Behind the 'Wheel'
Songwriter LeRoy Preston keeps on turning them out
Talent is simply not equally distributed amongst us earthlings, and this fact is sometimes painfully obvious. Case in point: LeRoy Preston seems able to write songs with scarcely more effort than most of us require to write checks. The Vermont native may be best known for his tenure in the '70s with the country-swing band Asleep at the Wheel, but a glance at the BMI Web site tells a longer story. Of the 400-some songs Preston guesses he's penned, 202 are registered with that licensing organization... and counting. A contract songwriter for the Nashville-based Bug Music, Preston can claim five Top 40 hits on the country charts.
Except he wouldn't. Claim them, that is. Preston's gift for clever wordplay and catchy melody is balanced by an equal measure of modesty, and the combination makes for a guy other people rave about. "LeRoy is the most underappreciated songwriter in America!" enthuses Danny Coane, rhythm guitarist and vocalist for The Starline Rhythm Boys. "He's written some really unique, cool stuff." Coane's popular local honky-tonk trio has included a Preston tune on each of their two CD releases to date: "Buckets of Love" on Better Luck is a Barroom Away, and "Floodin' My Mind With You" on Honky-tonk Livin'.
"Before Phish and before Dan Tyminski, there was LeRoy Preston," continues Coane, who has known Preston since their Spaulding High School days in Barre in the '60s. But while Phish fans are legion, and Rutland native Tyminski grabbed awards for singing "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" on the 2001 hit soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Preston is not exactly a household name. Most songwriters, in fact, are not.
But try Roseanne Cash or k.d. lang -- they had hits with LeRoy Preston songs: "My Baby Thinks He's a Train" and "I Wonder," and "Full Moon Full of Love," respectively. For that matter, so did Asleep at the Wheel. Ever hear "Shout Wah Hey," "Bump Bounce Boogie," or "The Letter That Johnny Read"?
Preston has written for or with dozens of other artists, including Ruth Brown, Los Lobos, The Cate Brothers, Marshall Cren-shaw, Maria Muldaur, C.J. Chenier, Lee Roy Parnell... and Burlington's Rick Norcross. Also a Vermont native (Hardwick-born), the impresario of the Green Mountain Choo Choo food festival and the leader of Rick & the Ramblers, Norcross says, "I'd call myself a behind-the-scenes LeRoy Preston tribute band... He's the one who turned me on to Western Swing."
Indeed. The Ramblers have recorded 10 Preston songs on two albums, and perform even more in concert. Those tunes tend toward classic country themes: love, losing love, trucker-friendly paeans to the open road. They make you want to hit the dance floor -- or the bottle. But they're not "formula," Coane insists. "LeRoy is deeper, more introspective."
Norcross puts it this way: "He just has a way of saying wicked meaningful things in very few words, with a great melody and hook. And he's such a gentleman and a truly great guy -- I've never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. Well," he adds with a chuckle, "maybe about modern country music. He really loves old traditional songs, all those old guys."
Before he becomes one of those old guys himself, Preston is likely to turn out even more songs. Only he no longer writes in Aus-tin, where Asleep at the Wheel was and still is based, or Nashville, where he lived 12 years writing for Bug. Home now is an 1830 brick farmhouse in Waltham he shares with his wife Jan Jacobs, her daughter Anna, a cat and a dog. And he's holding down an 8-to-5 as retail sales supervisor of Country Home Products in Vergennes. "It's a natural day job for me," Preston offers, "because I use that stuff."
His customers may not get a glimpse of his biceps, each tattooed with an image and a song title: "Dead Man" and "Mama Tried." But surely some of the locals and tourists who stop in CHP for, say, a DR Trimmer Mower have wondered about that gold front tooth -- Preston got the distinctive cap after a fall broke both his front teeth years ago. Otherwise he looks like the unassuming guy his reputation suggests: medium build, cropped, softly graying hair, wide-set, guileless eyes and an imperturbable calm.
At age 53, Preston seems content. After nine years and a million miles with the Wheel, he lost his taste for touring two decades ago. But, he muses, "I've imagined a trio -- a guitarist, stand-up bass and drums -- doing my songs. I'd still like to do something like that."
He might have another novel in him, too; he's written a couple already, both unpublished and collecting dust in the attic along with heaps of Wheel memorabilia. Including a broken Grammy. The horn of the gramophone and the nameplate have fallen off the little statuette Preston and other bandmates received in 1978. Ironically for this prolific songwriter, the award was for Best Country Instrumental Performance of Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump."
