by Paul Johnston
Leeann Atherton, one of the nicest and friendliest Texas southern belles you would ever want to meet, is now one of Austin's own singer/songwriter treasures. This lady can sing the blues too! Take a little South Carolina charm and add a big Texas heart; take a pinch of Janis Joplin's blues belting ability and free spirit; add a little Marcia Ball and Aretha Franklin for spice, plus an auxiliary of talented song writing friends. Oh yes, don't forget to include a little Carolina beach music and you will have yourself a real sweet cookie of a singer named Leeann!
Too much of a lady to reveal her birthday, she describes herself as "an ageless Scorpio." Birmingham, Alabama was the city where she was born and lived the first two years of her life. Then her family moved to Charleston, South Carolina where her roots of southern hospitality were acquired. She has an older sister by 5 years and an younger brother by 1 ½ years. "My mother was a hillbilly housewife and my father was a colonel in the Air Force." Her dad was stationed in South Carolina for about 10 years before her parents separated. Her dad travel on with the Air Force, but her family stayed on in Charleston. She attended Garrett High School in Charleston but dropped out to do a little cross country traveling. Later she would get her GED and attend College of Charleston. She graduated with a fine arts degree majoring in music and psychology.
A Budding Singer
The spark that was responsible for igniting this gifted singer occurred at the first Atlanta Pop Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. While on a family vacation to Atlanta, Leeann's mother allowed Leeann and her sister to attend the festival while her mom and brother stayed behind at the hotel. They saw Grand Funk Railroad, Ten Years After, Ten Wheel Drive, and other bands. "That turned me on!"
The following year she went to another festival and saw the Allman Brothers, her favorite band at the time. "I would hitchhike anywhere to go hear them, where I could get there in a day or two. I remember getting dosed at that festival, unknowingly. I was still just a kid. I drank some Kool-Aid™ from the guys in front of me. The Allman Brothers were just coming on. I drank a lot of this Kool-Aid™ . I later learned that it had been double fisted with LSD. When they came on, I just started hallucinating so much. That's all I remember until I woke up in the morning to Hendrix playing... I was in a plastic bag on the front row 'cause it had rained. There was a storm coming when the Allman Brothers were playing. Anyway, those were my roots when I would go to festivals as a teenager." Leeann could not remember her exact age at the time of going to that festival. "Ah god, I loved them [music festivals] so much!"
At age 16 or a little earlier, she hitch hiked from Charleston to Oregon. "So then I hitch hiked across country. I really got turned on to live music. There was this one girl in Oregon who played in a fancy hotel in downtown Eugene. She was playing the Blues! Back where I came from was much more straight laced. You know beach music and rhythm and blues. Out on the west coast was more hippie music and blues. Festivals were the real deal for me...Hendrix, the Allman Brothers. I spent a lot of my teenage years just being a hippie. I dropped out of school and decided to go to college. I was living on an island, Bowen's Island. I started to play the flute. I started studying it real intensely. I got a scholarship to college."
Leeann passed her GED and took her SAT and got accepted to Baptist College of Charleston on a music scholarship. After going to the Baptist College for one semester, she dropped out. "They taught us that the Catholic Church was the devil's church, and it could be, but I don't want to be taught anything about the church."
The Baptist College may not have made an impression on Leeann but Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt certainly did. "I listened to a lot of jazz back then too....Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt. Mostly it was Bonnie Raitt. She enjoyed various folk groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary. Her sister played classical music and her dad liked The Lettermen and played "Stewball" on his ukelele and guitar. She got turned on to folk music through Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro. "I listened to Judy Collins endlessly."
While at college, she thought she wanted to become a musical therapist, but her role in bands while at college steered her toward a singing career. For about 5 years, she sang in two bands, "Bootleg" , a rock and roll band and "The Rivieras," a beach music band. Beach Music is a regional phenomenon along the South Carolina coastline. Beach Music is soulful dance white R&B with a little black R&B thrown in at 122 beats per minute.
In college, she was nominated a "Beach Music Vocalist" along with Candi Stanton and Delbert McClinton. Once, as a member of The Rivieras, she challenged other bands to donate money for a charitable cause. Because The Rivieras had the largest band donation, they won recording studio time. With this time, The Rivieras put out their first 33 1/3 rpm record named "The Rivieras" featuring a horn band with 2 girl singers and one male singer. The record was promoted locally. The Rivieras primarily performed at the Kangaroo Club and the Xanadu Club.
Leeann, The Little Hippie Chick !
"I got involved in the anti-war protests [Vietnam / She was arrested for being in the May Day protest in Washington, D.C. in 1971]. I was very free-spirited and willed when I was very young. Since my parents split up [when Leeann was age twelve] I could have a little more freedom. I started gettin' on out there!" In high school she had gone to a "free or progressive" school when she was fifteen. "Then I came back for the eleventh grade. I just could not take it, so I dropped out [in her senior year in high school]."
