Leroy Virgil: The Farce the Music Interview
By Kevin Broughton
Americana. Roots music. Roots rock. Alt-country. Outlaw country. Interchangeable terms, when trying to classify the music we here at FTM try to promote – when we’re not busting on the mainstream “country” acts that pollute terrestrial radio airwaves. Sirius/XM has a channel dedicated to it. Number 60 on their satellite dial is “Outlaw Country,” and even in that niche you’ll find a lot of genre bending.
Steve Earle, a bona fide second-generation pioneer of the outlaw scene, came right out with it on his most recent album. Always subtle, Earle planted the flag – one hopes to signify an emergence from a decade’s worth of political activism – and named his record So You Wanna Be An Outlaw. Because we needed to be reminded how much of an outlaw he is, one assumes.
But if you asked Hellbound Glory’s Leroy Virgil, “Are you an outlaw?” he’d likely pause, ponder for a moment and say, “Sure!” with the happy grin of a kid about to play cowboys and Indians. And with the aid of a prodigious producer, he’s made probably the most outlaw album of the year.
Pinball has Shooter Jennings’ fingerprints all over it. He even shot a clever tease video for pre-sales, featuring a menacing woman of Asian extraction and a masked goon in a Hawaiian shirt wielding a bat. The songs, though – excepting a couple of covers – are vintage Leroy Virgil: benders, binges, breakups and blues, with the occasional jaded comic’s view of society at large.
“’Merica (The Good Ol’ Days)” kicks off the album in a brash, rollicking way. It’s a cynic’s state of the union – with citizens fueled by “alcohol and Adderall” – without being heavy-handed. There’s a wonderful cover of the elder Jennings’ “Six Strings Away,” but for my money the gem of this record is “Vandalism Spree,” the best white-trash love song since DBT’s “Zip City.” Somehow there’s a sweet and tender quality to the idea of burning down the Dairy Queen and maybe robbing a cash machine.
To fully appreciate Hellbound Glory, though, you have to talk to Leroy. More accurately, ask a few questions then just take your hands off the wheel. You’re along for the ride. That’s all. More topically, the conversation is pinball-like.
I think this is real. Let’s see where this goes.
Okay, is it pronounced “LEE-Roy” or “L’roy?”
I don’t know, man, whichever is fine. Say it however you want to say it.
Well, how do you say it?
I say it differently every time it comes out of my mouth.
Well played. You’ve been on Shooter Jennings label for a while; is this the first record of yours he’s produced? I ask because the first time I listened to Pinball I heard echoes of his The Other Life album.
Well, a couple years ago we went out to Nashville to record some of the songs that are on this album, and it didn’t really come together. We just sat on the phones for a couple years and he finally hit me up a year ago and said, “Hey, let’s try again on this album.” And he picked the songs, put the band together and really called the shots. It’s been a lot of fun.
So the band he put together…well, let me back up. Y’all are fixin’ to kick off a tour together; will y’all be using the same band?
Yeah. They joined my band and I joined theirs.
Okay. So is Hellbound Glory kind of like Son Volt, which is Jay Farrar and whatever musicians happen to be playing with him at the time?
Well, yeah. A couple years ago, I decided to kill the band off. It was a sort of ritual on Halloween. I had a coffin. There was a guy dressed up as a priest. I didn’t want to go that far, but it was a very strange night. You know, out in the middle of nowhere, a strange, tiny bar…some burn victims…
Yeah, things got kinda crazy.
You know, that whole area is in this burial ground place where people came out during the Gold Rush and gave the Indians blankets that had smallpox on them so they could get to the gold faster. So they say that whole area is kind of cursed.
What could go wrong?
Yeah. So it was kind of a heavy trip.
I would think. Were you dosed?
(Giggles.) Well, I did some dosing, but I wasn’t dosed myself.
For the record, what’s your birth name?
My birth name is Leon Virgil Bowers.
Okay – and I’m jumping ahead in my questions here a little bit…I read your interview in Saving Country Music, where you talked about killing the name off. I’m curious, when you were a solo act under your birth name for a few years, was there confusion with the audiences? I ask because in the 70s when the Allman Brothers took a hiatus, Gregg and Dickey both did solo albums, but the latter billed himself on the record and tour as “Richard Betts.” Ticket and record sales underperformed as a result.
