During the COVID-19 crisis, with its self-isolation mandates and travel bans, many people seem to fully appreciate just how important their relationships with others are now that those bonds are threatened. That’s a realization that Andrew Leahey, frontman for heartland rock and roll band Andrew Leahey & the Homestead, had to learn even before this pandemic, when his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago.
“I wish Mom could get better. I would call her every damn day. I wouldn’t take it for granted like I guess I was doing earlier,” Leahey says, calling from his Nashville home.
This situation with his mother is the subject of Leahey’s poignant new single, “New Memories (4202 Franklin),” which is being released on May 15. While much of his band’s work is in the vein of high-energy classic rock acts like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, this wistful ballad is a notable departure, more akin to Jackson Browne and Van Morrison material. “When you’re going to write a song about your mom having Alzheimer’s, it’s hard to turn it into this big rock and roll anthem,” Leahey says wryly.
“I wanted to write a song about the difficulty of the disease, where I still spend time with my mom and we still have interactions together, but those interactions happen only in real time and they don’t stay in her memory. They’re just gone after they occur.
“One out of every three senior citizens dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia,” Leahey continues, “and while I understand that most bands aren’t singing about this because it’s crushingly sad, and certainly not very rock and roll, it’s still a common battle that’s left scars on more families than we realize. Good songs either challenge an audience’s perspective or reinforce what the audience already knows. Maybe “New Memories (4202 Franklin)” can do both. I’m hoping it’s a rallying cry for healthy families, reminding them to make the most of their time together…and I also hope it gives some empathy to those who are in my position, or my Dad’s position, or Mom’s position.”
Leahey’s mother, Katie, had been a teacher, and she was responsible for setting Leahey on the path that eventually led to his music career. At five years old, after watching his older brother learn to play the guitar, Leahey begged his mother to allow him to take lessons, too. “And my mom was like, ‘Will you keep with it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ And I did.”
And, Leahey says, when he was in middle school, his mother put him in choir “against my will! It’s not cool and kids are going to make fun of it. But it wound up being so amazing. It gave me an outlet, not only creatively but socially, as well. It completely changed my life. So my whole music career is rooted in Mom’s influence.”
His mother is also the reason why Leahey has undertaken extensive charity work. He is the “Celebrity Chairperson” for the Rutherford County, Tennessee “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” fundraising event. “My mom has always been a good example of, it’s great that you’re playing music, you should put it to use beyond just playing gigs.”
Leahey also plays music with an organization called Musicians on Call, where musicians go into hospital rooms and play one or two songs for patients. “It’s wonderful,” Leahey says of the experience – and he really knows this is true, because he has also been on the receiving end of such visits when he had his own health scare in 2013, when he was diagnosed with having a brain tumor that required surgery. “A Musician on Call came to play for me so I got to experience how much it helps.”
Any brain tumor is a horrible enough thing – but the one afflicting Leahey was on his hearing nerve, and there was a big risk that he’d never hear properly again – the worst possible prospect for a musician. And the necessary surgery and lengthy recovery were, Leahey says, “completely cataclysmic to my life at that point. It took a year and a half to get back on track.”
That health scare, while awful, also revealed Leahey’s deep dedication to playing music, “because when I did get better and I beat a lot of the odds I was given in terms of what was going to happen, I felt like here’s another chance. Because I thought I was going to lose my hearing, it really crystallized what it even is to make music.”
After recovering, Leahey and his band put out their 2016 debut album, Skyline in Central Time, which had a more Americana feel. The band’s 2019 follow up, Airwaves, took their music in a bigger rock direction. “Airwaves was very much rooted in the rock and roll that I first heard on the radio in the late ‘80s: huge Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty productions with tons of reverb and. It wasn’t an attempt to be a retro thing. It was just a salute to that kind of sound.”
Next up, Leahey plans to release a series of songs each month, which will eventually culminate in an entire album. This is a strategic move, aimed at encouraging people to give each track closer attention than they otherwise might. “I feel like people aren’t is used to listening to whole albums anymore, so I wanted to put out an album where everybody could hear every song and digest the whole thing but spread that out over a year.”
Leahey knows that the year ahead will be difficult for musicians – and everyone else. But after enduring his own struggles, and helping his family through more difficulties, he also understands that optimism and gratitude can arise out of even the toughest times. “Once everything goes back to whatever our new normal is going to be, I hope it’s going to be like a permanent Christmas morning,” he says. “You need to see what the opposite is before you can even understand. It’s a hard lesson to learn without going through an experience like this. I wish we could learn it without going through this [pandemic], but if we can learn that, then there’s a silver lining to the whole thing.”