Creating Music Out of the Noise
Andrew Leahey & the Homestead find their way through the apocalypse on American Static Vols. I & II
By Stephen Deusner
Photography by Chad Crawford
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One morning in November 2013, Andrew Leahey drove with his wife to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was scheduled to undergo a craniotomy to remove an acoustic neuroma tangled in the nerves behind his right ear, culminating months of excruciating headaches, strange tones no one else could hear, overwhelming fatigue, loss of balance, and one disastrous medical misdiagnosis. While obviously excited to see an end to those afflictions, he was worried that the procedure might damage his auditory nerve – a nightmare for any musician, especially for one just starting his career. “They said I had a one-in-two chance of losing my hearing in that ear completely,” he recalls nearly a decade later. “They also gave me odds on losing my life, but I blocked that out.”
As he rode along those empty Nashville streets, Leahey turned on the radio to hear what he thought might be his last song in stereo, if not his last song ever. Instead of a bro-country hit or a pop trifle, it was a deep cut from one of his favorite artists. “They were playing ‘Face in the Crowd’ by Tom Petty. I love that song, and I love that late ’80s production style. It’s not that cool to a lot of people, but I love how immersive it is. It sounded fucking glorious.” In his darkest moment, he found solace in a song. “I’m not a praying person, but I thought: If I get through this, I promise not to take anything for granted. I’m not going to just sit on my ass again. I’m not going to waste the opportunity.”ADVERTISEMENT
Eighteen hours later, he woke up in the recovery room, his dad whispering in his right ear. “He said, ‘You’re okay, Andrew.’ And I heard it!”
That ailment still impacts his life today. Leahey continues to experience severe headaches and fatigue, and he has frequent MRIs to detect similar tumors elsewhere in his body. Yet, he continues to fulfill his promise to St. Tom Petty, which has made him one of the busiest musicians in Nashville. Somehow he finds the time to balance his band Andrew Leahey & the Homestead with various ancillary gigs and side hustles, including a full-time career as a well-regarded journalist and editor who has written for Spin, Rolling Stone, and, full disclosure, this very magazine. He undertakes it all with a passion his friends and collaborators often refer to as indefatigable. “Music has done so much for me. It balances me. And I want my music to do that for others.”
Andrew Leahey On the Cover Interview
Directed & Produced by CONTRARY WESTERN in Nashville
Or, as he sings in his new song “Carry the Weight”: “If you need someone to carry you home, won’t you let me?” With its zero-gravity Mellotron chords and Rundgren pop polish, the song is ostensibly about seeing a beautiful woman being ignored by her date, but Leahey turns it into an invitation to put one’s woes into the music. This is precisely the kind of song he loves to write: extroverted, big-hearted, philosophical, alive to the contradictions of life, and intimately aware of the listener on the other side of the speaker. “I write a lot of carpe diem anthems. I use them as mantras to remind myself to be mindful and enjoy every gig I play. They’re messages to myself to enjoy the light while it lasts.”
Carry the Weight” closes Andrew Leahey & the Homestead’s new record, American Static Vol. 2. As the title suggests, it’s a sequel to American Static Vol. 1, released in 2021. Together they form a loose double-album that surveys American life at the dawn of a new decade, which means it’s full of worry and dread while maintaining a sense of hard-won hope and awe. It’s about finding instances of beauty in so much ugliness, moments of peace amid the chaos: the signal within the static.
For Leahey, most of that beauty and peace comes from music: listening to it, writing about it, talking about it for many stoned hours with his bandmates, and playing it with friends. Both volumes of American Static move fluidly and energetically from one style to another, blending dusty Laurel Canyon folk with strutting classic rock, tender soul balladry with jangly cosmic country, old-school doo-wop and baroque ’60s pop. Leahey has figured out how to distill his favorite sounds and influences, creating brand-new songs that already sound lived in. “We come from a lineage of heartland rock heroes, like Springsteen and Petty,” he says. “I didn’t feel the need to condense what we do into an easily definable box. I wanted to show the breadth of it. It’s easier to explore the far-flung corners of our sound rather than always trying to hit it in the middle.”ADVERTISEMENT
Initially, he didn’t plan to make a double album. Or even a single album. Leahey and the band, including Jay Dmuchowski on guitars and Dan Holmes on drums, were already working on a few of these songs in late 2019, with an ambitious plan to release one each month throughout 2020. When the pandemic intervened, they scuttled that idea and started writing new songs for their weekly “Live & Online” livestreams, tightening their chops and broadening their set list. In addition to new originals, they worked up handfuls of covers and crammed them into medleys of Beatles hits or TV theme songs. (How many other Nashville bands can jam the theme to Who’s the Boss?) At last count, they’d amassed more than 400 cover songs.
“If we were going to have an audience that would come back week after week, we couldn’t just keep playing the same songs from my two previous albums,” says Leahey, referring to 2016’s Skyline in Central Time and 2019’s breakout Airwaves. “So we had a really good reason to learn all this new material I’d been writing. It refocused our energies, and we would come up with a completely different show every week. That just primed us to take these new songs I’d written, try them out on an online audience, and get them to a good place so we could record them.”