" My mother was a country girl. Like I said, she was a hillbilly who like to sing white gospel music and watch Porter Wagoner while she did the ironing. She was a deep southern gal. She gave me an appreciation of hillbilly-country music. She taught me how to cook. She was always singing around the house even though she could not sing very good. She also did not think I was a very good singer!" Turnip greens, cornbread, and on very special rare occasions fried chicken and gravy were the dishes her mother taught her to cook.
"My father is an aggressive, like the life-of-the-party kind of guy. He was always a party starter and a big dreamer and always like to accomplish a lot. He told me one day when I was married, singing in a band and working a day job.....My dad was living in Mexico and asked me if I could come visit and I said, 'No Dad, I'm just too busy.' He said, 'Leeann, one day you are going to be my age and you're going to turn around and regret having never done the things you wanted to do.' It just dawned on me, you know, gee you're right! So, I ended up ending all that life and moving on to Nashville and pursuing music the way I really wanted to instead of hanging in one of those bands."
Right out of college Leeann married the saxophone player in her band. They moved to the country where it was beautiful, but she wanted to devote more time to her music career and see what she could accomplish. They were together for about three of the five year marriage, moving to Nashville before finally separating.
She would sing with her older sister and spend a lot of time playing "war" with her brother in the woods. "I got the crab apples and you got yours. We had a fort. I was kind of a tomboy. I had a younger brother I got to play with and an older sister I got to sing with. As a little kid that is what I liked to do, play in the woods and the beach." The "woods" were an undeveloped piece of land at the Air Force base in Charleston where her father worked. "I recall hanging out a lot. I am kind of a nature girl. We had some secret palaces with a big rope swing, Fort Joe John. We had it all." Leeann spent a lot of time as just stated, but also spent time in solitude or with friends. She does not recall her parents really being involved with her life. "Yes, it seemed like a good childhood. You know it wasn't idyllic, whatever that is, but I sure was happy."
She first became interested in music as a child. "I can remember singing with my sister, singing a duet to my grandmother in the back seat of her Belvedere [ a Plymouth station wagon]. I can remember singing 'Roses are red, violets are blue.' Wasn't that a Bobby Darin song? I took piano lessons since my sister was. My piano teacher said I had no talent and it was a waste of money to give this child lessons! I took piano lessons when I was seven or eight and I had to take them in college. I took them when I was a teenager a little. I studied music off and on throughout my life. I started on the saxophone and moved to the flute. The only reason I wanted to play flute is because I really wanted to be a singer. My mother had said I could not sing very well. I knew I wanted to sing. I thought if I went to college I would meet other musicians. I was not sure about how to go about getting in a band. That is when I started singing. I took voice. My voice teacher said if I wanted to get serious about voice I would have to stop singing in a band."
She said that she started playing flute because the saxophone was so loud to practice. As a new player, she felt a little intimidated. At age fifteen at the free school she started playing folks songs on the guitar. "I loved those teenage years so much. They have nothing to do with music. They kind of made me who I am."
Around age fifteen, Leeann attended a free school. At this point she realized that she was kind of on her own and she could pretty much make it on her own. Her dad sent child support payments to the school. At age sixteen she struck out into the big wide world. She does not remember how she made ends meet. She had two best girl friends that wanted to go. One was running away and one was going to meet them in Illinois. "We were a bunch of adventurous wild girls! We were good girls. We were just ready for an adventure. I never had a bad thing happen to me. I heard horror stories and finally said 'I'm never going to do that [hitch hike] again. I just went for the summer and came back. I was contemplating going to Oregon and live. I went to Colorado. I took a school bus with a bunch of hippies that my sister put me on, going up the continental divide to Oregon. That was an incredible trip. Then I hitch hiked the coast of Oregon." Her sister was living in a commune at this time.
After College - Nashville Bound
After college, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee and stayed there about six years. She considered moving to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. Nashville was close to her hometown of Charleston, so she moved there. She wanted to go to a music center and extend her education. Leeann looked at her previous years as side-stepping a musical career. "I should have got in a band and stayed in a band." In Nashville, she was totally focused on her musical career with occasional stints as a waitress. Her first roommate, Ray Kennedy, had a studio in his house and introduced her to many musicians. She worked for a publishing company. She even sang on the road with Lee Greenwood on a USA tour. She had a band, worked in a studio and did demos. "I immersed in the music business. I made some of my best friend in my life there and I learned a lot." Asked what lessons did she learn in Nashville she replied, " To watch out for the deep south. I never really fit in to Nashville, but I had a really good time in Nashville. I've seen incredible successes in Nashville from people who endured the trials of Nashville. If you can endure, you are going to get your payback."
