Music

Alberta songwriting treasure Leeroy Stagger grateful to be living a charmed life these days

Charmed. That’s a word Lethbridge musician Leeroy Stagger, who’s been hypnotizing listeners with candid, hook-laden tunes as personal as fingerprints for nearly two decades, uses to describe his career. Charmed, and lucky. But others who’ve watched Stagger go through everything from a songwriting retreat to 50,000 miles on the road to sobriety to meditation to stoke his muse and bring his music into the international spotlight might use some other words: talented, driven, and humble come to mind.

Starting his career in the early 2000s playing dive bars in a punk band, Stagger soon caught the eyes and ears of people like Victoria’s Carolyn Mark. By 2007, a Stagger song was featured on the CBC hit series Heartland; another would follow. His songs appeared on Sons of Anarchy and Grey’s Anatomy as well. 

He’s released 11 albums, won first place in the 2014 Calgary Folk Fest/Ship & Anchor Songwriting contest, upped the ante to win the $100,000 Alberta Peak Performance in 2015, built his own studio, Rebeltone Ranch, and produced albums for John Wort Hannam, Dave McCann and the Firehearts, and others. He even has a radio show on CKUA, Dirty Windshields, Saturdays at noon. It focuses, not surprisingly, on songwriters. In Stagger’s case, “charmed” translates into relentless hard, focused work.

“I’ve had a really charmed career, to be honest. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but the last four years things have changed and I’m incredibly grateful.”

Speaking from Penticton, Stagger was hours away from playing the first concert in the Black Hen Roadshow series with Steve Dawson, Ndidi Onukwulu and Steve Marriner. Due to flights and bad highways, the musicians’ first practice together had been but a few hours earlier, yet Stagger is serene, stating it’s the kind of music that “can be played a little bit looser as long as the rhythm section knows what’s going on.”

The show consists of three mini sets by different musicians followed by a collaborative set. The Black Hen Roadshow, in its third season, is Dawson’s brainchild. Dawson and Stagger “hung out together” in Nashville last fall, leading to Stagger joining these shows.

When asked why the ups and downs have smoothed out in the last few years, Stagger doesn’t hesitate with his reply. “I attribute it to the fact that I just changed my attitude, my outlook on why I do this. I’ve met some really great people and I feel like I’m semi-talented, but I feel like I’ve been really, really lucky.”

Stagger also says that his decision to stop drinking was a turning point – kind of. “I got sober like 10 years ago, but I wasn’t happy. I didn’t start being happy 10 years ago. About five years ago I went through big depression, I think it was around the time my first son was born, Guthrie. I was really depressed and really messed up and I didn’t know what was going on, and through a bunch of work I realized I hadn’t dealt with a lot of stuff from my childhood,” explains Stagger, who credits Steve Earle as being an inspiration to stay sober during times of temptation.

“Coming through that I learned about gratitude. I started meditating and so many beautiful people came into my life and showed me it’s all about gratitude. And I think as you get older you start to lose friends and realize just how precious our time is here. When I’m on the road now, I have so much to lose, well, not so much to lose, but there’s just more riding on it. I have children at home so if I’m going to go out, there has to be a reason to go out.”

For some, that reason might be money. For others, it might be fame, or a chance to live the rock star life. Maybe some go out to play just to see the world. But Stagger’s reason is clear as the stars at 2 a.m. on a winter night at 40 below. “That reason is to spread a loving message and a positive message to people around the world that are suffering; that makes it all worth it for me.

“So when I go out and I do this I have a real strong intention to connect with people. I remember reading about this in Bruce Cockburn’s biography, too. He felt like the first 20 years of his career it was him versus the audience. Then one day someone taught him how to open up and make it about him and the audience, and the people that he’s playing to.

“I think that’s similar to what happened with me. I grew up playing in dive bars in a punk rock band and I felt like it was me against the people in this room instead of me trying to connect with people. When I started doing that, things changed.”

Some other things have changed in Stagger’s life, too, including becoming more selective about touring, which he now usually refuses to do in the winter. “(It’s) too dangerous. I’ve had so many friends wipe out on the roads in the wintertime. From a business standpoint it’s a really great time to tour, but it’s too nerve wracking and with little babies at home it’s just not worth it for me.

“I’ve had too many of those moments where you feel so grateful to be alive at the end of the day traveling and I got to the point where I felt like I was aging so quick from that kind of touring, so I decided to not do it.”

Another change was having a family. His wife is a hairdresser and designer who has her own business and sets her own hours. If you look at Stagger’s list of accomplishments, it is difficult to imagine how he finds time to do all that he’s done while raising two young sons.

“It’s pretty exhausting. I’m usually up by about 6:30 every day at home. I stay home with the little guy — he’s only two — so my wife will go to work four days a week. I will take care of him all day and try to do some work between TV shows and naps and stuff like that. I’m pretty much domesticated when I’m at home unless I’m working on a record, and then I’ll try and spend an hour with the kids and then I’ll get to work. I usually work pretty late.

“But it’s really important to me to be a dad, especially when I’m at home, so I go out of my way to make time.”

It’s difficult to imagine fitting the task of song writing into the schedule that balances family, production, touring and recording. But you won’t find Stagger wringing his hands about a lack of time for that. “I think in a lot of ways you just have to adapt, don’t you? Writing songs is my job. I never force it. I’ve never forced writing songs, I’ve never felt guilty for having fallow period of not writing. I just wait.”

Stagger recently completed a fruitful three-week-long residency at the Banff Centre, writing 13 songs during that time.

“(Austin songwriter) Kevin Welch — I hung out with him for three weeks — he said sometimes you’re gathering, said sometimes you’re inputting and sometimes you’re outputting. It’s just like anything in life, you just work at it and try to get better at it. There’s something divine about it, too, where you don’t want to mess with it too much, work at it too much.”

(Photo courtesy Johann Wall.)

Leeroy Stagger plays The Black Hen Roadshow with Steve Dawson, Ndidi Onukwulu and Steve Marriner at the Ironwood on Friday, April 20. For reservations, call 403-269-5581.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who loves horses, music and whiskey.

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