By Kevin Broughton
If Hellbound Glory’s Leroy Virgil were a pop-culture figure from the 1970s, he’d be Kool-Aid Man, bursting through brick walls or backyard fences and spreading his own weird brand of merriment. In the 2000s, he’d be a different LEEroy, sowing chaos and damning the consequences. In the 2010s, he’s the famous Honey Badger, because he just doesn’t give a…care.
And it’s precisely that “ZFG” attitude that makes him immune from convention and all its strictures, allowing him – along with alter-ego and producer Shooter Jennings – to make one of the best pure country music albums in years.
Following 2017’s Pinball, Virgil already had his next record (a “concept album,” though as we’ll see it’s a loose thing with him) in mind. In fact, Bird Dog was more than halfway written when Virgil and Jennings decided on a course correction spurred by Jennings’ hearing a demo for “Neon Leon.” Bird Dog would go to the back burner. It would take several more months of waiting on the producer’s schedule to free up, but the seeds of Pure Scum were germinating.
Even so, the time window would be tight. Like, three days, tight. They did it in two.
“Leroy’s diligence and patience are the biggest reasons,” Jennings says. “He waited to cut the record. We were planning to do it at the end of 2018, but he had to wait because I had all these other records and projects that were on deadline. We ended up not doing it until April (of last year), and because he had all this material, he just sat around singing and playing it. Just being Leroy.”
The result of Virgil’s just being himself is an album at times rollicking, other times poignant but always genuine and faithful to any objective standards of country music. His vocals continue to impress.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the greatest singers and songwriters in all of country music and has been for a long time,” says Jennings. “Leroy has stayed true to country music the whole f*cking way. I love the guy; he’s one of my best friends in the whole world. And honestly, he’s like MY hero. He’s what I wish I could be as a singer and a songwriter.”
High praise from country royalty. Let’s hear from the artist himself.
Ladies and gentlemen, Leroy Jenkins.
I mean VIRGIL Leroy Virgil…
Pure Scum is a really catchy title for your new album. I guess “Corona Virus” was taken?
Haha! That’s funny. Perfect timing, huh? I gave it that title about a year and a half or two years ago. But yeah, Haha. It just came to me: pure scum, old highs, new lows, damaged goods, hellbound glory.
“Ragged But Alright” is a nice sort of manifesto to kick the record off. The protagonist describes himself, among other things, as a degenerate gambler who’s drunk every night, a scumbag and a braggart. So how’s your self-esteem these days?
Oh, I’m finding new ways of being humble every day. I actually stole that song, to make it even more scummy.
Yeah, it’s from the 1920s.
You’re making this sh*t up.
No, really. It’s an old hillbilly song that’s in the public domain, so I took it and re-wrote it. It’s fine.
Who did it originally?
Everybody. Jerry Lee did it. George Jones did it. I forget the guy’s name who did it originally. Who cares who wrote the song; it’s just one of those that’s out there.
How biographical is this album, and did your mom really call you “Neon Leon?”
Uh, yeah…believe it or not, my name was gonna be “Neon Romilar.”
Neon Romilar. It’s a kind of cough syrup.
Okay…did Mom sober up before she signed the birth certificate?
I’m not sure. It depends on who you talk to.
Um, so the album: Autobiographical?
Oh! Yeah, without a doubt. It’s, uh…how do I put it? A reflection of my general style. Yeah. Maybe not “autobiographical,” but it is my style.
You did an interview with Rolling Stone just before Pinball was released and said about the title cut, “To me, it’s a song about life, the chaos of life.” This album’s fairly chaotic, too. Agree?
Ah, let me think about that. I don’t know, it’s a concept album, man.
What’s the concept, other than general scuzziness?
I think people just have to try to figure that out for themselves. If you listen closely to the lyrics in the songs, I think you’ll hear some similar themes pop up. You know…if you keep listening, you’ll get the themes, the concept.
Well, it all seems to fit together quite nicely.
Great! It’s all I listen to.
In the same interview, you said, “By listening to the album, people are going to have no idea how I feel — and I don’t want them to know.” How did you feel when you were writing these songs?
How did I feel? Well…how was I feeling…
Pretty damn good, actually. Pretty happy. Having a damn good time.
When we talked a couple of years ago, you mentioned that you had a steel player named Rico. You strongly implied that he was an illegal alien. Yet I recently came across a video of you, Shooter, Jon Anderson and Kelli Pickler at the Cash Cabin, having a good ole time. One of the players – lap steel – was identified as “Rico Peterson, Hellbound Glory.” I’m glad to see he wasn’t deported. I also note that “Peterson” isn’t a name typically associated with illegal border crossings. Do you have a new Rico? That would be a coincidence.
