The country Carpenters
By Sarah Henning
The Forum - 01/06/2002
Forum photo by Dave Wallis

When phoning bars and coffeehouses to find gigs, Brennen Leigh's lineup usually causes consternation. Bluegrass and old school country, Delta blues and Irish pub music--in Fargo, this conjures images of backwards, beer-bellied, backporch pickers too uninspiring to play for the American Legion's lunch crowd.

Brennen Leigh--named after the female half of the sibling duo--is anything but. A passionate 18-year-old with long auburn hair and penetrating eyes, Brennen Leigh Hulbert growls, yodels and purrs like a young Tanya Tucker channeling the ghost of Hank Williams.

With her 21-year-old brother, Seth, on guitar, the Hulberts have steadily built a following in Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., with their bluegrass Carpenters dynamic. Crowds rarely notice when they trade standards for originals, a credit to the country purists' sense of composition styles born 50 years before they were.

It still ain't easy being bluegrass.

"It's awful to try to convince people to book us--some say we're not country enough, some say we're too country," Seth says. "And I don't have enough piercings to play folk, so we're not going there," Brennen adds.

Their eclecticism has taken them from coffeehouses to country venues to more unlikely places like the Zoo Bar biker hangout in Winnipeg, Man. "On my 17th birthday, we pulled over to ask for directions to the Zoo and these kids were like 'Yeah, we know where it is. You're not going there are you?'" Brennen says. "We get there and it's this dank, scary place, they're playing hard-core rock like Pantera, everyone's in leather and chains." After a tentative evening of primarily blues, the bikers were pounding their beers on the table for more. "At first, I thought they were doing it sarcastically, but then some came up to us afterwards and we really had won them over," Brennen says.

Their mother still isn't so keen on that place. "They get some of these gigs and I just get scared to death," says Jeanne, who works for Northwest Airlines. "People usually like them wherever they are, but we like it better when they're in the coffeehouses."

The question still beleaguering them is why: Why would two Moorhead kids play this kind of music, music most people their age have never heard of?

Brennen says like in all true country music, it's all about roots.

"When people say 'What's bluegrass?' it's like pshh, what's Santa Claus?" says the Moorhead High School senior. "We grew up with it. We rejected it for awhile, but couldn't resist the pull of the music our dad and grandpa used to play."

On this December day, the family room is strewn with musical-minded clutter. Three guitars sit on stands. Brennen's mandolin rests beneath her T-shirt's logo for the Gibson Café in Nashville. In a rare moment, the unlikely cowgirl's bare feet are missing their rumpled tan cowboy boots. On the floor lies a timeworn, four-string banjo, played by their grandfather during country's heyday. Photos lie on the coffee table: An infant Seth sleeping in a guitar case owned by his father, Don, the athletic director at Moorhead High. Brennen and Seth playing at a fair.

"It all started really with our dad's old records, really ­ Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson," says Seth, an aerospace student at the University of North Dakota. "Dad wouldn't admit it, but he plays decent guitar, and I remember him playing bluegrass and country from the time we were very little."

At 13, Seth started plinking around on the guitar, learning tunes like "Froggy Went a' Courtin." But the early '90s grunge scene caught hold of the teen stronger than patchouli stench.

In a classic example of tomato, tomahto, Seth's electric guitar writhed with Nirvana and Led Zeppelin riffs in his buddy's garage, much to the police's chagrin. Meanwhile, Brennen sat alone in her room, singing and picking acoustically along with The Cranberries and Jewel. She began to play in local swing and progressive rock bands.

Those kind of artistic differences would never lead to Osmond family musical bliss. Their one true connection ­ country western music ­ had become a joke to both of them.

"We just got turned off to it; looking at the country scene back then, Billy Ray Cyrus break dancing in white tennis shoes on CMT, I mean, come on," Brennen says. "Of course we thought we hated country music, because we only heard the junk the music industry was telling us was country music."

The siblings eventually found some common ground with blues and old rock, helping to form short-lived cover group The Edgar Stevens Band. They played some rough numbers, including opening for the now disbanded Mr. Vanderbilt at 309 Broadway, where two of three customers were a man dancing with a sedated woman in a wheelchair.

"I was just 15, and that's a bit tough on the ego," Brennen says. "But you just gotta laugh. I figure, if one old guy is watching us, digging our music, it's worth it."

California cowboy Dwight Yoakam gets credit for Seth and Brennen's return to the old school.

"Two years ago, we went to see Dwight at the fair: It was probably the best day in my life to date," Brennen says. "I mean, I started to warm up to old style country before then, but when I saw Dwight, I was like, whoa. And that's about all I've wanted to listen to since then."

Since Seth had started school in Nashville, he also had been bit by the bluegrass bug. They began performing as a duo.

"Making that jump from despising country to that's what you like and perform, it's been really neat to watch," says father Don. "They like to credit me with things, but everything they've done has been because of their hard work and enthusiasm and responsibility. My wife and I have just sat back and enjoyed the music."

A regular act at places like The Trentino, 25th Street Market and the Cork n' Cleaver, growing audiences come out to hear Brennen Leigh play Hank Williams tunes like it's 1949 and they're fresh out of Tennessee.

Their lineup also regularly sweeps through Mississippi Delta blues, Texas swing, Appalachian mountain songs and Irish drinking songs. "We're Irish, so we feel at home doing those songs," Seth says. "Plus, Celtic and country music have a lot in common," Brennen adds. "One: alcoholism. Two: getting your heart broken. Three: the Lord. The instrumentation is also similar, lots of mandolin, banjo, violins, and there's always those happy little melodies."

A common shortcoming in fledgling groups, Seth admits Brennen Leigh lacks original material. They now perform just five to 10 originals at shows, mainly country laments like "Jessie James" and honky-tonk tunes like "No Way, Jose," which Brennen wrote after getting hit on in a San Antonio bar.

Despite that, the duo's opportunities and accolades are becoming more frequent.

"The music isn't the kind of thing you would think most people would enjoy, but they do it so well, people love it," says Peter Roufs, Trentino owner. "And they are truly as pleasant as they are talented; it's like Donny and Marie Osmond all over again."

The twosome has been asked to perform in the annual Celebration of Women and Their Music show at the Fargo Theatre in February. A solo Brennen recently sang a snippet of "Tonight, the Heartache's on Me," to win a singing contest at the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville.

Ironically, Brennen says she has difficulties in her high school a capella choir and dreads music class graduation standards, which include a report and performance. "I asked my teacher if I could do a bluegrass piece, and it turns out the state Legislature mandates that bluegrass has a difficulty level of zero, so I can't," Brennen says. "How insulting."

This year presents the proverbial fork for the siblings. Brennen has decided to apply to Belmont University in Nashville, alma mater of country stars like Brad Paisley and Lee Ann Womack. All hinges on a performance audition at the end of this month.

The siblings are committed to performing together, but Seth waffles about whether that will be here or in Nashville after he graduates next year.

"Most guys (in Nashville) playing in the street for tips could smoke me," he says. "I'd have to do it for the pure love of music. Call me in 10 years and I will probably still be working at some waffle house," he laughs.

"But really, I might wait awhile to pursue the flying thing. I guess the only thing I don't want to do is look back and say 'You know, Brennen, we could have done so much more with our music.'"

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