Ask musicians what they fear most and the answer is often boredom. It takes many forms—a stasis in songwriting, ennui on the road, the stultifying dull hours before showtime. Whittling away at that can be devastating for someone who seeks comfort in booze or drugs. It almost killed Dylan LeBlanc. A Louisiana native who grew up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the singer-songwriter released two lauded solo albums—with some tabbing him as the next Neil Young. He went off to tour the world with nary a bit of wisdom about the hardships of road life and the temptations lurking in every dressing room or lounge in the back of a tour bus.
“I think people have a glamorous idea, and I certainly did, of when you’re touring, being out there partying all the time,” he says. “I took that image of it and really wrecked myself for the first two records of my career.” LeBlanc was only twenty-three when he came off the tour for his last album, released in 2012, and suffered a complete breakdown, including visceral physical withdrawals from alcohol that left him shaking.
But sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven, and LeBlanc, now sober for more than a year, has returned with the aptly titled Cautionary Tale, a mesmerizing collection of hushed moments that recall both Harvest Moon–era Young and the space-folk rock of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. John Paul White of the Civil Wars and Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner (like LeBlanc, an Alabama boy) produced the album, and White brings LeBlanc’s tender voice to the forefront while Tanner’s hazy arrangements soar with strings and delicate, deliberate grooves. LeBlanc’s voice is a ghostly shimmer as he glides his way through “I’m Moving On,” perhaps the most affecting song on the album. LeBlanc also tapped another friend for some help: the Shakes’ Brittany Howard, who drove from Athens, Georgia, to Muscle Shoals to add backing vocals to the haunting, reflective “Easy Way Out.” It took her all of two takes.
“Watching her work and be the confident artist that she is definitely was inspirational to me,” LeBlanc says. “She can keep a crowd in the palm of her hand. That was something I hadn’t yet learned to do, especially early in my career. I was so not a confident performer.”
LeBlanc has the genes for performance. His father, James, worked at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals as a house songwriter (alongside John Paul White), penning country tunes for Travis Tritt and Rascal Flatts. “When he wrote songs, he always made sure that they had a clear message,” LeBlanc says of his father. “I got a lot of education about songwriting, to make sure that every word means something.”
Tanner, who also worked at FAME as an engineer, considers LeBlanc a little brother. He took him under his wing when LeBlanc was barely old enough to drive, giving him a flash drive of music he thought LeBlanc should listen to. “He had so much natural talent, but he was really young and just hadn’t heard that much music,” Tanner says. “I was shocked when he said he had never heard Townes Van Zandt or Leonard Cohen, and I just said, ‘Here, work your way through this stuff.’ It was cool to watch him go through phases based on what he was listening to.”
As with many of LeBlanc’s friends, it was difficult for Tanner to watch him self-destruct. “I don’t think anyone else can truly pull someone out until that person wants it for himself,” he says. LeBlanc agrees, adding, “It takes work. To a lot of people, work is the dirtiest four-letter word in the English language. But we don’t get out of this world without being marked up a bit.”