Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent are mostly known for their work with the alt-country band Wrinkle Neck Mules, whose uber-catchy “Central Daylight Time” was featured in a popular Geico commercial. That song is the epitome of the Wrinkle Neck Mules’ more straight-ahead country music. Meanwhile, Stepanian and Brent were anxious to try new things and break out of their successful formula. Some of the more “alt” corners of country music have been exploring psychedelic stylings for a while, with Sturgill Simpson leading the charge.
As Leon III (“Leon the Third”), the pair has stretched their wings and composed a set of wildly inventive new music based more on indie folk and cosmic country than alt-country. A tune like “Paper Eye” even adds subtle synthesizers to play off the analogue instruments and create a spacey atmosphere. Meanwhile, “Alberta” is a piano-led tune that comes from big sky country with its wide open vistas and orchestral swells.
To help create their new sound, Leon III tapped producer Mark Nevers, who has worked with experimental folk acts like Bonnie Prince Billy and Lambchop. It’s a winning combination for their pair as Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent have created the most intriguing and sophisticated music of their careers. Leon III proves there are rich waters where country, folk, psych, and orchestral pop meet and that sets them up for a fascinating musical feature.
Andy Stepanian tells PopMatters, “As a listener, I have always been drawn to work Mark Nevers’ engineering and producing. I think I probably first heard it on Bonnie Prince Billy’s “Master and Everyone” which is timeless to me. I then kind of went back in time and pieced together his connection to the Vic Chesnutt record “Salesman and Bernadette” and Lambchop and Silver Jews. When the whole concept of Leon III started, we knew we wanted to work with a producer and Mark was at the top of the short list. I didn’t realize when I first reached out that working with Mark would also mean working with a lot of the musicians from those albums – like piano player Tony Crow from Lambchop, drummer Brian Kotzur from Silver Jews, pedal steel player Pete Finney, Chris Scruggs from Marty Stuart and the Superlatives, Jordan Caress from Ponychase and Kai Welch. Mark also has a sort of unsung background in gospel music so he brought a little of that to the recording which was unexpected.
Strangely, the Leon III album was the last one made top to bottom at Nevers’ Beech House Recording in Nashville. The studio was, quite literally, in his house. When I first contacted him, he had made the decision to sell it after 30 years of recording there because the whole neighborhood was being taken over by mid-rise apartments and the developers were relentlessly trying to get their hands on the property. He’s since set up shop near Pawley’s Island, South Carolina.”