Within most popular long-standing genres of music, there is usually internal discord. Older hip-hop heads and artists (which in hip-hop is around 40) are unimpressed with many of the younger emcees, and many of the youngsters couldn’t care less about what hip-hop was 20 years ago. The rift is similar in R&B and jazz.
In country music, it’s often the traditionalists (Dwight Yoakam) versus the popular mavericks (Eric Church) versus the crossover pop stars (Taylor Swift). The traditionalists and mavericks say that country has gone way too pop, and there are too many artists producing songs that if you remove the requisite fiddle and/or pedal steel embellishments, it could just as easily be a Demi Lovato tune.
But though singer-songwriter Mark Leach at 22 years old is officially of the country-pop crossover generation, his heart, and the straightforward contemporary country sound found on his debut full-length With Love From Tennessee, is closer in line with the legends and the mavericks.
“There’s some things on country radio that sound like they should be on 98.1 [adult contemporary station WKDD] rather than 94.9 [country station WQMX],” the deep-voiced Leach said.
On Friday night at the Dusty Armadillo in Rootstown, Leach and his band, the Blue Collar Valors — which includes his songwriting partner, eldest brother, mentor and lead guitarist Chris Leach, his mandolin- and harmonica-playing older brother Josh, bassist Pete Biondi and drummer Matt Hendrickson — will celebrate the release of Leach’s album with a show.
It’s his second release following a 2011 eponymously titled four-song EP. Leach and his brother co-wrote nine of the album’s 10 tracks, and it shows the brothers’ growth as songwriters and as students of the country genre.
“I listen to a lot of the modern stuff like Eric Church, and I remember talking to Kip Moore when he was coming up through the ranks and looking at his songwriting and referring back to the older stuff,” Leach said. “We’re trying to incorporate the modern and the old, but there’s a balance. You can’t have too many party songs or too many ballads.”
With Love From Tennessee was produced by Chad Jeffers (Carrie Underwood’s guitarist, who has also played with Keith Urban and Kenny Loggins, among others) and Leach is backed up by members of Underwood’s band, including guitarist Shawn Tubbs and other Nashville studio aces. Leach hooked up with Jeffers after Chris Leach read his book, 25 Notes for the Successful Musician, and emailed him. Jeffers heard Leach’s music, climbed on board and has unofficially taken on the role of band mentor, even taking time out from his current main gig with Underwood (who is in Youngstown tonight) to come to Barberton and help the band rehearse for the big show.
The first song Leach learned to sing as a music-loving 4-year-old was Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart, and his brother Chris taught him how to play guitar around the age of 8. But he really discovered his love of country music while working at the family business, Leach’s Meats and Sweets in Barberton (totally unsolicited endorsement: Leach’s is awesome!), where the country station was the only one that came in clearly.
Spending his teens icing sweets and delivering meats also gave Leach his head-down, hands-dirty, blue-collar values, reflected in the songs. Leach wrote his first real song at 16, Sweetest Melody, available on the EP at iTunes and Amazon.com, written for a high school sweetheart.
“The girl I’m singing about I’m still with right now. It must have worked out,” he said.
With Love From Tennessee covers most of the current country bases. There’s some foot-stomping honky-tonk on My Guitar Made Me Do It and the mostly acoustic rave-up South.
Leach works his lower register on the ballad Pretty Girl, and clings to a dying relationship on the delicate Funny, singing “The bed seemed so small when things were great, but now we’re on each end and both turned away.”
Burn the Ships is an ode to soldiers doing their duty while dreaming of home, and the title track is a love letter to Northeast Ohio (Leach splits his time between Nashville and here). The outlaw-flavored Pray for Us shows his knowledge, shouting out country legends Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty and Hank Williams Sr. while conspicuously leaving out current crossover hit makers.
“That’s kind of tongue-in-cheek towards Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift. … I’m open to any kind of music but I thought other folks would understand it as well. I hope I’m not hurting anyone’s feelings,” he said chuckling.
Leach said all of the band’s songs are written from either personal experience or the experiences of people close to him. He said he lived the plaintive long-distance love song C’mon Home, featuring the line “Everyone around has their other half, it just don’t seem fair, but there’s a hole in my chest where my heart should be, honey you belong right there.” Funny was drawn from watching a close friend’s long-term relationship fray; they’re the album’s most personal songs.
Leach and his brother Chris do much of the grunt work for the band, self-managing and booking, and Leach isn’t in too big a hurry to share those responsibilities.
“That’s something our producer ingrained in us. We had a big conversation about how the industry is changing. You don’t need the big record label anymore; everything can be self-produced,” he said.
Leach hopes to promote the album the old-fashioned way, on the road, with a string of area gigs including a Saturday night date at David B’s Grill and Pub (524 W. Tuscarawas Ave., Barberton) and shows in May at Thirsty Cowboy in Medina (May 4), Nashville Nights in Akron, and Local Roots in Powell. Then the band hopes to hit some of the smaller bars in Nashville (“where people actually listen to the lyrics you’re singing” Leach said) and several spots in between.