February 23, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 4
The Envelope Please...
Phil Leadbetter of The New South ponders the prize
by Chris Barrett
Knoxville dobro picker Phil Leadbetter's career is that rare, storybook
tale of the kid who borrows a glove for neighborhood stickball, does token
time in the farm leagues, then makes it to "the show." Before
the neighbors even realize he's gone, they see him on TV. It's the stuff
dreams are made of.
Not all that many summers ago, you could've heard him for free, pickin'
on a car fender outside Buddy's Bar-B-Q out on Kingston Pike. This year,
he's already been on stage at the Bijou twice, first with Tony Rice, then
as a member of J. D. Crowe's legendary New South. An album he recorded with
Crowe has been nominated for a Grammy.
"You always enjoy your hometown crowd," says Leadbetter. "There's
nothing any better than that. The thing that's different about playing with
J. D. is the traveling. We were out in Seattle a few months back, and people
just come up and start talking to you like they know you.
"It's great, but you kind of feel like you shouldn't be there. It seems
like the kind of thing that ought to be happening to other people."
Leadbetter picked up the dobro in 1975. He played with a local band called
Knoxville Newgrass back when the real specialty of the house at that particular
Buddy's was live bluegrass. Knoxville Newgrass were mostly teenagers. They
had to play first, and at least pretend to go home early. After he and his
friends turned the stage over to adults, they'd regroup in the parking lot,
jamming, swapping chops, and learning new songs off the car tape deck.
Leadbetter laughs, remembering that one of the hottest bands recording then
was Crowe's original New South band, with Ricky Skaggs on guitar and vocals
and Jerry Douglas on dobro.
In '87, Leadbetter left Knoxville for the bright lights of Nashville. A
friend in Music City lined him up with an audition for Grandpa Jones, of
Hee-Haw and Grand Ole Opry fame. He landed the gig, and backed Jones at
the Opry and on the road.
"Now, that guy would travel!" says Leadbetter. "He'd get
behind the wheel of his motor home and drive us to New York, only stopping
to go the bathroom.
"He's a comedian, you know. Unlike most people, when he screwed up,
he got a standing ovation. He had it made."
After two years with Grandpa Jones, Leadbetter spent nearly a year traveling
with country singer Vern Gosdin. Leadbetter says that playing country made
it obvious he belonged in bluegrass. He's been with New South for almost
four years now.
"J. D.'s got the sound I like," Leadbetter says. "The New
South was some of the first music I had. After I joined the band, I started
finding it's the little bitty things in the music that really makes it.
J. D. showed me that, rather than putting every note you know in a measure,
it's better to use fewer notes with good taste.
"It's kind of like what B. B. King does. He could rip a guitar up,
but sometimes he'll just work that one string and hold it."
With Crowe at the helm, the New South stands apart from the ranks of bluegrass
speed demons. They take it slow, and can play a rest with more impact than
most others could play a riff.
On Flashback, the album that's been nominated Best Bluegrass Album of 1994,
Crowe, Leadbetter and company walk confidently where others would run. The
standard "Long Journey Home" finally gets the arrangement that
the lyrics deserve. As it was recorded by Reno and Smiley or Bill Monroe,
"Long Journey Home" must have been a favorite of speed trap cops
across the country. Those early pickers rode it like a runaway train, and
the natural response to hearing it on a car radio would be to try to make
the trees go by as fast as possible.
But the song's a bluegrass blues. If a fellow truly had "lost all his
money but a two-dollar bill," he'd be shuffling home, humble-like.
Behind Crowe's banjo and the mournful lyrics, Leadbetter bends and sends
sweetly glissed notes to fill the cracks. Instead of coming at you like
a cloud of bird shot, Leadbetter's sounds bloom like wildflowers on a sunny
spring day. One or two here, another there, but each one exactly where it
ought to be.
Rather than biting his nails, waiting for the Grammy ceremonies on March
1, Leadbetter seems to have risen above it all. His schedule prevents him
from attending, so he'll get the word by phone. Or maybe he'll let the answering
machine get it. But he's enjoying being a nominee, alongside names like
Jerry Douglas and Del McCoury, and is determined to be happy no matter where
the fickle finger of fate points.
And as a member of the bluegrass first string, the other nominees are his
friends now. "I just feel lucky. There's somebody in every one of those
other groups who's a friend of mine. I'm happy just to be included in the
same group as those guys.
"I'm just enjoying it so much. I'd do it for free."
© Metro Pulse