Leslie Jordan’s gospel album is a hoedown so fabulous that even Dolly Parton shows up
To the 5.7 million of us who lap up Leslie Jordan’s Instagram musings, it’ll come as a shock that he doesn’t care for one of his most endearing traits.
“I don’t like my voice. At all. Because I’ve got that accent, you know? And I’m not talking about my Southern accent,” he says. “If you had any doubt about me, when I open my mouth 50 yards of purple chiffon come out.
“But when I’m singing a hymn, I sound kind of butch.”
That’s right. Leslie Jordan — an actor beloved for his work on TV shows “Will & Grace” and “American Horror Story” — is now singing hymns and old-time country gospel. He’s even recorded an album that captures the heart and sass that made him such a viral social media star last year with his colorful vignettes about life during COVID-19 shutdowns
Released Friday, “Company’s Comin’” is as star-studded as his Instagram dispatches. Dolly Parton, Brandi Carlile, Eddie Vedder, Tanya Tucker, Chris and Morgane Stapleton and newly out country artist T.J. Osborne of Brothers Osborne make cameos without snatching the spotlight from Jordan. (Like that’s even possible.)
After decades in showbiz, the 65-year-old found fame on social media — and has a new TV show and a second book on the way. ‘It’s all gravy,’ he says.
Longtime fans already knew Jordan could do a fierce drag impersonation of country queen Tammy Wynette, but now he is stepping out as a singer. Let’s be frank: He won’t be forcing Adele into early retirement. His vocals, while warm and engaging, aren’t the point of his new album.
The down-home joy and communal revelry of his performances are a balm for these frayed times. Jordan, who’s riding high this year with a new sitcom (“Call Me Kat”) and forthcoming book (“How Y’All Doing?”), also reconciles his fraught relationship with songs he first sang in church as a closeted gay boy growing up Baptist in East Tennessee.
Jordan, 65, recently checked in with The Times over Zoom to dish on Dolly and reveal which duet partner was so good that he refused to sing with him.
Leslie Jordan performings with Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton
This doesn’t feel like an album. It sounds like stumbling upon someone’s big house party.
Oh, that’s exactly what we went after. I said, “I want it to be called ‘Company’s Comin’,” and I want it to sound like when I was a kid, my uncle and cousin would grab their banjos and guitars and we would just sit at family reunions and sing. We had a lot of songs, but it always ended up with the hymns. I’m so glad that you felt that because one of our executive producers, Mike Lotus, said, “Why do you talk? You shouldn’t talk when Brandi Carlile is about to sing.” And I said, “Oh, you don’t understand. That’s so part of the church. We would talk out and shout out.”
Were you nervous singing with so many accomplished artists?
Not at all. I think I was too stupid. I just put together a list, and I’d direct-message people and say, “Listen, I’m going to record an album.” And not one person said no. They said, “Oh, yes, absolutely.” I had met Eddie Vedder’s wife many years ago. She came to see me in Seattle in my one-man show. We had been friendly, and I was invited on a boat [with them]. Eddie said, “So what are you doing now?” I said, “I’m doing this album of hymns.” He goes, “I’ll sing one. I’d like to sing one.” Oh, my word. That was easy.
This album was born out of Instagram posts featuring you and musician Travis Howard singing together on Sunday mornings.
Travis and I have been friends for years and years, and we took similar journeys through the church. Mine was because I was gay. I didn’t feel embraced by [it]. How do you embrace something that doesn’t embrace you? It was never ugly. There was never a big ax to grind. I just wandered away, and that was that.
But I grew up in the church. We went to church every time the doors opened. Travis did too. So we started doing hymns on Sundays. And the response from Instagram was huge: There would be thousands of comments, with people saying, “It brings me such comfort.” Or, “I’m an atheist, but I still want to hear this music.” So I thought, you know what, whether you’re raised Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, whatever, this music, you could draw some comfort from it.
Did you sing in your church choir?
