“IN RETROSPECT, I may have been a bit overzealous,” Kathryn Legendre says. “It might have been better to wait, but I was so excited, I just wanted to go for it.”
The amiable blonde-haired songstress is talking about her first record, Old Soul, a 31-minute trek through what basically amounts to Legendre learning how to write songs. “I wouldn’t consider those a batch of my best,” she says, “but after a year into songwriting, they started to come, and I wanted to share them.”
Not her best, it turns out, is still pretty good. Good enough to garner some regional and national praise, and more than a few comparisons to classic country queens like Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn. With an album title like Old Soul, it’s hard to expect anything less.
That was in 2013, at the height of goober country permeating the airwaves, TV sets and even the Texas scene. Instead of blowing the direction of the ever-changing country winds, Legendre turned to Kickstarter to fund a record steeped in that old-timey feeling. It was the kind of music she grew up on and the kind of music that feeds her — though it didn’t quite start that way.
“For an 8-year-old riding to Castroville from the San Antonio area, listening to a slow Johnny Cash song was about as bad as it could get for me,” Legendre laughs. “Growing up it was either classic country or classic rock — my grandpa in particular would always play KKYX. I hated it until hearing the first song I actually liked: ‘Cherokee Maiden’ by Merle Haggard.”
And while most contemporary artists putting out classic country nowadays probably have a similar catalyst for their sound, what makes Legendre so intriguing is she’s not as easy to pin down.
She didn’t come from a musical family. “My parents knew how to play guitar, and my mom played at church,” Legendre says, “but she wasn’t like, shredding or anything.” It was something she admired, but not something she felt compelled to follow.
She didn’t immediately fall in love with songwriting. Sure, she tried, with the moderate but not despotic assistance of her parents — “they bought me an idiom book and a rhyming dictionary,” Legendre laughs. “But I could never focus ideas around a chorus, so I ended up writing poetry a lot. When I did try to write a song, I was trying to write what the Dixie Chicks or Shania Twain might sing.”
She didn’t even have a musical mentor or education. The closest she got was playing violin in school from the fourth grade until quitting her sophomore year of high school in favor of sports. (“It’s probably one of my biggest regrets, choosing sports over orchestra,” she levies.)
And even though half of her birthday parties were held at dance halls like Leon Springs or Floore’s, she rarely ever danced. “I’d never dance with anyone,” she says. “I was much more interested in the music.”
But she did have the creative itch, one she scratched by attending Texas State University for graphic design — an education that ultimately landed her a gig doing design for the Paramount Theatre, one of Austin’s coolest — “and one of the best-sounding,” Legendre points out — venues.
Oh, and while she was at Texas State, she worked at the campus radio station hosting her own hardcore punk and metal show. Standard stuff. “I’m always interested in the culture of music,” Legendre reflects. “I thought it was so cool; straight-edge culture was really neat, and hearing how some of these bands formed in the ’80s on the East Coast … but it was the same on the West Coast — I don’t know, maybe I just can’t deny a good riff.”
In other words, Legendre’s experience with music was more tangential than calculated. She didn’t spend countless hours locked away perfecting her craft, or dream of the stage from day one. In fact, she still finds it hard to believe somebody took a chance on providing her a guitar and a stage the first time.
A year out of college she started really writing songs. With the help of her musical boyfriend Brian Broussard (of Austin’s country outfit Mayeux & Broussard), she attained a grasp of guitar chord structures and how to form them around melodies. “At first I’d come up with melodies and lyrics and then sing them to him so he could tell me which chords they were,” Legendre says. “But I started playing them myself, because I didn’t want to have to wait for him to get home to write songs!”
And her pivot back from metal to classic country? It was as simple as family members giving her some of their old records. “When I started buying and collecting them again, I totally fell back in love with it,” she recalls. “That music is what really makes me happy.”
It’s a story a lot of people can relate to, but not really one we’ve come to expect from musicians in a time when backstories sometimes take the front seat to the music (thanks, reality television singing competitions). But her altogether unremarkable musical past is part of what makes her musical present so remarkable.
Presently, that’s a brand new EP called Don’t Give A Damn. If the name of her first record seemed telling of the type of person she is, her second is basically the answer to a personality test. (And yes, it’s a reference to a lyric in the EP).
The four-song collection showcases Legendre’s pension for simple yet provocative lyrics. “Build My Home” is a loose autobiography that just about anybody can relate to — especially the millennials who, like Legendre, find themselves in that stage of life where they’re, well, building their own home.
Legendre sings, “Never will forget the place where I was raised / Since my parents left it’s all I crave / But there I go again, living in the past / I make my own mistakes and let theirs pass.” She doesn’t get caught up in syllables or similes; she delivers her truth in a beautifully relatable way.
She also takes her stab at the favored outlaw country taboo of drugs and the songwriter staple of lamenting the passing of time — both topics she manages to make seem her own, despite their relative commonplace status in the left-of-mainstream. You can almost hear the wry smile when in “Time Is A Selfish Man” she sings, “I know I shouldn’t linger on all those shifting sands / But how do I forget him when I live by his two hands?”
Clever, but not ham-handed.
But Legendre’s craft shines best in “Tug River Valley.”
“I came across a blog that had all this content revolving around Southern culture,” she says. “There was an article called ‘A Love Letter To Appalachia’ with these beautiful pictures. Being a typical Internet consumer, I didn’t even read it at first because I was just so drawn to the visuals.”
She eventually did go back and read it, and found it to be a personal memoir of a photographer named Roger May, whose family grew up in the Tug River Valley but has since moved on. Legendre was so moved she felt compelled to piece together a story using the photographs.
“It went through a lot of revisions and a lot of research,” Legendre says. “For instance, the song originally had Union trains in it, but I found out Union trains didn’t run through the valley — things like that I wanted to get correct, because I was representing a whole culture of people.”
It took a year to finally get the guts to send the song to May in the form of a rough demo version. “I wasn’t sure how he’d respond or even if he would respond,” she says. Eventually he did, and it blew her away.
“He wrote back saying, ‘I’m crying — this is amazing; I need to take some time and I’ll write you more later,’” Legendre recalls. “That was a full-circle moment for me as a songwriter.”
Legendre’s knack for connecting with people is sure to lead to other full-circle moments, too. And pretty soon she’ll actually get to play the Paramount stage, opening for Chris Isaak on the biggest fundraising night of the year. “I asked them to let me on stage before actually playing or sound check so I can get it over with, cry it out,” Legendre laughs, “and then get on to singing.”
It’s a long way from birthday parties at Floore’s and hosting metal shows on college radio, but it’s all part of what makes Legendre so real. On paper, she’s not much different from anybody else out there with a full-time job and a musical muse.
But on record, she’s a rare find: a wonderfully adept lyricist with a smooth and peaceful drawl. And what better time to let the world hear it? “Looking back, all I ever really wanted to do was write about how I feel,” Legendre says. “Music is a passion I can’t deny anymore.”
Originally published in Spring 2016, No. 66