Singer-songwriter Andrew Leahey’s journey to releasing his debut album Skyline in Central Time with his band the Homestead was arduous to say the least. Along with the expected obstacles that all independent musicians encounter, from finding just the right band to scrounging up the necessary funds to record, the Virginia native also faced an unexpected and potentially fatal hurdle: a brain tumor.
As the latest guest on Walking the Floor, Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett’s entertaining country and Americana podcast, Leahey recalls his life-changing 2013 diagnosis and surgery, the circumstances surrounding his roots-rocking album and his hair-metal beginnings in Richmond. Here are five things we learned from Shiflett’s chat with Leahey – who is also a contributing writer to Rolling Stone Country. Listen to the full episode below.
Leahey is also a music journalist and once wrote for the conservative Washington Times newspaper.
Just out of college, Leahey landed a gig interviewing artists with shows coming through the D.C. area for an unlikely source – the ultra-conservative Washington Times newspaper. Occasionally, the paper’s politics created unusual problems, like the time Leahey was barred from talking to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, a noted liberal activist. “My editor said, ‘I cannot abide him,'” he says. “I would talk to gay bands, bands I knew that the Washington Times, if they knew what was going on, wouldn’t want me talking to.”
Leahey was diagnosed with a brain tumor after years of struggling with migraines and hearing issues.
“I started getting migraines in ’09,” he explains. “I tried to get it checked out but who knows where headaches come from. Then when we were touring heavily in 2012 and 2013 I started getting hearing problems, and they went deeper than ‘I’ve had drums in my ear for a month.’ It felt like my ears were packed with cotton, it would go in and out and for a while I was hearing two pitches in that ear. It was terrible for playing onstage, and I had some terrible gigs.” Leahey eventually passed out in a grocery store parking lot, leading to the fateful MRI. They were like, ‘Oh, you have this tumor and that’s why you’ve been having problems.’ That was 2013, the diagnosis came in August and the brain surgery was in November.”
Leahey’s surgery came three months after his diagnosis, but the guitarist pushed himself to get back out on the road.
“The operation was 12 hours and I was not awake,” he says. “I woke up in the Neuro-ICU and I was there for the majority of a week. I came home and for the first month it was pure Lazy-Boy time. I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds, I was having this two-tone hearing thing so I couldn’t watch TV or listen to music and was just in constant pain. I heard the doctor say for every hour you’re asleep in the operating room it takes a month to get better.” Leahey couldn’t wait and rushed his return to playing live. “That was my decision and it was not a smart one. I think I just wanted to prove to everyone I could do it … I’d be onstage asking myself, ‘Why did I put myself through this? Why go through the costly process of touring if you can’t give it your all?'”
In the end, the health scare resulted in new artistic clarity for Leahey.
Leahey always assumed his big break would come on the road after delivering the perfect show to the right person, but following his surgery, he tried a different approach. He started writing more songs for what would become Skyline in Central Time and landed a deal with Thirty Tigers. “[The experience] clarified what you want to do and what you can do. I was a born-again road warrior,” he says. “This thing that almost ended my career wound up helping it get going again … It taught me to care about it more and that bled into how I play it and write it.”
Jason Isbell made a surprise appearance at a benefit concert in Nashville organized to help Leahey pay for his mounting medical bills.
“I got to know him because I did a piece in American Songwriter just before [Isbell’s album] Southeastern came out,” Leahey says. “He kept in touch and when I got sick, we had insurance but it’s not cheap to get brain surgery … The bills were adding up, so that show was Jason Isbell playing with Amanda Shires, the Wild Feathers and Nikki Lane, and two local acts, Great Peacock and Derek Hoke, and it helped cover all my costs at the time. It was great. We just went on tour with Amanda two months ago, and was great to thank her for all they did for me.”