I did. I also sang in the Chattanooga Boys Choir, which was fairly well-known in my town. So I have a little bit of background. I can’t really read sheet music or anything like that, but I sang growing up. I loved that Rolling Stone said, “His voice is capable.” [Laughs] But you know what? I had no fear. I think that comes from the choir. We were always told, “You’re just singing for the Lord. So just sing.”
Did you know Dolly before you recorded your duet of “Where the Soul Never Dies”?
I had wanted to meet Dolly since I first saw her in [the early ‘70s]. I told her when I finally met her that I drove all the way to Sevierville [Parton’s Tennessee hometown] from Chattanooga. I heard she was going to appear in her high school auditorium. She’s been on my wish list to meet, and over the years I’ve gotten friendly with Steve Summers [Parton’s creative director]. I was in Nashville and he said, “Dolly is at a studio very near you if you’d like to come up.” I couldn’t even breathe. I went over there and she was all dolled up for a Christmas special that she did. And we sat there and even though we were masked and socially distant, we just glommed on to one another. And people said, “What’s she like?” Well, you know exactly what she’s like. You don’t have to meet her to know what she’s like. I just adored her.
It was poignant to hear you with T.J. Osborne, who recently came out as gay and has a voice like butter.
That was the only [duet] where I said, “I can’t sing with him.” They go, “Well, you have to. It’s a duet.” I said, “I’m not going to. I’ll let him sing the whole song. And then I’ll just speak like they did in the Baptist church when they didn’t have enough hymnals to go around. And I’ll just repeat the line or I’ll say it right before.” It worked, but there was no way I was going to try to sing with that voice. It’s just like you said, it’s like butter.
You had some jitters when you got into the studio to record. How did you get over them?
I just knew that I had to produce. I remember thinking, “I’ve gotten in over my head here.” But I’ve felt that before. I felt that with acting. You can’t just all of a sudden show up on the set of, say, “American Horror Story,” and there’s Jessica Lange. I never thought twice about it and all of a sudden I’m thinking, “I’ve got to get to work.”
Does a part of you feed off that fear of a new challenge?
I don’t really think in those terms. Especially now. When I got off the bus in 1982, I had $1,200. I came from Tennessee to L.A., and I had a little bit of money and I had my degree in theater. I couldn’t pronounce it. I called it “THEE-ate-er.” So I had a list of what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to be in movies and TV, but this was so far off the radar. It’s not like I sit and think, “What’s the next big challenge?” It has just always happened for me. I’ve had a really blessed career. I’m just along for the ride.
We’ve seen you listening and dancing to Lizzo, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion on Instagram. How do you describe your taste in music?
I have always liked girl singers and girl groups, the Ronettes and all of that. I’m into S&M: Streisand and Midler. Oh, and I loved Laura Nyro. I’ve gotten so reclusive about music now, though. I couldn’t name a Billie Eilish song. That’s terrible. I used to keep up. I knew what was on the radio.
You’ve talked about how some of the songs on your album were so ingrained and sometimes painful in your coming-out journey. Did you ever imagine you’d reclaim them like you did?
I didn’t. During my 22 years in recovery, we’re required to write a lot about things and do a lot of work. Happiness is a habit. It’s a choice. It’s something that you have to work for. And to be able to return to this music, just to enjoy it with no ax to grind was... You know, I was baptized 14 times. Every time I’d go up there, the preacher, Brother Baker, would say, “I believe I baptized you in the revival this summer.” I said, “I don’t think it took.” I had so many secrets and so much shame, and all that’s gone now.
I had a very wise man in recovery who was my sponsor and he died this year. I said to him, “When I go home, my mother sometimes wants me to go to church.” And he said, “Go to church. When you hear something that works for you, garner that. Keep that. But if you go, ‘Oh, please!’ [when something bothers you], put it under the pew in front of you because that could be the kernel of truth that someone else needs.” So I’ve left a lot of stuff in the pew in front of me.
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