Chances are that Grammy would still be abandoned in the attic even if it had been for a LeRoy Preston original. The tidy house yields no clue, much less a shrine, to his musical accomplishments. Jacobs has to persuade her husband to haul out the yellowed photos, posters and other artifacts for a reporter's visit. These -- and a little nudging -- seem to provide the impetus Preston needs to ease out his story.
Honored as a 200-year-old Vermont family during the state's Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, the Prestons had been dairy farmers in Strafford. After they sold the farm and moved to Barre, Eugene LeRoy Preston started playing music, first as a drummer for the mop-top-era VIPs -- a band that included guitarist Kip Meeker, now a staple of the Burlington music scene, and Jon Emery, who moved to Austin to pursue a country career. (Em-ery has recorded a CD of his old friend's songs, aptly entitled V.I.P., The LeRoy Preston Songbook.) Danny Coane remembers competing against The VIPs with his own outfit, The Jesters, at a high-school battle of the bands.
By the time Preston adopted his middle name at age 19, he had met Ray Benson and Reuben Gos-field, a.k.a. Lucky Oceans, in Boston and started Asleep at the Wheel. Influenced by the "cosmic rockabilly" band Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen, "We decided to be a straight-up country act," recalls Preston, "but we played to hippies and also opened for rock acts like Alice Cooper." Urged by Cody to come to California, the Wheelmates "took a semester from college" and never went back. They were signed by United Artists and scored with remakes: Bob Wills' "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and Louis Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie." The first real national Top 10 was a Preston original, "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read," in 1975, on their new label, Capitol.
The band moved to Austin in the early '70s. They found it a better place than Berkeley to "settle down," given their music's Texas roots, Preston says. But "settle" is hardly the right word. The band was awake at the wheel more often than sleeping in their own beds for nearly a decade. A couple of gold records and the continued zeal of fans kept them going at a dizzying pace, and kept Preston writing. The band swelled to 11 members.
After one particularly grueling three-month stretch -- during which the old tour bus officially hit its million-mile mark -- Preston was "kind of a burnout." Pianist Floyd Domino had already quit and the band was at a crossroads. In 1979, Preston hung up his spurs.
"Ray Benson is the big image [of Asleep at the Wheel], but LeRoy was the heart of it, as far as original songwriting goes," says Coane. "When he left, that virtually ended; they went to covers."
Playing other people's songs wasn't a bad thing for the Wheel: They earned nine Grammies over the years -- four of them for their 1999 Bob Wills tribute album, Ride With Bob. Preston reunited with the Wheel for a retrospective album, Back to the Future Now--Live at Arizona Charlie's, in 1997, and still stays in touch with his old bandmates. Just weeks ago Benson called to "borrow" a song idea Preston crafted long ago.
After the Wheel years, Preston stayed in Austin for a bit, forming a band and his own publishing entity, both called Whiskey Drinkin' Music. In 1985 he returned briefly to Vermont, but the following year was lured south again to work for Bug Music. The move proved lucrative: When Roseanne Cash's version of "My Baby Thinks He's a Train" was number one, Preston reveals, he made about $100,000 in royalties.
Preston may have a different train to thank for another happy twist of fate. Rick Norcross began inviting him up to Vermont to perform at the Choo Choo festivals. During a Norcross-related visit in 1997, Preston's sister Marilyn met him at the airport with one of her friends: Jan Jacobs. It was a song-worthy case of love at first sight, and the pair has been together since.
About songwriting now, Preston demurs, "I don't do it all the time. If something crosses my mind and I know it's a song, I'll write it down." Accordingly, the royalty checks have dwindled to about five or six grand a year, but he doesn't seem to mind. Nor does he try to "keep up" with newer music -- he and Jacobs are almost apologetic about their scant supply of CDs. Asked to name his own favorite songwriters, Preston doesn't hesitate: Merle Haggard, Blacky Farrell, Dolly Parton, old pal Jon Emery, James Brown, Hank Williams Sr....
Wait. James Brown? "Live at the Apollo is my favorite American music album still," Preston admits, flashing that gold tooth in a grin.
What makes a good song, then? He quickly qualifies, "for me," then explains: "It's got an element of my scale of soul. I'm not opposed to clever. You've only got three minutes to capture someone's attention and hold it. On the other hand," Preston adds, "the listener has to say, 'That was three minutes well spent.' They laugh, they cry, they hum a little, they dance."