Sony Deals Danni Leigh a Parting ‘Shot’

Artist, Manager and Label Chief Discuss What Went Down

Danni Leigh‘s latest album, A Shot of Whiskey & a Prayer, takes its name from a ritual she goes through before each concert. It could also be the prescription for her woes in the rough-and-tumble music business.

On March 19, Leigh signed with Audium Entertainment, her third label in a little over two years. She is at work on her third album, teaming with producer Pete Anderson, noted guitarist and producer for Dwight Yoakam . Leigh’s look and sound have prompted more than a few scribes to describe her as the “female Dwight Yoakam.”

A Strasburg, Va., native, Leigh, 31, made a minor splash in 1998 when Decca Records released her debut album, 29 Nights, and a single and video, “If the Jukebox Took Teardrops.” Just as the second single/video, “29 Nights,” was released, Decca went out of business when its parent company, Universal Music Group, merged with Polygram Records. Sheila Shipley Biddy, Decca chief when the label closed, has continued to guide Leigh’s career as her personal manager.

Leigh moved quickly to Sony’s Monument Records — the Dixie Chicks’ label — and once again was poised for stardom. After two singles from A Shot of Whiskey & a Prayer stiffed last year, Sony showed her the door. However, in an unusual move, Sony put out the album in February, three months after she left the label.

“I really don’t know what I’ve done wrong to radio,” Leigh says candidly. “I wish I could figure it out, I really do, because every ounce of my body would love to have my songs played on commercial radio.”

Allen Butler, president of Sony Music Nashville, first heard Leigh through her music videos. He felt she would be a good fit for his label. Only three months after the demise of Decca, Butler signed her to Sony on April 20, 1999.

“I was totally enthralled with her two videos on CMT and certainly recognized that she is unique, which is hard to find these days in country music,” Butler admits. “Sheila Shipley Biddy had done a really good job of setting Danni up. For a record label, if somebody else has done a lot of the leg work, it makes our job generally easier.”

Picking up where 29 Nights left off, Leigh continued to align herself with the Bakersfield Sound, a brand of hard-edged honky-tonk music honed by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the ’60s and popularized by Yoakam today.

Richard Bennett and Emory Gordy Jr. produced Whiskey & a Prayer, teaming up for the first time since overseeing Steve Earle’s classic Guitar Town album in 1986. Leigh co-wrote three songs for the set and rounded it out with tunes by noted songwriters such as Kevin Welch, Leslie Satcher, Al Anderson, Stacy Dean Campbell, Paul Kennerley and Charlie Robison.

“Honey I Do,” the first single (and only video) from Whiskey & a Prayer, peaked at No. 59 on Billboard‘s country chart last April. Faring only slightly better, “I Don’t Feel That Way” reached No. 56 in July. Leigh and Sony parted ways before the next scheduled single, “Longnecks, Cigarettes,” got out of the gate.

“We spent a fortune showcasing her to radio,” Butler maintains. “We did two huge showcases where we flew people into Austin, Texas, then flew people into Boston. By our standards, they were first-class, big-dollar showcases. We wined and dined them and played golf with them and everything else we could do. She was totally a priority. We were in pretty deep, way in over a half-million dollars.

“However, we moved in a direction musically and creatively with her that radio wasn’t going. Radio has almost gone totally pop on us, especially for females, and she’s a fairly traditional artist. We hit walls everywhere.”

Leigh’s retro-Western, Yoakam-style image may have been a hindrance at radio, Butler speculates.

“This is a time when Dwight isn’t at the peak of his career with country radio,” he reasons. “In some ways, maybe that made it harder for them to embrace her as an artist. She’s unique in the fact that she’s a hat act. Her and Terri Clark, that’s about it, and even Terri is doing more pop stuff now to a certain extent.”

Leigh is not in a hurry to shed comparisons to Yoakam. In addition to making her next album with Anderson — Yoakam’s right hand man — she opened about 15 concerts for Yoakam last fall. Leigh believes Yoakam provides a reference point for fans to get a handle on her approach.

“When I was out on tour with Dwight,” Leigh says, “I sat down with him one night and asked him if it was weird for him to hear that people call me the ‘female Dwight.’ I was just wondering what he thought about it, if he thought I was trying to step on his toes. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘I thought the same thing with Buck Owens. I came out and people thought I sounded like Buck, but the God-honest truth is we’re just doing what’s natural, what’s comfortable, and it’s really all you got.’”

During her tour with Yoakam, Leigh reached a crisis with Sony. Waiting on a hit, they pushed back her album release date five or six times, and she had no new album in stores to promote on the road.

“Not only did I do the Dwight tour,” Leigh says, “but I did my own shows in between, and I never saw any direct, hard push from my record label while I was out on tour. I could have been at radio stations while I was out there, but they never gave me anything. It just felt like a major letdown.”

Butler postponed the album’s release because Sony policy dictates that albums only come out after they yield a hit single. “Touring with Dwight, that was great, and it was a neat opportunity for her,” Butler says, “but it wasn’t enough dates to impact an album selling. You can’t get pricing and positioning in a retail store because somebody is out on tour with Dwight Yoakam. You have to have a hit. We don’t release albums here until they have a hit single. There’s no reason for it.”

