In the earliest stages of Covid lockdown, Leslie Jordan was visiting his family in Tennessee and rented a condo in downtown Chattanooga. During that first month or so of isolation and distancing, the television star and comedian started to go a little stir crazy. He filmed himself talking and posted the video to Instagram.
“It’s still March. How many days in March? When is April fuckin’ gonna get here?” he moaned, laying on one side with his head pressed into a pillow. “My mother hollerin’ up the steps, asking me who I’m talkin’ to. I’m talkin’ to my friends, mama!”
It promptly blew up, generating millions of views and winning him fans all over the world, some of whom had never seen his memorable roles in Del Shores’ Sordid Lives, American Horror Story, or Will & Grace, where he played Beverly Leslie, the acid-tongued, closeted arch-nemesis to Karen Walker. To some, Jordan’s video perfectly encapsulated the anxiety and loneliness people were feeling through those initial days of social distancing, feelings that have only intensified as the pandemic dragged on past the year mark. It made Jordan an unlikely Internet star — a 65-year-old gay Southerner capturing the zeitgeist with his near-daily updates.
“When I look back I feel like a marketing genius, and I had absolutely no plan,” Jordan tells Rolling Stone. “I do remember thinking I’m not gonna put anything on my Instagram about religion or politics and I’m not gonna sell anything. I’d say, ‘Well, shit.’ And what that meant was, ‘Shit, what are we gonna do?’”
If Jordan’s quarantine dispatches gave people a sense of shared experiences and solidarity through a chaotic and uncertain time, his latest project goes all in on the comforting notion of togetherness. Jordan’s new album Company’s Comin’, recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles during quarantine, features his versions of classic gospel hymns and an all-star guest list, rendered in a way that sounds like a group of friends and family gathering for a loose, Sunday-afternoon living-room singalong.
The project’s origins began with Jordan’s friend Travis Howard, an L.A. songwriter-musician who invited him on a podcast to sing a hymn. It turned into a weekly thing, based on their similar upbringing in the church.
“He’s from Georgia and he’s straight, I’m gay,” Jordan says. “He grew up the same exact way. He had all that shame and fear. I thought, ‘What were you ashamed of?’ But you know how the church is. You learn shame in that pew.”
Their collaboration turned into an effort to make a full album, with Nashville songwriter Danny Myrick co-producing. Howard came up with the list of hymns — “I knew every one of them. I knew every word,” Jordan says — and they began using a thoroughly modern approach to get their collaborators.
“We started approaching people to sing with me and we did that through direct message,” Jordan says, explaining they reached out to singers he liked via Instagram. Nearly everyone agreed. The murderer’s row of guest stars on Company’s Comin’ includes Brandi Carlile, who sings on a rousing version of “Angel Band,” Tanya Tucker (“I kept saying Ton-ya and she’d get so mad at me,” Jordan says) on “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” and Chris and Morgane Stapleton, who bring the fireworks for a soulful “Farther Along.”
Jordan met Dolly Parton in Nashville and asked her if she’d participate. To his delight, she agreed and sang “Where the Soul Never Dies,” engaging in some lively back-and-forth with Jordan at the song’s close.
“She was so cute, she talked a lot in between singing, so I’d have to go in and answer her,” he says. “’Don’t you just love these hymns?’ I’d have to go back in and we’d have to break up so I could answer her.”
Other guests include Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who sings on a ukulele-driven “The One Who Hideth Me,” and deep-voiced Brothers Osborne singer T.J. Osborne on “In the Sweet By and By.”
“Right in the middle of all that [T.J.] decided to come out of the closet!” Jordan says. “He sends the sweetest emails to me telling me how much I’d meant to him and how it gave him the courage he needed.”
Throughout the album, Jordan holds his own as a singer but also takes on the role of informal worship leader, interjecting to introduce his guests or hollering with excitement as songs hit transitions. He also presides over a series of brief interludes that sound more like a group trying to work through a song’s changes than actual finished arrangements. Jordan’s business partner Mike Lotus wasn’t a big fan of the more conversational aspects of the album.
“He’d say, ‘I think y’all talk too much. Why would you talk when Brandi was singing with that gorgeous voice?’ Because I would say things like ‘I can’t stand it, oh!’ It drove him to distraction! I said, ‘You have to understand, in church we would holler out.’ We wanted that feel.”
Having grown up in and around the Southern Baptist church, Jordan was intimately familiar with the rhythms and animated performance style of ministers.
“There’s nothing that tickles me more,” he says. “I’ll turn it on TBS or whatever and they’ll be right in the middle of it. I know every word. I know what’s coming next. I know where the pauses are. But I tell you what, I don’t know what it is with Christian straight men and hairdos!”
Of course, Jordan also found himself at odds with church doctrine over homosexuality when he was he was a teenager. Those irreconcilable differences drove him away from church life, but he was able to approach these songs without bitterness, hearing them as the spiritual comforts they were intended to be.
“To be able to come back to these hymns with no axe to grind, I’ve taken care of all that,” he says. “I’m 22 years clean and sober, so you do a lot of work in A.A. about anger and resentment and all of that. You just come to realize, everybody back then was doing the best they could with the light they had to see with.”
That’s part of the magic of Company’s Comin’ — it’s light on camp or tongue-in-cheek jokes, which are the kind of thing Jordan normally excels at. In this case, his deep love for the music and the close-knit atmosphere they captured succeeds in making it one of the year’s most surprisingly uplifting listens.
“It’s just wonderful music and it’s so comforting,” he says. “No matter what religion you were raised in, they’re wonderful songs.”