The whiskey bottle's not a surprising guest in Mac Leaphart's abode. The dregs of a handle of Jack Daniels sits in the corner, next to a dull silver flask. After all, Leaphart has penned a healthy dose of forlorn country tunes and lyrical one-liners.
But the 32-year-old songwriter isn't quite like the brown-liquor-drenched romantics he both admires and emulates.
"Whiskey's good for ideas, but I can't really write while I'm drinking," says Leaphart, who wakes up early, jogs daily, and spends about two hours each morning journaling. "I really feel like I have writer's block more than I don't. I guess if I didn't, I'd write 100 songs a week."
The day before our visit, Leaphart finished a tune he'd been tinkering with for months. "Living hard ain't worth the freedom, out here on the wrong side of the wind," sings Leaphart on the chorus of "Wrong Side of the Wind." It's the kind of ballad you can imagine hearing as the credits roll on a modern-day Western film, not unlike "The Weary Kind" by Ryan Bingham, from which the recent movie Crazy Heart took its name. Leaphart loved Crazy Heart and the raw simplicity of Bingham's track, which clearly draws from a similar bank of influences as Leaphart's.
"Low in the saddle, long in the tooth, my bones start to rattle when that bitter truth rolls around," sings Leaphart in another tune he's just finishing.
"I wanted it to have this Townes Van Zandt-meets-Waylon Jennings thing," says Leaphart, who penned "Low in the Saddle" on a lonely, wee hours drive home from a gig in St. Simons, Ga. "It's not complex. It's not really poetry. It's about writing songs that people can relate to, and putting your own twist on the same old story. I'm covering covered ground, but it's about your own take on the same old songs."
Leaphart has penned at least one song that folks are calling perfect. "Confederate Roses" tells the story of a man driven to murder by the sight of his lover in another's arms — it's an age-old theme, but one that Leaphart lends a haunting Southern flavor to. The song will give you chill bumps.
"I want you to sort of sympathize with everybody in that song," he says. "I want you to feel remorse and his guilt. Things used to be a little more cut and dry. There was a different sort of justice, where you might be able to get away with shooting a couple of people because a man was sleeping with another man's wife."
Leaphart's gift for simultaneously being simple and conveying depth grew out of a creative writing background. He grew up a Georgia Bulldogs fan in Greenville, but bucked the family tradition and enrolled at Wofford College as an English major. The school published a novel by the then-22-year-old, called Strange Light, but his biggest measurable success came with the band Five Way Friday. The twang-pop group toured with Vertical Horizon and Cowboy Mouth, building a "dorm-rock" following up and down the East Coast.
Although that band occasionally reunites, Leaphart's style has drifted away from the rock sounds of his early days. After spending a year in Los Angeles following an effort at grad school, he moved to Charleston three years ago to pursue a solo career. He quickly released the self-produced collection Lines, Rope, Etc... to local critical acclaim. One track, "Confederate Roses," still receives generous rotation on The Bridge at 105.5.
Leaphart usually gigs five nights a week, doing solo and collaborative gigs at bars and restaurants downtown and around the 'burbs. His current backing band — Wilson Pippen on bass, John Picard on drums, and Charlie Thompson on pedal steel — draws from the cream of Charleston's musical talent pool.
But Leaphart's still not a household name, and he's not trying particularly hard to become one. He's not interested in glossy press photos and shameless self-promotion. In fact, his occasional blog, BandsSuck.blogspot.com, says it all.
"You'll open up any magazine, and it's like, 'Who are these turkeys?' I'm definitely more of a fan of the guys who are more mythical than famous, where you might know the songs more than you know them," says Leaphart. "I consider myself a songwriter more than anything else. That's what I work at the most. If I can wake up for the rest of my life and just write songs, I'll be a happy man."