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"Gluing Phrases Together"
An Interview With Leon Nelson

by Daniel Elton Harmon

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Quiet and unassuming, Leon Nelson has impressed listeners since the 1970s with an original repertoire; gently burred voice; multiple, ear-friendly accompaniment styles; and an approach to music steeped in blues, Beatles and post-folk tunesmiths. Based in Chapin, SC, he's avoided pursuit of a full-time music career, choosing instead a "normal" life and indulging his songwriting and performing interests during the off hours. Probably, that's why he still enjoys it—and how he continues to craft fresh, interesting songs—after three decades. His work has attracted the ears of noted songwriters while pleasing regional audiences and building a steadfast following.

We conducted this e-mail interview in April-May 2003.

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DH: Tell us a tad about growing up in Jonesville, SC. Did you have musical relatives or school friends as early inspirations?

LEON: It was a typical small southern town environment. I attended school with the same 40 people through grade school and high school. There were a few changes in cast through the years, but mostly it was the same year after year. Jonesville was a mill town with a mill village and a company store. Although I was young, I remember the last part of that culture.

My father played guitar and I had a cousin, F.D. Addis, who could play any stringed instrument he picked up. He played in Nashville for a while. He once brought me an 8-by-10 photo of a group of country musicians. He was right in the middle of those guys. I don't remember all the personalities, but Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were in the shot.

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DH: How old were you when you wrote your first song, and what were your first compositions like?

LEON: I guess I was about 18 when I wrote my first song. I made up the first songs I played on a guitar simply because I didn't know how to play anything else. I later called it writing. I was a drummer for a local band in upstate South Carolina and had a Silvertone guitar from Sears. Solo drumming gets old after a while so when we were not playing I started fooling around on the acoustic guitar. I don't know what happened to that guitar. Once a couple of friends and I went to Spartanburg and found Baby Tate. Tate was an old blues sideman who played with Pink Anderson and Peg Leg Sam. He played my Silvertone for us that day. But that's another story.

My first songs were mostly in minor keys and very simple. I remember someone commenting on how unusual it was for a beginning guitarist to play in minors. They expected the G, C and D pattern. I found those chords later—hah. I still have some of those songs in old notebooks and the lyrics sometime amaze and sometime amuse me. I would finish a song and take it over to my friend Tim Smith's house across town. Tim was a great sounding board. Smith, as I called him, was also encouraging and very supportive of my songwriting efforts. Tim turned into a good songwriter.

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DH: Actually, we'd love to hear that story about Baby Tate.

LEON: Well, okay. One of my friends had a book on the blues. We were paging through it one day and found Baby Tate's story and learned that he lived in Spartanburg in a neighborhood we knew about. So we decided to find him. We packed my Silvertone in Frank's blue Plymouth Fury III and headed to “Sparkle City.” We arrived in the neighborhood the book described and started asking anyone we saw on the street if they knew Baby Tate. It didn't take long to get pointed down the right street. We pulled into the yard of Tate's house and got out of the Fury III, leaving the guitar in the car. Tate was entertaining a lady friend but dismissed her when we explained why we were there. He invited us in and we spent about an hour with him. He had a letter from a record executive nailed to the wall over his fireplace. He pulled it from the wall and let us each read it. After talking with him for a while he said that he wished he could play something for us but he didn't have a guitar. The bluesman didn't have a guitar? I told him I had one in the car. I went to the car and retrieved the Silvertone. When I handed him the guitar he rolled it from front to back, examining it, and said, "This is just like my old guitar. You know somebody stole mine." He played a few little licks for us but didn't play a complete song. He might have been disappointed that I didn't leave him my guitar. I have often thought about that. This was either 1970 or '71. Tate died in 1972.

Oh, one thing that I still remember about that visit was when Tate asked me to pass him a bottle. There were many whiskey bottles here and there. I picked up one and handed it to him and he began laughing. He said, "No, no, not that one. That's a dead soldier." That was the first time I had heard that phrase referring to an empty bottle of booze.