Oh, yeah. Lots of confusion, but I like to promote that kind of stuff. I just figured if I was gonna go out there with a different name, I might as well go with the name my mom gave me. I never ended up putting out a record. The deal was I needed to do something different, because the people I was working with, they weren’t sure I could use the name “Hellbound Glory” at the time.
So I had to change it. But it’s still up in the air. So, we’re still working on getting it worked out.
Well, not really working on it. I’m just playing in a band and calling it Hellbound Glory.
You know, just in the first few minutes of this thing, I’m starting to see how you and Shooter might be drawn to each other…
Yeah, we’re like cousins.
...y’all both seem to like a little bit of chaos going on. So did y’all not even know each other at all until a couple years ago, and he reached out to you?
Well, I was playing a gig in Reno at a place called Davidson’s, and he was playing right down the street at a Casino called Silver Legacy. So I just walked down and caught their sound check. And we didn’t really make a connection, but then later he heard of me and heard my songs, and now he’s one of my biggest fans.
Obviously. The characters in your songs are a collection of misfits – and that’s being kind.
(Laughs) Yeah, degenerates!
Their attitudes range from cynical to fatalistic to carefree – and certainly aren’t shy about discussing their benders and binges. What are they telling us about your general outlook on life?
Well…they’re just songs. They’re not me. I’d say this new album – I like the way it doesn’t end on a happy note. I guess it’s nihilistic in that way. But I’m not.
Oh, no. You did a symbolic, ritual killing-off of a band on a site where Indians got dosed with smallpox, but “nihilistic?” Nah. Please go on.
(Laughing) Well, I’m an artist. And a little bit skewed, I guess. But it’s the whole “Pinball” thing, you know? Life’s a game of pinball, where if you lose, you lose your soul. That’s kinda what I’m going for: staying in play as long as I can. But there’s the chaos thing you mentioned. Sometimes it’s hard not to slip. You follow me?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been wearing this record out for the last three weeks. The line, “We could steal some Keystone beer from an A-rab liquor store” has made “Vandalism Spree” one of my favorite songs of the year. You’re not a politically correct fella, are you?
Well, I didn’t realize it wasn’t politically correct.
I don’t even know what that song’s about. I don’t remember making it up. But there’s a lot of liquor stores run by…well, there’s a lot of liquor stores in Reno, and I’m friends with all of them. I don’t actually steal from them. (Giggles)
Do you think political correctness has taken some of the rough edges off of alt-country or outlaw music, and did you notice music being politicized in the genre last year and since?
Huh, that’s a really good question, let me think about that one for a minute. You know, I’ve never really thought about that too much. I was told I was gonna get some backlash for that lyric when I first wrote it and started singing it. The people I was working with wanted me to change it, and I tried to change it…
Yeah, I tried to change it but Shooter said he’d give me a Bitcoin if I left it the way it was…
I’m dying here…
…and now that Bitcoin is worth four thousand bucks.
I’m gonna interview Shooter eventually and I’ll just get him to explain how that stuff works. It’s just so nebulous to me.
Yeah, I don’t know too much about it, either. I just passed it off to my ex-wife. I gave her all of it, just to hold onto for my kid.
Well, that’s cool. If you can use it for child support it’s gotta be real, right?
Well, I tried. I tried. But, no luck. She wanted real money. But on the whole politics thing, I guess I’m just not smart enough to keep up with it. I’m more interested in what other people think. I guess it’s a good thing that people are venting and getting it out; maybe the pressure cooker will cool down a little bit.
Well, it’s either that or huffing spray paint and gasoline, like your guy in “Vandalism Spree.”
(Giggling) Yeah, exactly! There’s always that. But mostly I just follow what’s going on with the bands and music.
Who are you listening to these days?
Wheeler Walker, Jr.
I’ve been listening to him all day.
I haven’t heard his second album; the first was a work of brilliance.
