Mac Leaphart chooses his words carefully. That's a good trait for a songwriter, but in Nashville, where it can take a thousand casts just to hook a brim, prolificacy also has its benefits.
"There are tons of people moving here all the time, and the notion that you can be successful as a songwriter or singer ... it's pretty crazy," says Leaphart. "It's really difficult, but if you love doing it, which I do, then you at least give it a shot."
Since leaving Charleston last November to try his hand in Music City, Leaphart says he's penned only a couple of tunes that he'll ever record. That's despite weekly co-writing sessions with other aspiring songwriters. Fortunately, he's got a stocked pond in his back pocket, including the 11 tracks he'll release this spring on his second solo album, Low in the Saddle. Long in the Tooth.
In November 2011, Leaphart learned that he had a brain tumor that needed to be removed immediately. The singer/guitarist went from touring and performing nearly every night to recovering at his parents' house. Charleston's music community rallied around him, and their efforts culminated in a benefit concert in January 2012 that featured everyone from Mark Bryan to Shovels and Rope performing his songs.
Six months after his surgery, Leaphart was back on his feet and gigging, but inspired by his operation, he quickly realized that the time had come to take his dream of being a successful songwriter seriously. That meant moving to Nashville.
"Honestly, I wanted to take a break from driving around and being in a van and playing bars," he says. "I wanted to be a part of Music City, if for nothing else, another chapter. If you want to be a songwriter, you go to Nashville, just like if you want to be in theater you go to New York.
"You've got to at least give it a shot," he adds. "If I come back with my tail between my legs, I can't say that I didn't try."
Trying, so far, includes hosting a weekly songwriter night at Soulshine Pizza Factory, where he also waits tables. The connections made there have led to some of his more productive co-writing sessions, a practice he never tried before moving to Nashville.
"I had this romantic vision of the guys in the '70s saying, 'I'm bored. Let's have a few beers and write a song,'" Leaphart says, noting that the conventional wisdom in Nashville is different. "The advice that people have for you is, 'You have to co-write.' A lot of times, you'll sit down for two or three hours and get a full song, but you're like, 'Well, I'm probably not going to play this, and he's probably not going to play it either.' It can be a senseless campaign. But even if you don't get a song, you're hanging out and writing and having fun, and I wouldn't have come here if I didn't enjoy writing songs."
Although most of those songs have been caught and released, Leaphart's starting to hone in on the songwriters he enjoys working with most.
In the meantime, he's gearing up to release Low in the Saddle. Long in the Tooth. The album was recorded in August 2012 with producer Mitch Webb at Mantis Studios in North Charleston, just before Leaphart left town.
"I've just been sitting on it, because I didn't want to release something if I wasn't ready to go on the road and support it," he explains. The collection still needs artwork and a final mastering, and Leaphart hopes to release it in early 2014, along with a full band show in Charleston.
Fans of Leaphart's only solo album to date, Lines, Rope, Etc., will be equally pleased with the offerings from his forthcoming disc. Among the tracks are more upbeat, party-minded rockers like "Ludowici" (about a Georgia speed-trap near his father's hometown of Jesup) and "She Took My Best T-Shirt (And Then She Broke My Heart)," which closes the album.
The strongest songs, however, are the slower ones, including the title track and the haunting "Wrong Side of the Wind," a kindred spirit of Ryan Bingham's "The Weary Kind."
In his song "Leaving Lonesome," Leaphart sings the words, "I take stage after stage pushing my songs/ but most nights I might as well be pushing a broom." Although most fans have yet to hear the song, Leaphart wrote it years ago when he was first trying to make a name as a country-rock songwriter in Los Angeles with fellow Charleston musician Luke Cunningham. Still, the lyrics could easily be about his more recent efforts.
But patiently waiting for a nibble in Nashville doesn't discourage Leaphart. He did the same thing when he left L.A. to move to Charleston, a place where he could pick up decent paying gigs any night of the week.
"I called everybody I knew [in Charleston] that first summer and said, 'Hey, I'm coming to town,' and I had a bunch of gigs lined up, but then fall came and the calls became, 'Hey, we're not going to do music on Wednesdays until spring,' " Leaphart recalls.
During that time, he made ends meet by bartending and picking up odd jobs until he'd built his reputation enough to draw crowds to regular shows at the Griffon, Home Team BBQ, and Surf Bar.
"It was almost two years before things really picked up and 'Confederate Roses' got on the radio," says Leaphart; that song is still in rotation on 105.5 The Bridge. "All my connections came about at once."
A year into his latest chapter, Leaphart still feels like he's just getting started. Most importantly, his doctors continue to give him a clean bill of health, and he's content to keep working hard until Nashville opens up to him.
"I wouldn't say I've been dry in Nashville," he says. "At this point, I'm just trying to improve as a songwriter and take that next step, whatever that is. It'd be really easy to write the same song over and over again. I don't want to do that. I'm always trying to take these experiences in my life and just keep finding my voice as a songwriter."