MOORHEAD — Local fans won’t be able to see Brennen Leigh playing around town this holiday season, but they can hear her sing a new holiday tune.
The Moorhead native teamed up with Rodney Crowell on his latest album, “Christmas is Everywhere,” writing and recording the duet, “Merry Christmas from an Empty Bed.”
She first heard from Crowell, a celebrated Nashville singer-songwriter, a few years ago after legendary country singer-songwriter Guy Clark gave him one of Leigh’s demos. Crowell called her to say that he loved her work.
A few years later, when Leigh was on the road around the holidays, Crowell reached out again, sending her a fragment of a song he was stuck writing called “Merry Christmas from an Empty Bed” and asked, “Can you do something with this?”
“It was a lot of pressure. Rodney had written me half a song and I needed to write in the other half and somehow tie it up,” Leigh says. “So I sent him a verse when I got done with the tour and he loved it. We recorded it as a duet and I couldn’t be more happy about that. Him being happy with it made me really happy with it, and he tied it up really nicely at the end.”
Crowell was so taken with her songwriting that he invited her to his songwriting camp, where she got top billing alongside Bernie Taupin, Lisa Loeb and Joe Henry.
“Merry Christmas from an Empty Bed” is sung from the perspectives of two former lovers, with Leigh writing her lines.
“There’s a certain melancholy about Christmas that he captured on the record,” she says. “I was feeling it, too, when we wrote it.”
Sad songs, of course, are no stranger to country music, and Leigh recently wrapped up another year on the road with the touring show Dysfunctional Family Christmas. The family in this case are all close friends, Leigh and fellow singer-songwriters Tennessee Jet and organizer Sunny Sweeney.
It’s dysfunctional in name only, though. The artists all share the stage, the spotlight and even play along on each other’s songs.
“It gets a little crazy. No one uses their filter,” Leigh says.
It may be awhile before the seasonal show makes it to Fargo-Moorhead. Leigh says they often play Minneapolis — where crowds get rowdy — and then head back south. The singer says she’s interested in bringing the Christmas craziness to town if she can find the right space.
“I would love to take this to the homefront,” she says.
She likes to mix in some old church hymns, like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with folk classics like John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” and a newer tune by her musical partner, Noel McKay and Becky Warren, “Merry Christmas... .”
There’s a final word in the title, but it’s, well, language best left in the barn with the animal it describes. Still, it turns out that cussing can be kinda Christmassy.
“That’s going over well,” Leigh says with a laugh.
She has no trouble getting in the Christmas spirit, especially since she spent much of November touring Norway.
“It felt pretty Christmassy there. Oslo really lights up in the winter,” she says.
While Norwegians may be viewed as stoic and reserved here in the States, Leigh has found them to be a fun crowd that really appreciates their country music, with youngsters particularly drawn to honky-tonk.
“I noticed that 12 to 13 years ago when I started going over there, you go to the festivals and people are just nuts about it,” she says. “They’re like Texans — a very receptive, joyful audience.”
Part of the appeal may not only be the music, but that Leigh has learned how to sing in Norwegian. She recorded a couple of songs in Norwegian during her last trip.
“I had help learning to sing Norwegian, which is harder than speaking the limited Norwegian that I speak,” she says.
Fans can look for that and a new recording produced by alt-country icon Robbie Fulks and legendary producer, engineer and indie rocker Steve Albini.