It’s pretty good. It popped up – I had my music on “random,” and it popped up while I was driving my kid around and I tried to change it real fast and he was like, “What was that? Play it, play it!” So I had to.
How old is he?
My kid? He’s six. I was hoping to get Wheeler to play his birthday party but I couldn’t make it happen.
Maybe if you paid him in Bitcoin…
Bob Wayne. Are you familiar with Bob Wayne?
He’s pretty good. He’s a country artist who wrote some songs for Hank III. You know, maybe I’ll get him to play my son’s birthday party. Seems a little more feasible.
If you were granted one wish to change something about country music today, what would it be?
Well, I’d wish that I were at the top of it. I think I could do a lot of good for country music.
Well, it’s because my stuff is so real. It’s blues and it’s folk and it’s country. It’s all that…and maybe, I don’t know, maybe it’s too country. I grew up in the country, and I can’t tell if [today’s music] is too country or not country enough. But it’s boring. Boring! Yeah, that’s what it is.
That leads to my next question. In “That’s Just What I Am” you let folks know you aren’t from down South but still have country bona fides. No one who knows your work would dispute that. I’m curious what life was like growing up in rural Washington state, and whether you went on vandalism sprees from time to time.
(Laughs) You know, I bounced around quite a bit. By the time I was five years old, I had lived in California, Nevada, Utah and Washington. So I had lived pretty much all over the West, and I had also lived in Missouri and Arkansas by that time, too. I was all over the place.
But I grew up in Washington in the same town as Kurt Cobain, a little logging town called Aberdeen. My stepfather was an oyster farmer, so I had to spend every day after school at a farm. Just tromping around out in the woods – if I got in trouble at school I would have to go and work with him. I was always in a lot of trouble. (Laughs)
I was in so much trouble that if I was even halfway good during the week…I had to take a note to the office for them to say if I was bad or good. And if I was good, they’d give me ice cream. They chained me to my desk…
They made me make paper chains and chain myself to the desk. I’m working on a song called “Paper Chains.” It’s gonna be about divorce. Breaking paper chains. That’s country, huh? I think it’s pretty f*cking country.
Yeah, man. You’re legit. Did you end up getting much ice cream?
Once or twice, as I remember. But the lady in the office I had to go down to with the note, she said I was her favorite student she ever taught. She told my aunt I was a good kid. So she liked me.
When did you know that music was what you had to do for a living?
Driving around with my stepdad and mom, going back to Aberdeen from Olympia, and Nirvana’s Nevermind had come out. My dad was playing it in the car because he knew Krist Novocelik, the bass player. And he said, “I can play this song; this is easy.” And I said, “No you can’t! You can’t play this!”
And we got back to the house and he grabbed a guitar and started playing all these Nirvana songs. And I figured if he could do it and they could do it, I could do it.
And was that the first time you had picked up a guitar?
Well, yeah, other than just picking up guitars around the house and d*cking around with them.
Well, how old were you when Nevermind came out?
Let me think…I was 10.
Wow. So what are you, about 37?
Scrolling through the song titles during my first listen to Pinball, one jumped off the page. Guess which. It’s a cover
Hmmm. Let me think about the songs now…a cover. “Six Strings Away?” No, “Delta Dawn!”
Yes! I was in the second grade when Helen Reddy had a No. 1 hit with it, and had no idea until now that Tanya Tucker had done a version the year before. What in the world made you want to cut that one?
Tanya Tucker? I’d f*ck her. (Giggles for a while)
Someone requested it at a gig in Idaho, and we just started messing around with it. It just sounded so good that I just kept at it. But a few years ago I was married to a girl named Dawn. I’m not gonna say it was a tribute to her, but that’s how I just put my personal feelings into it. Know what I mean? I just think about her whenever I sing it.
Do you remember the first time you heard the song?
Right now I’m drawing a blank.
Was it the Tanya Tucker or Helen Reddy version, if you recall?
The one that first jumped out at me was the one Waylon did.
It was on a box set that, funnily enough, she (Dawn) bought me for Christmas, all those years ago. One of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten.
Waylon covered a bunch of really good songs.
What a great voice.
What else you got going on?
