Topical Sundance Film Features Song by Ed Leavitt

Topical Sundance Film Features Song by Claremont's Ed Leavitt
Ed Leavitt is a songwriter with a day job — he works at Dartmouth College — and a song heard at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (Valley News — Theophil Syslo)

By Dan Mackie
Valley News Staff Writer

When Ed Leavitt was about 8 years old, his family took him to a show by country music legend Mel Tillis. Leavitt remembers himself as a “pesky, pushy kid' who believed he could be a songwriter. When he went to concerts, he’d ask performers who met with fans to take a look at one of his songs.

Tillis, who had a string of hits in the 1970s, indulged young Leavitt, talking to him for about 20 minutes. He said that if he were serious about a songwriting career, he'd have to move to Nashville. He also warned about the competition: “There are a million people out there who want to write songs. There's probably half a million who are really good.’’

Nashville is on the road not taken. Leavitt, who grew up in Hartford and now lives in Claremont, never moved there. The odds of succeeding as a songwriter have always seemed long -- “the music business is probably 10 percent talent and 90 percent luck,' he said in an interview this week.

At 50, he's a songwriter with a day job who knows that not all dreams come true. But one did recently -- one of his songs, Let It Go, was featured in a film at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

The movie, Compliance, by director Craig Zobel, drew as much buzz as angry bees at Sundance. Based on true events, it recounts how a prank caller dupes a fast-food manager into interrogating, and finally strip-searching, an employee by saying he's a police officer investigating a theft. The movie asks how far people can be pushed into dehumanizing others.

“It's a very difficult subject matter,'’ said Leavitt, who followed the reaction to the film closely via the Internet. A few attendees at Sundance walked out. “They shouted, ‘This doesn't happen,’ ” said Leavitt, “but it surely does.'’

Leavitt's song, which he says has a pop flair, is the only country tune included in the movie. He's not entirely sure how it's used, although he understands that it’s playing on a radio in a scene. “I won’t know until I see it,'’ he said.

But for now, there's a note of validation for the songwriter, and a feeling of hitching his song to a star. “I'm happy to be a small part of it,'’ Leavitt said.

Leavitt has been singing and writing songs since he was a boy in Hartford, the son of a police officer (eventually deputy chief). His father played country music on the record player and often sang aloud Hank Williams Sr.'s Cold, Cold Heart. His mother, meanwhile, preferred the Beatles and classical music. The family regularly traveled to country shows around New England. Leavitt, who saw greats like Marty Robbins live, and Dolly Parton when she was an opening act -- came to love country music.

He said he's finished 300 to 400 songs and has sold half a dozen. His prospects have improved in recent years, because he's working with Nashville Songwriters Association International, which provides critiques that are direct -- “this is crap'’ or “this has wings’’ -- and with another service that shops songs around.

But this comes at a time when there are sharply fewer music labels, and the corporate owners, in the minds of those on the outside looking in, mostly bet on artists who fit a narrow demographic.

“It's a hard, hard business now,'’ Leavitt said. “That's why I’m proud of getting a cut in the movie.'’

His day job is at Dartmouth College, where he's executive assistant to the associate dean of the college. Leavitt said he's lucky. “They are so kind and patient when I have gigs,'’ he said. And being around students is good for him. “They are such a creative force,’’ Leavitt said, “they are so eager to learn.’’

Leavitt sometimes collaborates on songs with Pat Kelley of Springfield, Vt., for whom songwriting has been a sideline -- he owns a car dealership that his son now runs.

“Nobody's more deserving than Ed,'’ said Kelley. “He's paid his dues.’’

In Kelley's estimation, Leavitt is “a songwriter and country music historian. … He has a real passion for the music.'’

Leavitt has another outlet for that passion. He plays rhythm guitar and writes songs for the Shana Stack Band, which plays around the region and opened for Reba McIntire at Meadowbook in Massachusetts. (Its high-energy, get-'em-dancing performance was also among the highlights of the concert series at Colburn Park in Lebanon last summer.)

Leavitt said the lead singer, Shana Stack, has big ambitions for the band, which he said includes a roster of talented pros. “She's the star of the show, and I'm happy to let her be the star,’’ Leavitt said. “My goal is to continue writing and to help take the band to the next level. I'd be thrilled to do that.’’

And for himself, he'd love to have a song hit the national charts. “I'd be happy with one,'’ Leavitt said, “just to say I did it.’’

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