Michael Leonard Witham embodies junkyard blues in the most literal way. His foray into creating new music began with a dumpster dive in his hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. Witham touts himself as a “junk collector,” and on this day in 2010, he found a Yamaha acoustic guitar. The unwitting new musician took the guitar home fixed it up, and only five months later found himself with a solid gallery of songs and a number of gigs throughout the American South.
Michael Leonard Witham now has an album due out on October 21, entitled A Scandal in the Violets, the preview tracks for which can be streamed on his SoundCloud page linked in the “Sources” list below. He has come a long way from making recordings on his iphone in his closet, but still has a long way to go. Critics are touting the newly minted folk and blues artist as a “songwriter’s songwriter” and comparing him to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and early Springsteen. There is something to be said for experience, however, and while Witham’s new musical chops are strong, he seems to still be learning.
Witham shows promise on the new album, which contains 10 of the many and sundry songs he has written since teaching himself to play and sing on the junked Yamaha. He clearly has a gift for storytelling, as tracks such as Sorry Girl but the Show Is Over and Last Plea to Ashley Ann exemplify. Witham clearly wants to follow in the footsteps of legends like Johnny Cash, as the album plays up the theme of a man who is a wandering soul with demons to slay and a chip on his shoulder. He uses his gift for lyrics to create some powerful and emotive images to this end, and it is difficult to imagine Witham has only been writing lyrics and new music for a few short years.
Another positive to A Scandal in the Violets is that the timbre and texture of Michael Leonard Witham’s vocals are quite unique. His voice sounds a bit like Jack White’s, but with a bit more of a raspy edge and a warble which lends itself well to his rough-around-the-edges image. It is uncertain as to whether this style of singing is intentional, however, or due to lack of training. In some places Witham’s voice sounds as though he is just using it for the first time, and it creaks a bit like an old rocking chair. Within the genre of music he is performing, however, this attribute has a rough charm. It will be interesting to see if he polishes his vocals up as his style develops, or if he will try to keep the same varied, sometimes flat tones to go with his beaten up guitar and sad sack lyrics a’la Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
Though he’s been praised in the south and specifically at the prolific Arkansas Times Musician’s Showcase, to whom he first submitted his recordings, as having the potential to be the next great songwriter, Michael Leonard Witham may still need to take some time to develop his style and sound. Witham has made great strides with the resources he has. A Scandal in the Violets appears to straddle a number of styles, but does not necessarily pull off an expert melding of genres like some of the other retro-rock acts coming onto the new music scene as of late. Elements of potentially great folk, blues, junkyard country and a bit of rock and pop are all there, but at times it can seem a bit chaotic and with the rough vocals can be a bit distracting, so if Witham can develop a cohesive new musical style in future attempts, his potential is indeed great.
Despite a few amateur failings and a lack of direction, the potential for Michael Leonard Witham in the new music scene is categorically limitless. Overall, A Scandal in the Violets is still a beautiful album, telling one heartbreaking story after another with Witham’s unique vocal tones carrying the listener along the way. Folk rock greatness is just out of reach for Witham, and with a little time and refinement, this self-taught vocal storyteller really does have all the makings of a great songwriter. Once he develops his unique though slightly haphazard style into something concrete, his natural rugged charm will shine through and a wider audience will be able to appreciate him and his new music in the future. Michael Leonard Witham is thus not far off at all from to living up to the claims of the Arkansas Times and others and walking in the footsteps of his songwriting idols.
Review by Layla Klamt