Right now I’m almost to Pittsburgh, on my way to a Shooter show in West Virginia. I’m not on the bill, but I am gonna get up and do a couple songs and promote my new thing. After this Pinball thing comes out I’m wanting to do a new project called Bird dog.
Bird Dawg – d-a-w-g. Songs about birds and dogs and p**sy and fishing.
I’ve got a bunch of pictures of dogs that I’m gonna autograph and sell, and all the money will go toward the album. I’ve got this song about mountain lions in Southern California. It’s…well, it’s not really a political song, but there’s a little bit of a message in it. It may be one of my most political songs ever. It’s about this mountain lion who can’t get back to his mate.
Okay, I’ll bite. How is there a political message in that?
Well, I’m not really…I’m just saying how it is, know what I mean?
It’s from the perspective of the mountain lion. And he’s just talking about how all these humans have come along, and now he can’t cross the freeway.
Can’t believe I didn’t pick up on something so obvious.
It’s my favorite song to sing right now.
Do you have a rough cut of it you could send me? For my ears only?
Sure! Be happy to. I need to demo it anyway.
Cool. Well, before we get to the project about birds and dogs and other favorite things, what do you have lined up tour-wise?
I cannot wait. I’m so excited to get out on the road and start playing songs and seeing all my fans and hanging out. I’m really looking forward to getting back out there.
I just landed a song in a movie, so I’m gonna take that money and get a cop car and just tour in that…
Yeah, me and Rico.
(Getting the feeling this has all been an Andy Kaufman-level put-on) Who’s…who’s Rico?
Rico…he’s not with me right now. He just moved out of my house, he was living in my spare bedroom. By the way, I’ve got an awesome house.
It overlooks all of Reno. I can see the whole entire town. It sits on top of a hill. And it’s filled with pinball machines. For Rico. He’s my steel guitar player.
But he’s a real person, right? Not an imaginary friend or an alternate personality? (Serious question at this point)
No, he’s…if I’m the Lone Ranger, he’s Tonto. But he’s not here right now. He…he doesn’t have an I.D., so he can’t get on an airplane…
Is he undocumented?
(Cackling) Yeah, you know, sometimes I wish they would ship him back. But he’s worked for me for a long time, and we’ve got chemistry. He and I have some really good chemistry you just don’t find every day. I’m really not that big a fan of his playing, but you don’t mess with what works.
But you know we’ve toured together as just a duo, playing to really big crowds. Like the White Stripes or the Black Keys.
My beef with the White Stripes was always – was it Jack White’s sister? – well, the (in air quotes) DRUMMER couldn’t really play the drums.
Yeah, I was never a big fan, either.
Well, when you said you weren’t a huge fan of his playing, I thought, “Well, maybe the White Stripes comparison was appropriate.”
It sounds really rudimentary. But for me it’s his voice that gets really annoying.
(Fairly certain he’s talking about Jack White, not “Rico,” but who knows at this point?)
I like something a little more pleasing to the ear.
So, you’ll be supporting Shooter, using his band for the next couple weeks, then when you do the actual Hellbound Glory tour it’ll just be you and Rico?
To be honest with you, I have no idea. I’ve got a couple gigs lined up in Reno. I play every Thursday at this place called Davidson’s Distillery. The best way I can describe it is it’s like something out of a Fellini movie. It would blow your mind.
I’m not sure anything you tell me could now, Leroy…
It’s like Reno 911. So if you’re ever in Reno, I’m there every Thursday. I’ll be playing there for many years. If you’re ever in Reno on a Thursday you should definitely come hang out.
* * *
The whole exchange had a Reno 911 feel to it, and it’s easy to assume you’ve been clowned after such a ride – or rhetorical pinball game. Finishing up the transcript the notion nagged, so I reached out with a text.
As fate would have it, as I was texting him he was at that moment reciprocating. Turns out it was just lots of coffee. The Mountain Lion song is real, and it’s awesome. Leroy Virgil is real and adorably kooky. The goofy outlaw just made a great record.
Even without Rico.
Pinball is available today.
Google Play: bit.ly/2x5Pgc6