Standing strong against the odds.


Musical compliments don’t come much better than Ron Leary asking you to be a part of one of his albums.

Ron’s new album Tobacco Fields doesn’t get its official release until the end of the month, but those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign have been getting their copies a few weeks early. I just got mine yesterday. There are lots of talented people on this one — my old Folkway friend Rich Burnett on lap steel, John Showman on violin, and our man Kelly Hoppe on harmonica and sax, to name a few. Andy Magoffin recorded it at the House of Miracles. As for me, I played piano on “Tattooed Lady” and wrote the string part for “To Living”.

For the first time ever, I actually got credit for the use of my own acoustic piano in my own recording space. Yes! Vindication! And you can add “writing a string part for someone else’s song and having the dude from new country rehab play it beautifully” to the list of things I never in a million years thought would happen. Seeing “string arrangement by Johnny West” in the lyric booklet is the most surreal album liner note credit of my life.

As someone who still can’t read music at all, to be asked to write that string part, to be able to come up with a two-part arrangement that feels like it really adds something to the song, to find a way to write it down on paper, and then to hear it played note-for-note by a master musician, with the final violin notes standing as the last sound on the album, singing the song and its siblings to sleep…that’s nuts.

I’ve been writing string and horn parts for my own songs for a year or two now and loving it, but something about being commissioned to do it for someone else feels different. Kind of makes it feel like maybe I know what I’m doing with that stuff, sometimes, somehow.

Huge thanks to Ron for involving me. It’s a great album, and one I’m proud to have had the chance to contribute to. I don’t think Ron’s got a bad album or even a bad song in him, but this one feels like it’s got some real joy coursing through its veins — the “defiant spit in the eye of despair” kind. When he sings, “Through music, I come alive,” in the very first song, you believe it.

Here’s the lead single.

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