Rock ‘n roll rarely involves matters of life and death, but for Nashville-based singer, songwriter and music journalist Andrew Leahey, it’s certainly proved plausible. During the lead up to his initial album Skyline in Central Time‘s release, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that showed up dangerously close his hearing nerve, giving him cause to worry that he’d not only lose his hearing, but very possibly his life as well. He successfully underwent 12 hours of surgery, but also had to undergo a recovery period that lasted more than a year.
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Although the malignancy could have ended in tragedy, Leahey not only pulled through, but became more determined than ever to pursue his craft with a voracity to excel even more. He became newly inspired, endowed with a resolve and resilience that’s fully reflected in a decidedly insurgent sound and his own abject determination.
“It’s made me very driven, sometimes to the point of mania,” he reflects some five years later. “I think you could ask some of the musicians who toured with me during the first two or three years after the operation, and they’d tell you that I was a little too overzealous. I was like, ‘We will take every show that’s offered to us and we will play each gig as though it’s our last, because it very well could be, because a doctor might someday tell you that you have a brain tumor.’ I scared a lot of bandmates away with that mentality, but I think I eventually learned the right lesson, which would read something like this: work as hard as needed to chase down your goals because the world could end tomorrow… but remember to enjoy today in the meantime.”
That’s clearly a lesson Leahey’s taken to heart, and as evidenced by his most recent album, Airwaves, he’s a kind of heartland hero, a dedicated rocker whose work brings quick comparisons to Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, the Black Crowes and others that share their inspiration with savvy, swagger, grit, and passion.”
To be sure, Leahey readily references his influences and the music that provides his means of motivation. “I’m a big fan of pop hooks and rock bands,” he reflects. “Tom Petty is my favorite — that’s probably obvious to anyone who’s heard Airwaves, which was a tribute to the era of pop/rock radio that Petty dominated. I’m also a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison, the Talking Heads, Big Star, the Jayhawks, the Hollies, and a bunch of ’80s stuff that others would call a guilty pleasure, but I just call a pleasure.”
Like everyone, the pandemic took its toll on his efforts, and yet he’s hardly been idle. “I’ve been able to keep working, although not in the way I’d planned,” he concedes. We’ve been playing weekly live streams for an entire year, and those gigs have kept us pretty sharp. We put a lot of effort into playing a new set every week, so we’ve learned more than 300 covers — including stuff that’s very much outside of our wheelhouse, like Joe Jackson, Benny Goodman, Madonna, the Bee Gee’s, Mariah Carey, Whitesnake, etc. It’s gratifying to hear that we’ve become a Thursday night tradition for a number of people. That’s the goal, really — to make a difference in someone else’s life with our music, the way that other people’s music has made a difference in our own lives.”
He and his regular b asking band The Homestead have also released a series of singles at the rate of approximately one a month— “Until There’s Nothing But Air,” “Mercury,” Missing the Missing,” “Keep the Car Running,” and “New Memories (4202 Franklin)” — the latter a reference to his mother’s struggle with Alzheimers. In addition, Leahey says that he has a double album’s worth of material ready for release, but there are a few more songs he’d like to record before the project is set in stone. “Maybe we’ll whittle down the track list to a single album,” he muses. “Maybe we’ll release two albums during the same year. It’s up in the air right now, but isn’t everything?”
In addition to his other activities, he’s been a regular member of Elizabeth Cook’s backing band, and has contributed to every one of her albums since 2017.
Nevertheless, Leahey says that he may soon have enough work to keep him busy on his own. “We’re getting gig offers again, but I really want to wait until everyone has access to a vaccine before I accept something,” he insists. “The night the tornado struck Nashville, I had left the building ten minutes before it hit. Two employees were still in the venue at the time, and although they were able to run into the basement and avoid injury, I think everyone in the band still feels a lot of guilt for being the reason those guys were even at work that evening. As a result, I want to do everything possible to make sure that my next show doesn’t put people in harm’s way like my last one almost did.”
Not surprisingly, Leahey takes a philosophical view of the ups and downs he’s encountered, from the terrible tumor that could have taken his life and the perils of the pandemic, to the multiple tragedies that took a toll on his native Nashville, not least of which was the Christmas morning bombing. “The bombing felt like one final twist of the knife before 2020 made its exit,” he reflects. “I’m just looking forward to the bacchanalian explosion of live shows and indoor dining and movie theater visits once this thing ends.”
He even suggests that perhaps there’s a silver lining in the midst of all the turbulence and trouble.
“I’ve learned that disaster can be a good thing because it reminds you to count your blessings,” he opines. “I don’t want to live in a world where the sun always shines. I need to know what a rainy day feels like… otherwise, it’s just too easy to take good weather for granted. During the weeks before my operation, I was listening to my favorite records with a new set of ears, because I’d finally realized that it’s such a privilege to be alive during a time when art, headphones, and badass rock & roll music exist. I was worried I’d learned that lesson too late. It was like, ‘Ok, I finally understand how wonderful it is to hear things, and now I’m about to undergo an operation knowing there’s a good chance my doctor will have to cut my hearing nerve.’ When I woke up in the hospital and heard my Dad tell me that the doctors were able to preserve my hearing, my first thought was ‘Alright, game on.’ I try to hold onto that perspective, year after year.”