So why did the album come out in February — after Leigh was off the roster? Sony and Leigh’s camp offer different views.

Last November, Leigh and Biddy met with Butler and Mike Kraski, Sony Nashville’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We learned Sony had decided not to go forward with the project,” Biddy says. “They weren’t going to release a third single or make a video or release the album. Danni and I were fine with that. We left there that day thinking that maybe it was for the best.”

Leigh’s official Web site posted the news that the singer was off the label and that Whiskey & a Prayer wouldn’t see the light of day. Biddy says the album’s fate changed when she received an e-mail a few days later from Dale Libby, vice president of sales at Sony Nashville.

“He said they had a little bit more response from retailers than they first anticipated and would like to put the album out,” Biddy says. “Dale asked if we minded. He said he’d have to have our blessing on it.

“I didn’t see a downside,” Biddy continues. “In hindsight, maybe it was wrong, but I thought, ‘Gee, why not. We’ve had so many e-mails from fans around the world that have wanted the album.’”

A limited number of CDs were released on a “fan demand” basis. Buyers here and overseas turned to Internet outlets when they had a hard time finding the album in local stores. Biddy reports that the album has sold well on both Amazon.com and CDNOW.

“Sony only shipped about 12,000 pieces,” Biddy says, “which is a little bit less than I had hoped. But even at that, we sold over 4,000 in about five weeks.”

Butler contends that Biddy — not Sony — requested that the album be released.

“I had been getting a lot of e-mails and letters from Danni’s fans,” Butler explains. “Maybe that was generated by her management, I don’t know. It could have been totally contrived in a certain respect, but we were getting quite a bit of interest, or seemingly some demand, for an album out there. Since we had already decided that we weren’t going forward with any more singles to radio, they had asked if the album could come out. I said, ‘Yes, I will make this one concession, being that you’ve already had an album out previously and you may have some sort of fan base out there.’”

Sony’s rule about not releasing an album without a successful single isn’t a hard and fast maxim, apparently. Last week the company issued John Anderson’s Nobody’s Got It All on its Columbia imprint. The album’s first two singles performed no better than Leigh’s, stalling last year in the mid 50s.

“There’s a huge difference between a legend like John Anderson and a new artist like Danni Leigh,” Butler maintains. “John has sold multi-platinum records and has a secured fan base that we can market him to.”

Sony briefly entertained the idea of shifting Leigh from Monument to its Lucky Dog imprint, home to alternative-country acts such as Charlie Robison, Jack Ingram and BR5-49 not tailored for commercial country radio.

“After the first single met with less than stellar success at radio, Danni asked Allen to move her to Lucky Dog, knowing that maybe commercial radio would never accept her,” Shipley recalls. “Basically, he said the label had too much money wrapped up in the project for her to be on Lucky Dog. Most of those albums cost less than $50,000 to record and they didn’t have the kind of overhead in those artists that they had with Danni.”

Additional factors played into Sony’s decision to keep Leigh on Monument. “Lucky Dog artists are basically based out of Texas, they work anywhere from 100 to 150 dates a year and they’ve spent a lot of time building up fan bases and a concert base that they can be self-supporting on,” Butler points out. “Danni doesn’t have any of that, unfortunately.”

All parties involved agree that Leigh’s departure was amicable.

“It was all left on positive terms with the label,” Biddy states. “I feel like they really believed in Danni. They tried to do the best that they could to market her, but they had a huge roster and major labels want a quick return on investment. They want to sell millions of units, not thousands.”

Leigh took the setback in stride but adds, “It’s always hard leaving a piece of yourself behind. I did it at Decca, now I’ve had to do it at Sony. I feel like there is a big chunk of my soul that goes with these people. It’s hard to [stop working] with people that at one time were so fired up and believed in you so much.

“At Decca, the situation was different because the label closed,” Leigh continues. “The fire was still there. When the label went down, it was devastating to everybody. But with Sony, I had to sit there and look people in the face that had lost their fire. That was difficult.”

Biddy looks for Audium — whose roster includes Loretta Lynn, the Kentucky Headhunters and The Tractors — to take a different, more grassroots approach to marketing Leigh’s album when it’s released in late summer or early fall.

“That’s what Danni and I both hold on for, the right people who are willing to give it some time,” Biddy says. “That’s what it takes with an artist like this — time. You have to micro-market it.”

Leigh agrees.

“There are many new and exciting ways to present music to the world these days,” she says. “I needed a place that understood that, not to mention [one that] still believes in the best way of all — touring, and bringing music to the people.”

Before Leigh hits the stage each night, she rallies her band into a sing-along of “It Don’t Get Any Better Than This,” a George Jones album cut that features guest vocalists Haggard, Waylon Jennings,Bobby Bare and Willie Nelson.

“We blast that song so loud and sing at the top of our lungs and pour ourselves a shot,” Leigh says. “It feels good going down, and we toast to another night. There’s nothing else we’d rather be doing. Like the song says, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

After drinks, music and camaraderie, Leigh spends a quiet moment by herself before greeting her audience. “I always take the time to say a prayer thanking ‘The Man’ for letting me do it again.

“It took me a long time to be able to get out and tour and create my own albums. I’ll never stop doing it and I know that this journey has only just begun.”