When Leroy Virgil killed off his band Hellbound Glory in 2014, he went on a bender. He stayed on that bender for about a year and a half, but don’t ask him why. As far as the Reno, Nevada, country singer is concerned, the binge drinking just sort of happened.
“I was going to bars for days on end, because they don’t close here. I would just find myself going, ‘Pinball! Pinball!’ and stumbling around,” says Virgil, breaking into song over the phone from his home that overlooks the city. He’d lost his band and his marriage. “Who knows, maybe it was the time to do it. I just felt like doing it. I just wanted to go drink.”
Three years later, Virgil is back, and so is Hellbound Glory. He has a new LP, Pinball, a new label, and a fresh start, thanks in part to one of his biggest fans, Shooter Jennings. “At this point, he’s one of my best friends and probably one of the few people I view as a true peer,” says Jennings, who produced Pinball and is releasing it via his Black Country Rock label. “I have no doubt this guy is going to go down in history as one of the greatest singers and songwriters in this country.”
Pinball, Virgil’s first full-length album in six years, is a mix of scuzzy rock & roll riffing, screeching fiddle and an outlaw streak that goes hand-in-hand with a childhood spent in Aberdeen, Washington, the hometown of Kurt Cobain. “We’d get kicked out of clubs, we’d have fake IDs, and just cause trouble,” Virgil says of his early days playing music, before he moved to Reno to reconnect with his birth father. “I’ve changed my act a little bit, but I’m not going to promise that I won’t cause more trouble.”
He’s similarly unapologetic about how long it’s taken him to release new music. “I killed off the band and I’m glad I did. I still don’t consider it a band,” Virgil says. He describes the decision to end the group — he saw it off with a Halloween show that included a casket draped in a Hellbound Glory flag — as “completely business.” “It was just the people I was working with at the time. When they found out they couldn’t own Hellbound Glory and own the name outright, it became an issue for them,” he says.
Virgil, who started performing under the Hellbound Glory name in 2008, had toured with Kid Rock and Leon Russell, but never seemed to capitalize on those opportunities like he should have. “His manager before wanted to try to bend him a little more towards being mainstream, I think,” says Jennings. “In doing so, it kind of took him out of the race a little bit.”
A trip to Norway in the summer of 2016 helped get Virgil back in the game. “This person contacted me on Facebook and said he’d set up a tour for me. I went over there for about a month, just lived with them and played a couple shows,” says Virgil, who pulled out of the bender at last. “I’d eat with the family and even go to work with him. He was a garbage man.”
Finally writing again, the first new song Virgil wrote was “Pinball,” inspired by the nights he’d spent getting stumbling drunk in Reno bars. “To me, it’s a song about life, the chaos of life. It’s a game of pinball where your soul is that quarter and you put it in the machine and you might lose that quarter, but you play as long as you can,” he says. “But there’s that little bit of chaos there that you just can’t control. You can try — and you do your best.”
The songs on Pinball are unruly, peopled by characters on crime sprees, gun lovers and those with an affinity for lots of drugs and alcohol. Virgil says much of his writing is inspired by his own life. “These songs, they’re me. They come from stuff I’ve done. I don’t go and watch TV and write songs about TV,” he says. Jennings is full of awe for Virgil’s storytelling. “It’s pretty spectacular,” he says. “It’s dark and dirty and smart, and he can sing as good as anybody else. In that Hank Jr. school of singing and songwriting, he’s right up there.”
Not that Virgil wants his writing to reveal too much about himself. “‘Merica (The Good Ole U.S.A.),” the opening song on Pinball, starts with the line, “Nothing like a gun will make you feel real tall,” but he insists it was about shooting skeet with his ex-wife’s family during the summer they met. “I’m just writing what pops into my head. By listening to the album, people are going to have no idea how I feel — and I don’t want them to know,” he says.
In fact, Jennings was the one who picked the 11 tracks that make up Pinball, some of which date back as far as when the pair first recorded a Hellbound Glory project together back in 2012 — which never saw the light of day. Others, like the contemplative “Empty Bottle,” were written after Virgil’s trip to Norway. Virgil recorded with Jennings’ Black Country Rock studio crew. “His labels in the past had troubles getting his albums turned in on time,” says Jennings. “We went in and did it in a really quick amount of time. I was really happy with that.”
The sessions were so productive that Virgil and Jennings are already talking about recording the follow-up, but Virgil doesn’t want to lose sight of the material that’s on Pinball. “I think it’s the most important country album of the whole year. I’m not sure a lot of people will hear it, but the stuff I say on it, a lot of people need to hear it,” he insists. “I’m at least saying something. Not a lot of music out there is saying a damn thing about anything.”