On a Wednesday night in August 2013, Jerry Leger stepped onto the stage at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, a rite of passage for any aspiring troubadour, Canadian or otherwise, as the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Lucinda Williams would surely admit. The ever-present echo of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ boot heel is audible if you listen hard enough, but what flashed through Jerry’s mind were the long-forgotten singers who often performed on nights like these to crowds barely visible through a low-hanging fog of Export A smoke.
Ghosts seemed to be everywhere. “Buddy Holly came to me in a dream last night,” Jerry felt compelled to disclose at one point. Later, he asked rhetorically if anyone wanted to hear a Hank Williams song and proceeded to play “Six More Miles (To The Graveyard),” dedicating it to his late grandfather, the man who taught him about country music. Perhaps if Jerry hadn’t introduced it, most in the crowd wouldn’t have given a second thought as to whether Jerry had written the song himself, blending in so beautifully as it did with his own material.
Coming off that magical night, Jerry, his band the Situation (James McKie, Dan Mock, Kyle Sullivan) organist Jeff Heisholt, Aaron Comeau on piano and backup vocalists (Carleigh Aikins, Tamara Lindeman, Ivy Mairi) recorded Early Riser, already album number seven in a remarkably young career. It’s the first to be produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, a man who unquestionably knows his way around a song. Jerry’s been building such alliances more and more lately; one of his earliest supporters was Ron Sexsmith, who’s played piano on a couple of Jerry’s previous albums, including the last, Some Folks Know. That record also featured a duet with Serena Ryder, and after his first trip to Nashville, Jerry now counts Jim Lauderdale and other Music City luminaries among his fans.
What they heard is Jerry’s uncommon songwriting gift, an ability to express the thoughts and emotions we all so often choose to suppress, crafted around irresistible melodies and a deep understanding of North American music in all its forms. It’s a path that Timmins, Sexsmith and many others before Jerry have followed, which has made Toronto arguably the most vibrant and competitive place for singer-songwriters outside of Nashville and Austin. But as his talent has continued to blossom with each release, Jerry Leger has likewise shown both stamina and resilience. Early Riser is another major step forward, a 10-track collection that finds Jerry clearly hitting his stride.
It should also be stated that Jerry is an unapologetic Bob Dylan freak, one who—at his age—particularly appreciates the master’s most recent work. From its opening notes, Early Riser sounds steeped in that bubbling cauldron of hoodoo, with Jerry’s voice emerging like a beacon through the mist at the far side of the swamp. That’s the album’s opening track, “Factory Made,” in a nutshell, but at its heart is a tale of injustice and regret, the false hope of the Canadian Dream, and of “a life trying to fit in.”
“Cashing In” follows, the kind of impossibly catchy tune Jerry seems able to compose at will, and sing with a knowing wink that it would be a sure-fire hit in some alternative universe where Nick Lowe is in charge. Conversely, “Nobody’s Angel” displays Jerry’s empathy in the form of a heartbreaking portrait of a lost girl. It’s here that one can see why Timmins chose to work with Jerry; the song’s vivid imagery is straight out of the Townes Van Zandt songwriting guide.
“Got Myself A-Thinkin’” takes things back to the swamp, musically, but also in terms of offering a glimpse into a tangled mind “drifting too far from view.” The soaring southern soul sound of “To Let Me Go” provides some relief, and is perhaps the album’s most shining example of Jerry’s musical growth. No Canadian kid has sung with such conviction since Rick Danko.
“Pretty Girl In An Ugly World” is as provocative as its subject matter, the album’s most powerful rocker, while “Bad Ole Dog” once again bears Timmins’ fingerprints. It’s the sort of noire blues he’s specialized in since the Cowboy Junkies’ beginnings, and Jerry proves to be a more than capable student.
Leger’s own ragged take on the blues comes in the form of “No Woman’s Man,” accentuated by fiddle and the female voices—roadhouse music in its most glorious form. “One More Bad Penny” is the kind of bittersweet parting ballad that would normally make a natural album closer, but Early Riser instead ends with the title track, a hopeful glimpse that everything might just turn out okay after all.
Jerry Leger doesn’t need to rely on hope. His body of work to this point speaks for itself, and Early Riser continues to live up to every promise he’s made from the start. It’s time for all to wake up and listen.