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Written in the wake of a brain operation that nearly cost him his life, Andrew Leahey’s sophomore LP, Airwaves, is as carpe diem as they come, an urgent sonic love letter channeling the 1980s FM-radio anthems he cut his teeth on as a kid.
“We didn’t have cable TV growing up,” Leahey says, “but my big brother would go over to his friend’s house with a blank VHS cassette and tape a two-hour block of MTV, commercials and all. We’d watch those videos over and over for months. I loved Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They looked like my G.I. Joes—Springsteen was positively ripped, and they were all wearing bandanas, playing in front of these huge American flags. They looked like action heroes.”
Back then, Leahey was living in Richmond, Va., where his mom sold Mary Kay cosmetics door to door. Every day after school, he rode shotgun in her station wagon, the floorboards littered with the latest lipstick shades, the radio soundtracking their rounds. The music was always Top 40, most often the pop rock of the late ’80s: the big guitars, big drums and even bigger hooks of artists like Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger. These larger-than-life stars at the peak of their popularity, playing massive stadium shows to throngs of adoring fans, their videos in heavy rotation on MTV and their platinum records flying off the shelves—it was rock & roll unfolding on the grandest of scales. Their music became Leahey’s bedrock and, all these years later, the guiding force behind Airwaves, which shepherds the sounds of this golden era into the present day.
In addition to being an acclaimed solo artist featured at Rolling Stone, Billboard and American Songwriter, the Nashville-based Leahey is also a sought-after guitarist who regularly tours with Elizabeth Cook, and has backed Rodney Crowell, Drew Holcomb, Will Hoge and more. For Airwaves (out March 1), Leahey tapped multi-platinum producer Paul Ebersold, who enlisted Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively. Leahey also brought in his childhood best friend Phil Heesen III to add harmony vocals and guitar, as well as his buddy Sadler Vaden, who took a break from touring with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit long enough to drop by the studio and lay down some guitar leads on “Start the Dance,” “We Came Here to Run” and “Workin Ain’t Workin.”
Airwaves is timeless American rock & roll that rings from sea to shining sea, a candy-apple-red Mustang convertible of a record burning up the interstate with the ragtop down. With it, Leahey refines the jangly Americana of his 2016 Ken Coomer-produced debut, Skyline in Central Time, grasping for the still-smoldering torch of Petty and Springsteen, angling confidently to assume the mantle of their unpretentious everyman sound. Unadorned but poignant lyrics carried by simple, uplifting melodies. Distorted windmill guitar strums. Triumphant swells of organ cresting like whitecap foam on the ceaseless ocean. Driving bass lines locked tight with the kick, pumping in unison like the pistons of an engine straight off a 1980s Detroit assembly line. Would-be stadium anthems loping forward, the echoing crack of the snare faithfully charting miles per song. In an era hellbent on declaring the genre doornail dead, Airwaves is the kind of record that could only be made by a true believer in the power of rock & roll.