Sitting outside his parents’ Hernando, Mississippi, home, pianist and keyboardist Lucas Leigh looks relaxed. His family has lived and worked in Hernando for generations, but Leigh himself moved to Oxford, Mississippi, for college, and then to Nashville in 2007. Currently touring with country music artist Ashley Monroe, this is the first time he has been “home” since May.
When Leigh made the move to Nashville to start seriously pursuing his music career, he felt certain of one thing: “I said I’d never play country music.” He wasn’t a country fan, opting for jam-bands like Dave Matthews or Widespread Panic, but “country music is everywhere up there and you got to pay the bills.”
It’s the pop-country music Leigh feels less in his element with. The old-style country, he says, fits best within his musical range, and “Ashley [Monroe] is absolutely one of those traditional, classic country sounds. I’ve grown to love it.”It would be hard not to love a gig that lands you on The Tonight Show, which is one of Leigh’s more recent appearances with Ashley Monroe. “I really just ended up with the right artist at the right time,” Leigh says. “The Tonight Show is such a class act. Getting to do that is really something special.”
The Tonight Show is one of many big stages Leigh has appeared on, including the Conan O’Brien Show and Madison Square Garden. He’s played with his childhood idols Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, music stars like Vince Gill and Miranda Lambert, and recorded on several tracks from Justin Bieber’s 2011 platinum Christmas album “Under the Mistletoe.” It is an eclectic mix of genres to be sure, and Leigh seems to flow effortlessly through them. The heart-pounding, rock-n-roll piano-playing of Lewis featured in the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire” is what inspired Leigh to pursue music at just five years old. “That was just, to me, the coolest thing,” says Leigh. “When I was little that was what I wanted to do is play that kind of music.”
Leigh has a natural ability to play-by-ear and devoted much of his childhood to learning his art. His first public performance was for the Hernando Women’s Club at nine years old, and he continued playing at local fairs and venues throughout those early years. When he was 11, he connected with Larry Cunningham, a piano teacher from Memphis that worked with kids that play-by-ear. “He kind of took me under his wing there for a couple of years and taught me different rifts and taught me about music,” Leigh says. “He really took me to a higher level of being able to play and it really made it so that I could go out and get gigs.”Leigh speaks a lot about the people who supported his childhood dream, like Rob Chase, then the Hernando High School band director. “He got me this whole portable keyboard rig with a generator and an amplifier,” Leigh says. “He would roll that thing out at the football games and I would play the piano. I always thought that was so cool because he took the time to get that together so I could play the piano in the high school band.”Leigh also recalls his parents’ support in those early years of taking him to gigs, and his uncle who produced all four of Leigh’s solo piano albums. He says no matter how many big names he’s played with or the stages he’s been on, the most memorable are the ones that involve people that he knows and loves. Talking about playing at Hernando’s Front Porch Jubilee last year, Leigh says “Everybody was out there and I got to do it with Jerry Lee Lewis and a couple of really great musician friends of mine…so that was a really special moment.”Looking to the future, Leigh hopes to put out an album next year, possibly collaborating with Ashley Monroe Band guitarist Johnny Duke.
“I’ve got all this material to do something with one day. Hopefully sometime in the next year we’ll have something new coming out that’s got my name on it and I’m not just in the sidelines.”
Small Town, Big Sound
Hernando native Lucas Leigh’s
journey from the front porch to the
grand stage comes full circle
Story by Amber Hampton