Feature Stories

Frankie Leonie Is a 16-Year-Old Country Musician Who Wrote "Johnny Cash"

Cal Quinn and Aly Faye
Meet Frankie Leonie, the 16-year-old country musician.

It’s a Monday night at The Rustic, and Frankie Leonie is waiting to get onstage. A schedule mix-up has resulted in the venue having no sound engineer for the night, and Leonie can’t perform until one of them drives in. Unfazed, she sits and eats with her mother and her publicist with a calmness uncharacteristic for a teenager. The manager stops by to tell her that she won’t be expected to play any longer than agreed, and to assure her that she’ll get paid the same. But Leonie already knew that. She may be 16 years old, but it’s not her first rodeo.

She finally steps onto the stage nearly an hour later; it’s a gigantic space for anyone alone with an acoustic guitar. Leonie fills it out easily, belting a sound familiarly vintage, haunted with the voices of country greats from the past that imprinted onto her style in early childhood. While her high school friends had Taylor Swift and Adele, Leonie had Loretta Lynn and Jack White. That pairing’s collaboration is the first album she remembers owning, a fact that really shows her age, seeing as it came out only 14 years ago.

Leonie shops at secondhand Lula B’s and not at the mall, emulating fashion icons last seen in the ’70s. Her classmates are unaware of her music career, even when she’s playing on local TV.

“I go to school, don’t talk to anybody,” she says, summing up her social life, which consists of five friends. “Later, I go to my show and talk to everybody there.”

Offstage, Leonie is Frankie Wright, a high school junior with little interest in academics. She hasn’t dropped out of school, she says, only for her commitment to the school band, where she plays the upright bass. Leonie is her middle name.

A few days later, she sits with her family at home. It’s on a well-maintained Richardson street and has a drum set in the living room. Her father was once a drummer who played in Deep Ellum, and Leonie can’t remember his current business title.

She talks about the contents of her journals.

“It’s not anything super deep,” she says while laughing. “It’s like, ‘I hate everything, and school sucks.’”

But Leonie is far from an angsty teen. She’s shy and polite. Her home contains everything a teenager could ask for: a pool, a dog, a cute little brother (12-year-old Phoenix), her own car. She owns a double life more exciting than Hannah Montana’s. Leonie’s first paychecks have never come from typically greasy or mundane first jobs. Leonie makes good money gigging in late-night venues with her idols.

She’s played every Monday at The Rustic for the last few months, where her sincere country-folk holds audiences’ sincere attention. And when she speaks about the fact that she doesn’t enjoy reading, she matter-of-factly begins, “I read one book a year,” followed by “the last one was Ray Wylie Hubbard’s [biography] before I opened for him in Indiana.” Leonie and her extended family, she remembers, flew out for that show.

Other gigs take her to San Antonio and Austin, but she can’t do any serious touring until she finishes high school. Leonie’s aim, she says, is to avoid sounding like a top-40 cover band.

“I try to pick classic country covers,” she says. “Either it should be a classic or something nobody knows.”

Leonie suffers no stage fright, but the expectation for stage banter makes her nervous.

”When I first started playing I would not even speak onstage and I could not look up,” she says. “It probably wasn’t that much fun for other people to watch, and it wasn’t that much fun for me. It was hard to even say, ‘My name is’, but I had to force myself. I’ve definitely had to work at it.”

Leonie first started singing at church, a cappella and solo, at age 8. Her parents put her in voice and piano lessons. For her fourth-grade talent show she did a version of “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse. None of the other kids knew the song.

“They’d say, ‘You listen to old-people music,’” Leonie remembers of her classmates, “but now that’s a cool thing.”

“They’d say, ‘You listen to old-people music,’ but now that’s a cool thing.” – Frankie Leonie

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Leonie began playing regularly when the music school she attended started putting her in shows. Her mother, Jennifer Wright, a counselor with the Richardson school district, had to learn how to “momage” her daughter’s side hustle.

“I would go to shows and talk to other musicians,” Wright says. “I would ask them a bunch of questions, find out who was booking, and we took off from there.”

At one show, they met the successful Americana group The Texas Gentlemen, and they hired their bandleader, producer Beau Bedford, to record her first two singles, with engineer Jason Burt, at Modern Electric studios. Wright says that she wasn’t only seeking out the highest levels of production, but also a trusted support system for her daughter.