A few years later I was playing on the back of a flatbed truck at a party near Jonesville. It was at a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. While I was "onstage," I noticed a character standing near the house. He had on a red checkered shirt, red pants and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. A closer look found an eye patch and a black peg leg. You guessed it: It was Peg Leg Sam. Before I knew what was happening, three guys lifted Peg onto the flatbed truck with me. He pulled out a pair of sticks and began playing with me. He was ham-bonin’ and grinning while we finished up my set. I got a charge out if it. Peg Leg had been invited to the party. I had had the opportunity to meet Baby Tate and Peg Leg just before both of them died.

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DH: Who were some of your other early performing and songwriting inspirations? Who have been some of your later influences through the years?

LEON: Early inspirations would have to include The Beatles. They definitely influenced the formation of my first band, The Wanderers. Five of us got together and formed a band that mostly played in each other's living rooms. We did have a few gigs before we went our separate ways. I played drums.

Later I started to listen to singer-songwriters like Jessie Winchester, Neil Young and Willis Alan Ramsey. I must have listened to Ramsey's only album hundreds of times. I wore out the vinyl copy I had.

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DH: What kind of music did your early bands play? How long were you together?

LEON: The Wanderers didn't play that much. My second band was called The Boston Tea Party. We played junior-senior proms, battle of bands competitions, fraternity parties and dances. I guess we were a dance band. We had a horn section and played all cover songs. You know, “Midnight Hour,” “Respect,” etc. Tommy Funderburk sang lead vocals with the band. Tommy went on to sing for a number of artists like Starship, Air Supply and Dwight Yoakam.

I remember playing in Spartanburg one night and the band suggested I play some of my acoustic songs during the break. I did play at any opportunity.

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DH: What came next, in terms of bands, duos, solo gigs?

LEON: I left the band, left for college and began playing guitar exclusively. I played in the dorm at school and for parties. After attending a few bars that offered live music in Columbia, I decided I could do that. I played a few before meeting another guitar/singer songwriter, Hal Ross. Hal and I complemented each other. He had a great ear for harmony and our guitar styles were similar. Hal and I worked up a couple of hours of music and started a few gigs. Hal and I would open with a set together; then we each took a set. Then we would finish with another duo. We played together, off and on, for about eight years.

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DH: What were your first performance experiences like?

LEON: Well, I had guts. At least that's what one girl told me after a warm-up set for a band named High Cotton. I was in Columbia, SC, on New Year's Eve in 1973, I think. They were friends of mine and they invited me to open for them. An acoustic set in front of a rock band in a bar on New Year's eve was brave, I guess.

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DH: How do most of your songs originate? Do they begin to take shape as overall concepts (messages/themes)? Or do they usually begin when a random lyric line gets in your head, and sooner or later you know you're gonna have to build a song around that line or couplet? Or both ways? Or other ways?

LEON: Every way. I have had songs that I labored over, and some songs that just jumped onto the page. Some do begin with phrases. However, you are lucky if you can get a whole song build around one phrase. But I like using phrases. "Dragons and Watchdogs" is an example of a theme from phrases. The theme of the song ended up as "Things are not the way they seem." But the phrases make the song, I think. Such as "to call a yellow dog blue," "a misty-eyed lover of lost times," and my favorite line in that song, "Sometimes I don't recognize myself, I do things foreign and strange."

Inspiration can come from anywhere. You need to be prepared when it's running. “Bright Lights” was written in two sessions. The first session was in my truck on Highway 221 out of Boone, NC. I had met a wonderful lady that weekend. She had bright eyes and I was caught like a bug in the beam. I wrote all the verses on the seat of my truck on the trip back to Chapin that day. The chorus came later.

I always keep something to scribble on and with. I have notebooks of fragments that sometimes I use later. But often they become interesting little half-page wanderings.

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DH: Have your songwriting interests gone through stages during your 30 years of composing, or are you still coming up with much the same types of material today as you were in college?

LEON: I hope my material and interests have changed somewhat over the past 30 years. Thirty years! Is that possible?

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DH: What musicians are you listening to these days?

LEON: I listen to a lot of different music but I particularly like Ryan Adams, Tim Easton and Eric Taylor. Lucinda Williams kills me. What a talent!

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DH: Every good singer/acoustic guitarist I know has an individual guitar style. Obviously, there are a lot of borrowed/traded techniques and licks, but each player adds special touches. Your style, I've always thought, is one of the most effective—both generally and as the accompaniment vehicle for your specific repertoire. How did you develop that playing style? How has it evolved over the years? Have your hand posture or rhythms changed?

