Richard Leigh is happy to support his alma mater
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 30, 2014When you talk to Richard Leigh, you'll notice that he's warm, gracious and has a great sense of humor. If you bring up Virginia Highlands Community College and the Richard Leigh Songwriters Festival, you'll discover that he's devoted to his alma mater and the Great Expectations project. The project helps foster youth transition to college, important to Leigh because of his time as a foster youth, prior to his adoption.
When David Matlock, vice president for institutional advancement at VHCC, came up with the idea of a songwriters festival, he called Leigh. "I was agreeable to lend my name to it, because it had to do with my own personal situation," Leigh says. "The money raised goes to benefit children coming out of foster care, and I was once an orphan. It was a life-changing event to go to VHCC and be able to go to college. David asked if I would be interested in helping other children have the same wonderful experience I did – so I loaned my name and my friends to it, and we've been having a ball."
He gives all the credit for the event to Matlock. "I just show up. He does all the heavy lifting and then gives us all the glory, which is typical of him."
Leigh doesn't just come to the event, he gets his friends from the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame to join him. "It wasn't difficult to get them to come. They were glad to get away from their wives," Leigh jokes. "First of all they're my friends, and they're the most talented men I ever met, and they're in the Hall of Fame. To get to that position you have to be a hard worker and not shy away from it.
"I just asked them to come. I said, ""This festival has my name on it boys, and it would be really embarrassing if you say no.' So they said "we'll help you.'"
And help they did. "I'd never seen six hall of famers sing together on one stage. This is my 40th year in the business, and I've never seen it before, and it will happen again this year. Usually you don't have all hall of famers, because they're very busy, and they're not asked. But I asked.
"It's history making. Last year 21 No. 1 songs were sung in a row. The audience went nuts. They came out of their seats. They mobbed us. After it was over, there wasn't enough left of Tony Arata to make a good taco," he laughs. "Usually they just walk right by the songwriters – except for David Matlock – he honors us like no one else. It made me feel like $10 million."
This year, in addition to the concert and songwriting contest, there will be two songwriting workshops. Leigh will teach one of them; it isn't certain yet who will teach the second. "We're excited to meet the songwriters," Leigh says. "We'll be able to spend a lot of time with them during these workshops."
Leigh's songwriting began when he was a child. "When I was young, I needed a way to express myself. I had four fathers and three mothers by the time I was 15. It was kind of painful, and music was my way to vent that and get it out of my system, and it made me very happy. It was the first time that shy, little Richard got some positive attention (I got lots of "go live somewhere else'). When I was writing songs, I was in sync with the world, and it just felt great. I'd found myself, and then I went to Abingdon. That's where my musical career began – at VHCC. I studied theatre arts there. I've never studied music. I tried to get into several music schools in the north, and they turned me down. Twenty-five years later, they invited me to come and speak to them on the craft of songwriting." He went and didn't tell them they'd turned him down for admission.
He didn't start out at VHCC though. "I was in forestry school in North Carolina, and I hated it. I won't tell you where I was; I don't want to embarrass that school. I would come up and visit Abingdon almost every weekend. It was a three-hour drive. When I applied to VHCC they said: "You want to be a musician, an actor, a teacher, anything you want; we'll help you. I said "these people are kindred spirits, and I'm going to stay here.'" After he received his degree from VHCC, or as Leigh puts it, "they made me leave after two years," he went on to Virginia Commonwealth University. "Got my diploma, headed straight to Nashville, wrote a bunch of hits and got in the Hall of Fame," is how he sums up his career. "Once you've gone to VHCC, everything's a breeze."
Then he turns serious, "One thing I tell everybody, and it's the heartfelt truth. There's a picture from 1968 that I treasure. It's a bunch of guys in jackets and ties with shovels in their hands, and they're breaking ground on what will be VHCC. I told David and President Proffit, "they thought they were breaking ground on the campus, but what they were really breaking ground on was the rest of my life. It totally changed my life."
About Richard Leigh
Grammy award winner Richard Leigh became well known to the VHCC community in the 1970s while enrolled in the Theatre Arts Program and has returned to campus often in the years since to share his award-winning hits. He has consistently had hits over the course of his 40-year career and kicked off the 21st century with a top 10 hit, "Cold Day in July," recorded by the Dixie Chicks. Most recently his friend Billy Dean recorded an entire album of his songs for the "Billy Dean Sings Richard Leigh" CD.
Leigh has been writing songs since he was 10 years old and professionally since he was 23. He got his first break in 1976 when Crystal Gayle released "I'll Get Over You," and took it to #1 on Billboard's Country Chart. "I'll Get Over You" garnered Leigh his first of seven Song of the Year nominations, this one from the Country Music Association.
Two years later, Leigh was back at the CMAs, this time to take home the Song Of The Year award for "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," which itself has had a phenomenal career: "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" reached the #1 position on both pop and country charts and remained on the charts for more than six months; it was nominated for Grammy Awards in both the pop and country "Best Song" categories (a feat not repeated until 1993); won a Grammy award for "Best Country Song"; was a million selling single, and was named one of the 10 most performed "Country Songs Of The Century" at the 1999 ASCAP Awards. In addition to his own three Grammy nominations, five of his songs have become vehicles to the Grammy Awards for other artists in the "Best Performance," "Record of the Year" and "Vocal Event" categories.
He has made 14 trips to the Top 10 and has written or co-written eight #1 singles: "Somewhere In My Broken Heart" (written with Billy Dean), voted 1991 Song Of The Year by the Nashville Songwriter's Association, and also by the Academy Of Country Music; "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" (written with Layng Martine, Jr.), nominated at the 1993 Grammy Awards for "Best Country Song); "Come From The Heart" (written with Susanna Clark and recorded by Kathy Mattea); Don William's "That's the Thing About Love" (written with Gary Nicholson); Steve Wariner's "Life's Highway" (written with Roger Murrah); Mickey Gilley's "Put Your Dreams Away" (written with Wayland Holyfield), and "I'll Get Over You" and "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," both written by Leigh and recorded by Crystal Gayle. He received one of his greatest honors in 1974, 20 years and one month after arriving in Nashville, when his peers elected him into the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame.
Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Virginia, Leigh is a graduate of VHCC and Virginia Commonwealth University. He was named the American Association of Community Colleges' Alumni Hall of Fame in 2011 for his outstanding contributions to his profession and service to his community.
A SHORT SCHEDULE
Friday, May 23
Performances are at Heartwood — Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway
Saturday, May 24
Performances are at Heartwood — Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway
5 p.m.-12 a.m
Performances are at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center
All Weekend Friday and Saturday: $25
Friday Evening Only 6-10 p.m.: $15
Saturday Day 12 p.m. — 5 p.m.: $15
Saturday Evening 5 p.m. — 12 a.m.: $25
Student Tickets (All weekend for ages 6-24): $20
Patron (general admission Friday and Saturday includes preferred seating at a table seat on Saturday evening): $50
Table (reserved table on Saturday evening): $400
Food and alcohol will be available for purchase during all performances at both venues.
- How to Enter the Songwriters Contest
At left: Six Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members entertain the crowd at the 2013 Richard Leigh Songwriters Festival.