“I knew having them attached to her, it was gonna be good,” she says of the Gents, “especially in this town; it was exactly where she needed to land.”

Leonie first came in with a song called “Johnny Cash,” which she co-wrote in Nashville with songwriter Melissa Bollea Rowe, whom she hired there. She says they hung out all morning, produced nothing, went to lunch, and Leonie finally pulled out some notes she’d written about the “Man in Black” after he’d been on her mind all week.

“We were trying to come up with something,” Leonie remembers of the songwriting process, “and I told her that I wrote something down, just free words, after I listened to ‘Give My Love to Rose.’”

In that song, Cash’s black-coffee tone tells the story of a dying man who won’t make it from prison to Louisiana (of course) and asks him to give money to his wife to send a message to his son. Leonie wanted to retell the story from that son’s perspective. “I got a memory of a man, I call him Johnny Cash,” she sings. “We never got a name, just a story and a bag.”

Bedford says that working with Leonie was easy as it entailed only one vocal take all the way through, and just a handful of times.

“She has so much control, and it’s beyond her years,” he says. “Really our whole goal in the studio was to leave space for her vocals because they’re like butter. I was really floored by it. She’s writing some really cool, interesting music for her scene and what her genre is, and her voice just blew me away; she literally just sounded super seasoned.”

Leonie says most of her financial support for recording and promotion comes from her grandparents, whom she calls “funeral singers.” Her grandfather sings in his church’s choir and is often invited to sing at memorials. Leonie once sang at a funeral herself and says her frequent early experiences with family death left her with a fascination for the morbid, which she indulges by watching crime shows. Leonie has no imminent plans to move out and even less interest in attending college.

“I think college would be a waste of money right now; I wouldn’t be motivated,” Leonie says of putting all her eggs in the music industry’s fickle basket. “I hope it works out decently well.”

“Otherwise she’ll live with me for the rest of her life,” Wright adds.

Leonie continues, “I figure school will always be there if I want to go when I’m 30, but not right now.”

If she did, naturally she’d gravitate toward professions fit for a necromaniac.

“I always wanted to be a mortician,” she says. “It’s weird, but that’s always been interesting to me — forensics and figuring out how people die.” Leonie jokes that she could start a business as a one-stop funeral service. “I could do it all — hair, makeup, embalming and singing,” she says.

“I always wanted to be a mortician. It’s weird, but that’s always been interesting to me — forensics and figuring out how people die.” – Frankie Leonie

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“My room is actually, like, atrocious,” Leonie says while barely flashing a glimpse of it before hastily shutting its door. “I used to have a whole wall of cutesy quotes, but I took them down,” she says, describing her current décor as including posters of Janis Joplin and Dylan. Although, she admits, “I don’t listen to Bob Dylan that much.” She lists her tastes, which range from regional to hyper-local: Margo Price, Nikki Lane, Paul Cauthen, Charley Crockett and Leon Bridges — also known as the Belmont Hotel’s guest list on any given night. “I would love to live there, but I’ve only hung out there once,” she says longingly of the Oak Cliff hotel.

Leonie is likewise underwhelmed by the selection of available bachelors in her age group.

“Literally they’re all like frat boys,” she says of the boys at school. Leonie prefers the artsy type. “She has a crush on a 30-something-year-old man,” Wright says.

The week before, Leonie had a single release party at Spinster Records, where she played with three other acts, including Vincent Neil Emerson. She’s usually accompanied to her shows by a parent or chaperone.

“I’ve had more people offer me drinks the last couple of weeks than ever before,” Leonie tells her parents, swearing that she declines the offers every time.

Leonie’s mother isn’t worried about her hanging around bars, despite her crushes on men in their 30s.

“The one she likes is in Canada,” Wright explains. Leonie’s father comes around the corner from the kitchen jokingly demanding a name. Leonie tells him the story like she’s chatting with a girlfriend over boba tea.

"He was playing three years ago, and he was changing after one of his shows,” she says of said crush, "and I saw him in his underwear and I was like, ‘hey.’”

As if the above exchange hadn’t made it apparent, Leonie says she’s close to her family. She’s looking forward to her second single release, for "Taking all the Good out of Goodbye," in the upcoming months. She rummages through her promotional merch supply. It’s mostly her name on pins and printed on the kind of thin T-shirts that you’d find at Urban Outfitters. But, never off brand, Leonie carries her merch around in a hard, powder-blue, vintage suitcase.