After workshopping them online, the band recorded a few songs with bass player and producer Jon Estes with the idea of releasing an EP. “But Andrew kept on writing songs,” says Dmuchowski. “We went back and recorded two more songs with Jon. Then it became seven songs. Then nine. Then we rented a cabin in the Smoky Mountains to jam and write some more. At a certain point, we felt like we shouldn’t have any more sessions for a while, just so we could let things settle and release everything.”
“Andrew said we were doing a double album, and I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not,” says Holmes. “He wasn’t.”ADVERTISEMENT
American Static is, among many other things, a testament to Leahey’s endless creativity. Not only was he unusually prolific during the pandemic, but he was writing at the top of his game, penning song after song after song that balanced his eccentricities with that heartland rock & roll sensibility. Take “Dial Tone,” a song with curlicue guitar licks, sympathetic keyboards, and lyrics that toggle between the personal and the public. “I miss her like a dial tone, I miss her like TV static, like some comfort of home that we left all alone because we thought we’d always have it,” he sings, hinting at matters more dire than a breakup. In Leahey’s hands, that long-forgotten sound becomes a heartbreaking metaphor for his mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. The song’s intuitive mix of whimsy and gravity recalls John Prine in his prime.
On October 4, 2017, Andrew Leahey & the Homestead took the stage at The Basement East to back a roster of local singers, including Sadler Vaden, Jon Latham, and East Nashville hell-raiser Elizabeth Cook. The band had hosted similar showcases before, but this one was personally important for Leahey: It was a memorial for Tom Petty, who had died suddenly two days earlier. Cook was slated to perform “Room at the Top,” a favorite of hers and Leahey’s, so they met up beforehand to run through a quick arrangement and work out some harmonies. They clicked almost immediately, and soon Leahey was playing guitar in Cook’s band (eventually joined by Holmes).
“I was drawn to his vibe,” Cook says. “He’s one of the most solid humans I’ve ever met, but that’s something I would come to know. He has skills as a lead guitar player that are at the level of the best sidemen in this town. And most importantly, he’s just always, always down to rock. He’s chief organizer, ringleader of the circus, sideman, frontman, hype man, and prolific as hell. He wears all the hats … actually, he doesn’t wear hats, because why would you cover that glorious hair?”
While he had backed other locals before, including Michaela Anne and Courtney Jaye, the Cook gig became Leahey’s longest and most rewarding sideman role, sharpening his skills as a frontman. “Because he’s a guitarist for other artists, he knows what it’s like to be in other people’s bands,” says Holmes. “He knows what it’s like to fill a role for someone else, rather than always being the creative force in a band. He’ll bring in ideas, but always ask for our input.”
It all makes him a well-rounded composer and performer, whether he’s standing center stage or stage left. “His guitar-playing is very much that of a songwriter,” says producer Butch Walker, who worked with Leahey while helming Cook’s 2020 album, Aftermath. “He’s understated rather than overstated, and I’ll take that any day of the week. It’s loose and cool, like the way Tom Petty or Keith Richards plays. It’s not technical. It’s not perfect. It’s just good to hear. It feels like a worn-in pair of Chuck Taylors. Worn in, not worn out.”
Leahey admits that getting him out of the venue can be hard after a show. He’s not there just to play a few songs; he likes to stick around after the last notes have faded and the lights have come up so he can talk to fans and anyone else sticking around. “If there’s someone who wants to come up and talk, I will talk to them as long as they want to talk,” he says. “That’s what music is. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be part of people’s lives and bring them something close to what music has brought into our lives. So why would we isolate ourselves?”
Both Dmuchowski and Holmes have noted this tendency in their friend and bandmate, which they find admirable, if sometimes frustrating. “It’ll be 1 in the morning, and we just want to go to our hotel,” says Dmuchowski, “And Andrew’ll be sitting at the bar, which is closed and the bar stools are up, and he’ll be talking with some dude who’s telling him about how he saw Stryper at some random auditorium in Toledo. He’ll give people as much time as they want, and you can’t get mad at that.”ADVERTISEMENT
It’s part of that promise he made long ago on that cold November morning to make the most of every moment, to appreciate every opportunity. It’s hyperdrive to some, but it’s just life to Leahey. The downside is that no matter how hard he works, he’ll never fulfill that promise, because it’s open-ended. There’s no finish line, just more moments, more opportunities, more gigs to play, more songs to write, more double albums to release, more tours to book, more tribute shows to host.
It can be inspiring, but it can also be concerning to his bandmates. “He won’t listen to me,” says Dmuchowski, “but this is my advice to him: Slow down a little bit. Really. You’re running yourself into the ground. If you want to do this for much longer, just slow down, and let’s do some Brian Eno ambient for our next record.”
But Leahey never tires of it, no matter how tired his body gets or how long someone bends his ear. “Going through the operation, nearly losing my hearing and my ability to appreciate music, my ability to just live, having all that nearly taken away from me,” Leahey says. “All of it gave me a renewed perspective on what it means to make music, what it means to hear, what it means to get up on stage, what it means to be relatively pain-free. It made me recommit to my music. That’s the way I can help other people, the way that I was helped and continue to be helped through music.”