Leading up to LEAF festival, Mountain Xpress is talking to a number of artists from across the country and across musical genres Singer-songwriter Wyatt Espalin is the winner of this year’s NewSong competition. From a small town in Georgia, he moved to Nashville to pursue music. Espalin was a member of the band Trees Leave before embarking on a solo career. He recently released his debut, The Pardon.
Xpress: Tell us about your experience entering the NewSong competition. How did you hear about it, what songs did you enter and what was the prize?
Wyatt Espalin:I heard about the songwriting contest from my booking agent, Dylan. She encouraged me to enter and sent me the link. I had entered one of these contests before — the Chris Austin songwriting contest held at Merlefest. My friend Cobi [Ferguson] and I wrote a song called “Water Falls” that was picked as a finalist in the bluegrass category. I’ve always wanted to go to LEAF so I gave it a shot. I entered my songs “Light Coming Through” and “Ocoee” from my debut solo album, The Pardon. The prize was amazing: $1,000, tickets to fall LEAF as well as two performing slots at the fest. Plus, I have gotten some great gigs just from the exposure.
How did growing up in the small town of Hiawassee, Ga. inform your music?
I grew up in Hiawassee, but I’ve lived in Nashville for 10 years. I had to come back to Hiawassee a couple of years ago to take care of my ailing Granddad who was still trying to run his campground. It’s a very inspiring place. That summer, I ended up as a raft guide on the Ocoee River and living in a camper. I wrote most of the songs for my new album in that camper.
According to your bio, it sounds like Cobi left Trees Leave, but I see from your twitter feed that the band is still announcing shows. What’s the status of that project?
I intended [for there to] be another Trees Leave album (even though Cobi quit traveling and performing with Trees Leave, he still remains an integral part in recording and helping shape the songs), so my plan was to continue performing under the moniker. I still do. But it’s getting confusing to audiences, since my solo album and name is getting more exposure.
What’s it been like to transition from being in a band to being a solo singer-songwriter?
The hardest part in the transition was not having Cobi on stage with me. I realized how dependent I was on him to make sure my equipment worked and my instruments had strings. I’ve spent the last four years trying find an accompanist who could read me like [Cobi] could on stage. But to be able to get up there alone has been so liberating, and has allowed me to write about things that I never would have with a collaborator.
Since you’re a repeat visitor to LEAF, other than performing, what are you most looking forward to at the festival?
I’m looking forward to camping at LEAF with fall weather. I love camping! I grew up [at] a campground and now I’ve inherited the one in Hiawassee from my Granddad, since he passed a few months ago.
Bonus question: If you could collaborate with another LEAF performer, who would it be and why?
I’d love to work with Abigail Washburn. I remember seeing her with her old band, Uncle Earl, in Nashville in 2005. I just loved watching her play that banjo.