" I did not fit in at all. One reason I left...I was at a Delbert McClinton concert and I was dancing by myself by a pole, you know trying not to be in anyone's way, and somebody kicked me for dancing. They wanted me to sit down. I'll tell you what I learned: Nashvilleians don't have any fun and they all go home by midnight. They don't like to dance. They may like good grits and gravy, but they don't like to have a good time." Her conclusion about Nashville took years to figure out.
Asked besides getting kicked, what were the signs that she did not fit into Nashville she replied, "My music has always been changing too. It grows and does not stay the same. That's just the nature of it. My cycles have just not been on their cycles. I felt at home when I got to Texas. I had great friends there [Nashville], but I felt kind of like a rebel, kind of like when I was a teenager, having to look for adventure, trying to seek something out because it wasn't just right there. It's not that way in Austin!"
Austin, Texas: Here She Comes!
"When I left Nashville, actually, I wasn't planning on leaving Nashville. I was on a road trip with my best friend, my writing buddy and best friend. We went down to Key West, New Orleans, Austin, and Santa Fe on a road trip. When we got to Austin, I had actually brought a pair of waitress clothes and let her drop me off because I liked it that much. The very first night I went to Antone's and fell totally in love all the way around. I spent a weekend in San Marcos [Texas] and came back and sublet my apartment and two weeks later moved back. I did not think I would stay that long. In fact my girlfriend still jokes, 'Leeann, don't you think you have been on vacation long enough?' They work at music up there and here we play it."
This road trip initially lasted two weeks. Leeann and her best friend would do a lot of road trips. She had only one friend in Austin and he only had work for her for three days and she then had to leave his apartment. "It was a real solitary time for me. I really learned about being alone, separation. I literally had fallen in love the first night with a Texas cowboy and I got pregnant and decided to keep the baby. I moved back home to my mother's in South Carolina. I had the baby and six weeks later I was back out on the road and went back to Nashville and stayed in the studio for a while with one of my friends and decided to come back to Austin for the first South By South West with my baby, Austin. My best friend came with me."
"Now that I have children, I can keep up with the years. All before that, I don't know. But I know how old my kids are!" That was in '87." Austin was born in 1988. Asked how she came up with the name of her first son she responded, "My first love's name was Austin. My grandfathers name was Augustine and I loved Austin [Texas]. Whether it was a boy or girl, this kid was going to be named Austin!"
"I lived at 29th and San Gabriel when I first moved to town so I could walk to Antone's. I did not have a car. I had this $150 room. I walked to Antone's, walked to Hole in the Wall, walked to Cactus, and then I could go down to Black Cat, take a bus if I wanted. It was great! All free!"
When asked what some of her thoughts were when she found out that she was pregnant she responded, "Well, I was terrified, but for some reason I could not, not go through with it. I felt like now that I should take responsibility for my actions. The cowboy spirit I really did love and this child was really going to be alright! I wasn't afraid that this was going to change my life but I was afraid that I had no idea what was going to happen. I did not know, but after he was born...yeah, obviously I was scared because I was out of work, I was pregnant, did not know how my life was going to change, what was going to happen with my music. I had found this great group of musician to play with when I first came down here. I left [Austin, Texas] when I was ten month pregnant, Halloween of '87, to go stay at my Mom's and have the baby. I had the baby and saw that everything was fine. Being a mother is pretty natural. Bought a Volkswagen van and headed west."
"That was when I realized that I was going to have to push start it all the way. I had to push start it all the way to Texas! You rolled it down the hill and let the clutch out. I was nursing the baby because he was six weeks old. We had to go through the mountains. I had pulled over in the mountains and the heater did not work. I was pulled over and having to face down hill because I was alone in the mountains. I looked at this baby, Baby Austin, on this pillow in this beautiful van that we had set up like a little home. He just smiled at me. I took a picture of him. I still have a photo of that moment. At that moment, I knew everything was going to be all right. Some kind of patience came over me...like okay, there is a reason things are unfolding as they are suppose to. I became assured that everything was going to be fine." This was in 1988.
This now brings Leeann to Austin in 1988 with her new baby. "The Austin Songwriters Group had invited me to perform at South By Southwest ( SXSW ). Two of my songs had gotten special recognition before I had left town when I was pregnant. I had one first place in the Music Umbrella and Austin Songwriters contests in 1987. After the baby was born the Songwriters Group asked me to come back and perform. So, I did. The gal who had won second place, Gina Fant, offered me her guest house in Wimberly to write with her. I stayed out in Wimberly with Gina and wrote. Baby Austin had a good time out there. It was the spring of 1988."
