Every so often the humidity in Austin, Texas, Leeann Atherton’s adopted hometown, hangs so heavy in the air that even a few minutes out-of-doors feels undeniably sultry. Then a storm breaks open the sky and rain flows like cosmic champagne, and when the sun comes out the next morning a magnificent breeze caresses the town, smelling like it just got in from the Atlantic coast.
Something similar happens listening to Leeann Atherton. Like the singer herself, who came to Austin via Charleston and Nashville, her songwriting suitcase is full of a seamless blend of twang, soul, gospel and blues owing a lot to Leeann Atherton’s background. Steeped in southern roots, stewed in Texas blues, raised by a hillbilly housewife and an Alabama gentleman in Charleston, South Carolina, away from the shopping mall culture, she put herself through college singing in a beach music dance band. She studied the spirituals of the South Carolina islands, sat in with a rural black choir, and joined the hardened professionals at work in Nashville song factories. “I loved the way those Ft. Worth boys sang “baby””, Leeann gleams. A road trip to Texas was all it took, and Leeann’s independent roots flourished in the fertile musical ground of Austin.
Her first Texas recording sessions at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio introduced her to acclaimed guitarist and producer, Rich Brotherton where the two quickly formed a musical friendship resulting in her first independent release “Only Glory”. Rich was then chosen by Steppin Stone Records to produce her acclaimed Americana recording “Lady Liberty”, garnering #1 in local and independent charts (Austin Chronicle, No Depression), and receiving international airplay. Her journey continued with self-produced releases “Mama’s House” an acoustic/electric blend of twang and folk and “Every Day Dream” a soulful look at the blues.
Along the way Leeann caught the attention of the legendary Slim Richey resulting in the two recording a CD of Jazz standards together titled “Limited Edition” before returning to her roots with “Heart Traveled Road”, once again with Rich Brotherton in the producers’ seat, along with a hand-picked cast of Austin’s #1 List of session players. “Barefoot Fields” would come along next for Leeann and Rich and is an intimate collection of low-key torch songs and Leeann admits, “I wanted something that reminded me of my folky, hippie days. It’s stripped down, laid back and cozy.” Atherton added, “I like to lose myself in a song and working with Rich made that easy to do. His ability to flesh out the harmonies brought out the best in the songs.”
Her latest release “Fallen Angel” takes the singer in a new, but not unfamiliar, direction complete with a full-band sound that covers a wide range of emotions brilliantly and highlights the veteran performer’s extensive range. Produced by Mac McNabb the record features some amazing performances by another group of great Austin musicians including a resurrected drum track featuring Barry “Frosty” Smith, one of Leeann’s longtime friends and former bandmates.
In a recent review of the new album for Americana Highways, Bill Bentley had this to say: “… all twelve songs (on Fallen Angel) paint a portrait of someone who’s been chasing the sound long enough to know it’s the journey and not the destination that supplies the kicks, and eternity can often be found in the questions that never really need to be answered. As a special sign-off, Atherton’s a capella “Motherless Children’s Club,” sung spontaneously at her mother’s memorial, reminds us all where we came from, and where we’re going. Right on time.”
Atherton is known far and wide for her powerful, larger than life vocals, imbuing every performance with a stirring passion. Her voice is a force of nature, as electrifying and volatile as the weather in her hometown of Austin, Texas. It has been said that she combines Bonnie Raitt’s grit, Billie Holiday’s understated soulfulness with her own exuberant spirit into a sound all her own that is equal parts honey and gunpowder. She’s able to shake your body and lift you up, while keeping your feet firmly anchored to the earth. Truly a Fallen Angel among us.