Now I’ve got a Chuck, and he’s from America.
Yeah. Utah, in fact.
Is Rico not a thing anymore?
You know, Rico’s…He had a baby. He knocked some chick up and he has a baby now.
An anchor baby?
[Giggles, hard] Yeah. It was time to get off the road for a while. Haha! An anchor baby! Ol’ Rico, you know, I wish him nothing but the best. I hope he’s found himself a place to post up and do whatever he does.
Shooter produced this album. Did he put the players together again, and where did y’all record?
We recorded it in Echo Park in Hollywood, California. And it’s just Shooter’s band. And that’s it.
It’s really well put together. How much of it did y’all record live?
You know what? Almost all of it. All of the vocals are live vocals. Almost all of the instrumentation. We did all of it in two days; two short days.
How much input did Shooter have about which tracks made the album?
Shooter was there as a guide. In fact, Shooter’s the guy who kicked off the idea for the album. I sent him the song “Neon Leon,” and he said, “This is better than what we’re doing for Bird Dog [an album that originally was to follow Pinball], so let’s go with this; let’s make something out of this song.”
So I just put it together. Wrote the songs – they all had the same theme – demo’d them, sent them to Shooter, sent them to the band. And we just pretty much played what was on the demos.
I don’t want to date you or anything, but you’ve got one of the best voices in all of country music. In a perfect world, several of the cuts on Pure Scum would be radio-worthy, but you might be a little rough around the edges for the mainstream. If you could pick one or two folks to cover your stuff and get it into the mainstream, who would they be? I know you’ve mentioned Kid Rock ought to cover some of your stuff…
Yeah, you know Kid Rock and I wrote a song together called “Why Can’t They All Be College Girls.”
Of course you did…
And you know, I think somebody like Josh Abbott could do that song really well. I’ve been trying to get him to cover “Why Can’t They All Be College Girls” for a while. The whole Red Dirt scene? They could all use some hellbound influence. I’d like to do another Tanya Tucker cut; that would be cool.
I guess Billy Ray Cyrus is the biggest thing going in country music right now.
Yeah? I guess I missed that memo.
You didn’t hear about this hit song he was on with Lil Nas X? “Old Town Road?”
No. And I can never tell whether you’re yanking my chain or not.
No, I’m telling you the truth! That is Billy Ray Cyrus! He is on that song.
I’m just spitballin’. I’d be interested in some other scenes…instead of just this Reno Scumbag scene.
“Scumbag.” Maybe that could be a sub-genre of outlaw country or something.
Hell, yeah, it already is!
Is anybody in that sub-genre besides you?
Yeah! There are differing aspects. I hear the scumbag influence in a lot of the bands coming around. But the Reno thing: We’re all about scum. There’s a professional wrestling tag team named The Reno Scum, and they’ve been around for like 20 years. Look ‘em up: “Reno Scum.”
I think I’ll be looking up a lot of things when I get off the phone with you.
It’s a real thing, dude. I promise. If you’re into wrestling.
I used to be. Is there a Reno rock scene, or a Reno music scene, other than you?
I’d say I’m definitely the biggest game in town, as far as bands go.
Do you have a regular gig, or a residency anywhere?
You know, I had a residency at a place called Davidson’s Distillery, and I’m sure I’ll be back there soon. But as far as the regular Thursday night deal, I haven’t done that in a while.
You know, the pantywaists who call themselves country artists love to sing about drinking beer in their trucks. I wonder if any of them would cover “DUI or Die?”
Well, somebody might actually die if they did.
Can you think of the exposure you’d get if Luke Bryan covered one of your songs?
I think that would be awesome. You know I think “No Service” would be a song that somebody could do really well. Are you familiar with that song?
I am not.
Look it up. It’s on Streets of Aberdeen. If somebody took that song and changed the beat up…it’s got great lyrics. Look it up: “No Service.”
So what’s the first single gonna be?
You know what? That one is a f*cking great song.
Well, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back, there, Leroy.
Ha! It’s just a good melody.
Oh, I know. It reminded me of something from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack…
…just a very big, full, almost “country-politan.” A really good country love song.
You know, I’m almost certain that I ripped it off from somewhere; I’m still trying to figure out who I stole it from. But it seems like it had to have already been taken. You know what I mean? Doesn’t that melody sound like it might be another song?
It does! It reminds me of something, I just can’t tell what.
It’ll come to you when you get sued. When you read the summons, you’ll say, “Aw, yeah. That’s the song I couldn’t place!”
Bring it on, I say. If Led Zeppelin can get away with it, Hellbound Glory can.