"I went back to Nashville for the summer and stayed in the studio and recorded songs. I came back here with Rolo Smith in the fall of '88. I lived with another friend and started playing at happy hour at Ravens. I got to share Chris Wall's band and play happy hour with them." In 1987 and 1989 Leeann was asked to participate in the Kerrville Folk Festival. " I played at Ravens; I was really green. In Nashville I played guitar in a studio type band. I gave up playing an instrument when I started singing. That was all I really wanted to do. I would go over to the Chicago House and sing some and did a lot of solo work. My Nashville friend Eric Paul, a recording engineer, was living out at Perdernales working for Willie [Nelson]. I got to work out there a lot too. When I worked with Eric I met Rich Brotherton. Rich started playing with me a little on my solo gigs. He is phenomenal! I love playing with him! He produced a few songs on my last record and he produced my whole new record [Lady Liberty]. Rich helped me a lot. He encouraged me a lot."
"I continued writing. I really wanted to learn to write alone. In Nashville they all write together, co-writing. I wanted to write alone, not write stuff that was so chiseled apart. I don't think I am a great writer. Maybe those guys are great writers. I don't know who is a great writer. I just like to feel a song. I don't care if it makes a lot of sense. I went through a little bit of the folky thing. When you are playing an acoustic guitar, it sounds like folk music. I was pegged pretty much a singer/songwriter because I was singing my songs without a band. It was new to me because that was not what I did in Nashville. Then I put together a band in 1994." In 1995 her CD "Only Glory" was put out. It was pieced together from about 10 years of work. She co-wrote every song on that album.
"I loved my band. I loved the electric band. My life is changing. I started writing more blues oriented stuff. I have a whole album worth of that kind of music that I have not put out yet. It is already done." That project is not completed because the band fell apart. She got a gig at the Saxon Pub and new band started growing. "I always like to have really good guitar players. My friends would say, 'Leeann, we don't even care if you don't play guitar at all. We don't care who your band is. We don't care how bad you guitar playing is. Just sing your songs!' I have been encouraged a lot just to do that. That has made me feel more comfortable. I use to be hung up on not being a very good musician or thinking I really need to be better. People really do like to hear the song. I do. I really do not care about how great somebody plays a guitar. I guess I kept side-stepping myself and getting away from the song and trying to do the band thing cause I thought how much fun that would be. We started recording more and started doing more of a live thing when we were at the Saxon Pub."
" I had another child in this period, Mason, who was born in 1993. I got married again in 1992. "She thought having a father figure for Austin might be a good thing, but things did not work out. "All things work out for the best." To make ends meet she worked at the Austin Chronicle in advertising. Leeann now works at the Austin American Statesman in retail advertising.
Asked ten years from now what goals she hopes to accomplish, she responds, "I hope I have gotten to tour Europe again. I toured Europe with my band when I was in Nashville. I hope that I have two more good records, at least two more good records and one more of Mike Stevenson songs. In 20 years time I want to be singing jazz and blues in Amsterdam. In the next ten years I want to play festivals and have written-up a good bunch of songs, and maybe have a cut or two. So, if I am going to keep dreaming and wishing, let somebody else cut some of my songs. They can go work them. I love singing though. I like to perform."
Asked what is the best thing she gains or enjoys most from her profession, she responds, " I think when you are in a space, a zone, whatever it is, you are connected with the universal energy like God. I think you are in a god-state and you are connecting with all the others that are [connecting] right then. It feels like my highest good and I like that. I feel like my ego is gone and I am just doing my highest good, being in that space where you are connected with everybody else."
I asked her about what is the worst thing about her line of work. " The worst thing is how ego does try to step in and control it and judge it, put jealousies in there, make you feel inadequate. When modern culture plays a part in art where it is more a marketing thing, it's not really heartfelt. That's the worst thing. The worst thing is when I get caught up in that."
How would you like the world and your friends to remember you? " I would like to be remembered as a warm facilitator that brought folks together emotionally and other ways, together to experience that same feeling that I'm having....where I get to be in that one space. I would like to be remembered as someone who generously opened up and warmly gave the gift that I was given to give and that in turn helps someone else to open up to give more."
Is there anything you want your fans to know about you? " I love good songs and I am always looking to hear more great songs and great singers, great performers. I want more inspiration. I feel real fortunate to have met Mike Stevenson and have gotten to sing with him. So, what I would like my friends and fans to know about me...being a Scorpio and we keep so much back, it is hard to open right up and talk about ourselves."
What projects do you have coming up in the future? " Mike and I are going to get to do another record, at least that's what the record company says. Mike has been working on songs that we have been writing together. I am now happier musically than I have ever been in my life!"
Interview of Leeann Atherton conducted on 5-26-1999
Leeann's Official Website
Copyright - 1999 - Paul Johnston