your ears first, because you’re about to fall in love with a voice pure and sweet as honey churning out stories from your life. And Lord knows, that’s what a Saturday night in honky tonks everywhere is all about. Danni channels the best of Tammy and Loretta without the sequins and big hair, belting out sour mash-sippin’ tunes that’ll put the starch in your jeans all by themselves.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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