LEON: That's a good question and flattering observation. Having been a drummer, I initially developed a percussive approach to the guitar, kind of like Richie Havens. My early songs were in that style. I wanted to pick the guitar but had trouble with finger-picking, so I begin flat-picking. Why that seemed easier, I don't know. The two styles came together into a style that I still use today. I strum and pick interchangeably. I did finally learn finger-picking, but I use the pick on most everything.

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DH: What guitar(s) do you use today? What do you particularly like about it/them?

LEON: I have played a maple Guild D25 for years. It's a 1974 model I bought used in the early ’80s. I like the sound of maple guitars. I also have a Seagull Cedar 12- string, and I got my first electric guitar about two years ago. I was at a guitar show and saw something I had never seen before. It was a 1981 Austin Hatchet travel guitar. It's is a three-fourths-scale electric with a wedge-shaped body, 22-fret fingerboard, two Humbuckers pickups. I have had fun with it, but mostly I play my Guild six-string.

I have wanted a Breedlove ever since I heard Chuck Pyle play one. I opened for Chuck a few years back at the UU coffeehouse in Columbia. It was a wonderful instrument. I later played one at yet another guitar show but just didn't have the cash.

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DH: Tell us about your CD. Is Dragons and Watchdogs Music your own label?

LEON: The CD. I was looking into studio time and found a friend (Todd Cowart) who had a setup at his house. It's amazing how much you can do with affordable equipment nowadays. Lucky for me, Todd was both a technician and a great musician. He helped me put together the CD, and it turned out a lot better than I had expected. I started out resolved to the solo guitar/vocal approach to the CD, just because of the expense.

Todd and I recorded the tracks in three sessions. Two of them lasted for about 12 hours. It was kind of funny on the last night of recording. I was so tired I was lucky to finish the CD with a song I could play.

The songs:

* “Blue Eyed Blonde” — This song was always received well at gigs. It's a good-feeling song that has a little bounce. I played it once for Fred Koller at a songwriting workshop. Fred wrote "Let's Talk Dirty" with John Prine. He offered some creative criticism. He said the chorus and the verses were not close enough to a single story. But I still like the song. It is one of my phrase songs.

* "I Still Believe” — This song made the CD also because of audience response. I don't think I would have chosen it otherwise. But I have grown to like it more. I do think it is a kind of melodic song.

* “Back Out” — One of my personal favorites on the CD. I like the sax in the production. I wrote the song during a membership in a songwriters group in Columbia. I remember playing it at one of the meetings. When I finished the song, all they could recall to critique was the guitar. The song's drive had powered them past the lyrics. But I like the lyrics in that song. It's about trying to ease out of something when you find yourself in too deep.

* “Throw Your Heart Away” — This song is probably my favorite lyrically. It is filled with metaphor. I took the phrase "she uses," and wrapped it around some emotions we all have experienced. The guitar is a rare use of finger-picking.

* “Room to Breathe” — This song has a repeating guitar riff and three simple verses. I think it is the cleanest song on the CD.

* “Lonely and Warm” — A little twist on the cold love story song.

* “Right as Rain” — My attempt at a cheating song.

* “What Went Wrong” — This is an old song I always liked. I like the song and I like playing the song. It has stuck in the song list for a good while now. It's a bluesy song. "Hopelessly lost, bearing a cross of hopeless love for you."

* “Dragons and Watchdogs” — Speaking of old songs, this one is the oldest on the CD. It is kind of my signature song. Although not an anthem, it speaks to me.

* “Sweet Innocence” — This is a story song. It tells of a lady who was lost before she found love in her newborn baby.

* “The Feeling Behind You” — One of my cowboy songs. It’s about getting shot and never feeling safe again. This song is different from any on the CD. It was written during my cowboy phase. I wrote a number of Nelson western songs.

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DH: What's your primary objective in songwriting?

LEON: I like to think I write from the heart and sometimes about the heart. Not to say everything I write is true or about me. I like to concentrate on the phrase rather than a story, although I do like story songs as well. I have a few songs that tell stories, but in most of them I try to glue phrases together.

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For information on ordering Leon's CD, visit his Web page at www.hornpipe.com/leon.htm.

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© 2003-2005 Hornpipe Vintage Publications