Danni Leigh's Shot Of Whiskey & A Prayer

The 'female Dwight Yoakam' finds the country ladder very steep.

NASHVILLE — Danni Leigh's latest album, A Shot of Whiskey & a Prayer, takes its name from a ritual she goes through before each concert. It could also be the prescription for her woes in the rough-and-tumble music business.

This month Leigh signed with Audium Entertainment, her third label in a little over two years. She is at work on her third album, teaming with producer Pete Anderson, noted guitarist and producer for Dwight Yoakam. Leigh's look and sound have prompted more than a few scribes to describe her as the "female Dwight Yoakam."

Leigh, 31, made a minor splash in 1998 when Decca Records released her debut album, 29 Nights, and a single and video, "If the Jukebox Took Teardrops." Just as the second single and video, "29 Nights," was released, Decca went out of business when its parent company, Universal Music Group, merged with PolyGram Records.

Leigh moved quickly to Sony's Monument Records — the Dixie Chicks' label — and once again was poised for stardom. After two singles from A Shot of Whiskey & a Prayer stiffed last year, Sony showed her the door. However, in an unusual move, Sony put out the album in February, three months after she left the label.

"I really don't know what I've done wrong to radio," Leigh said candidly. "I wish I could figure it out, I really do, because every ounce of my body would love to have my songs played on commercial radio."

At Sony, picking up where 29 Nights left off, Leigh had continued to align herself with the Bakersfield Sound, a brand of hard-edged honky-tonk music honed by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the '60s and popularized by Yoakam today.

"Honey I Do," the first single (and only video) from Whiskey & a Prayer, peaked at #59 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart last April. Faring only slightly better, "I Don't Feel That Way" reached #56 in July. Leigh and Sony parted ways before the next scheduled single, "Longnecks, Cigarettes" (RealAudio excerpt) got out of the gate.

Leigh's retro-Western, Yoakam-style image may have been a hindrance at radio, Sony Music Nashville president Allen Butler speculated.

"This is a time when Dwight isn't at the peak of his career with country radio," he said. "In some ways, maybe that made it harder for them to embrace her as an artist. She's unique in the fact that she's a hat act. Her and Terri Clark, that's about it, and even Terri is doing more pop stuff now to a certain extent."

Leigh is not in a hurry to shed comparisons to Yoakam. In addition to making her next album with Anderson — Yoakam's right-hand man — she opened about 15 concerts for Yoakam last fall. Leigh believes Yoakam provides a reference point for fans to get a handle on her approach.

"When I was out on tour with Dwight," Leigh said, "I sat down with him one night and asked him if it was weird for him to hear that people call me the 'female Dwight.' I was just wondering what he thought about it, if he thought I was trying to step on his toes. 'Don't worry about it,' he said. 'I thought the same thing with Buck Owens. I came out and people thought I sounded like Buck, but the God-honest truth is we're just doing what's natural, what's comfortable, and it's really all you got.' "

Leigh took the Sony setback in stride but added, "It's always hard leaving a piece of yourself behind. I did it at Decca, now I've had to do it at Sony. I feel like there is a big chunk of my soul that goes with these people. It's hard to [stop working] with people that at one time were so fired up and believed in you so much.

Before Leigh hits the stage each night, she rallies her band into a sing-along of "It Don't Get Any Better Than This," a George Jones album cut that features guest vocalists Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Willie Nelson.

"We blast that song so loud and sing at the top of our lungs and pour ourselves a shot," Leigh said. "It feels good going down, and we toast to another night. There's nothing else we'd rather be doing. Like the song says, it just doesn't get any better than this."

After drinks, music and camaraderie, Leigh spends a quiet moment by herself before greeting her audience. "I always take the time to say a prayer thanking 'the Man' for letting me do it again.

"It took me a long time to be able to get out and tour and create my own albums," she continued. "I'll never stop doing it, and I know that this journey has only just begun."