More than 10 years ago, I was at a house party in Little Rock. Don’t recall quite where it was, or who was throwing the party, or who I was with. But there’s one thing I remember, and will never forget.
I was wandering around outside in the yard and thought I heard an old record I wasn’t familiar with. For just a moment I thought it was Bessie Smith, but no, the sound was too crisp. I just couldn’t place it one way or the other — man or woman, black or white, country or gospel. I walked toward what I thought were the speakers and it wasn’t a record at all: There was Christopher Denny, no more than 20 years old at the time, sitting in a lawn chair, playing guitar and wailing out songs. Who was this? It’s too obvious to say the kid sounded like he was from another time. Hell, he sounded like he was from another planet.
Denny, a North Little Rock native, gets compared to all sorts of things: Roy Orbison most commonly; Bob Dylan is also sort of a fit; Jeff Buckley (Denny was a big fan growing up); a little bit of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s high lonesome trill; plus gospel, blues, old-time country, soul. National Public Radio called his voice “an androgynous, time-jumping instrument.”
But the thing about Chris Denny is that he sounds like nothing so much as Chris Denny, an American one-of-a-kind. His voice is a singular instrument: a cinematic warble that veers between sorrow and joy, between Sunday morning and Saturday night.
Years later, I saw Denny play again, this time in New Orleans, in 2008. He was the drunkest person I’ve ever seen perform. Maybe just the drunkest person I’ve ever seen. “I was out of my wild, fucking mind,” Denny said, remembering the show now.
He strolled through the bar, veering between flirting with women and cussing at men. Later, he threw wine glasses against the wall until he was asked to leave. His performance was beautiful at times — there were still those moments when songs seemed to leap out of the crackle and hiss of an old 78. But he was too much of a mess to sustain the magic.
Denny and his then-band, the Old Soles, were the opening act, and when the bar manager began signaling that their time was up, Denny refused to leave the stage. There was shouting back and forth. He began jam-band noodling on his guitar in protest, an endless and unwanted encore. His bandmates, one by one, walked off the stage. Shortly thereafter, they walked away from playing with Denny for good. “That was close to the end,” Denny said.
Over the years, there have been more than a few fans that worried that this would be the story of Denny — an undeniable talent and a train-wreck life.
So it was welcome news last May when Partisan Records announced the coming release of “If the Roses Don’t Kill Us,” the first new album from Denny in seven years. Denny is clean and sober and playing music again. “I got a song that’s happy and sad,” he bellows to open the new album. After all these years, unmistakably him.
Denny grew up poor in North Little Rock, a self-described “Levy rat,” and bounced around more elementary schools than he could count. When he was 12, his uncle and aunt adopted him, giving him a more stable home life.
“I was upset and disappointed in my mom when I was that age,” he said, “but she made the best decision that she’s ever made concerning me, which was that she couldn’t handle it.” Denny now considers her one of his best friends. “I love her to death,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of her in me. We’ve got the same demons we’re struggling with.”
Denny was drawn to music as long as he can remember. “Even when I was a little bitty kid, there’s videos of me beating on a guitar, all dressed up like a cowboy,” he said. “At 4 years old, I knew the words to tons of songs.”
He would sing for his great-grandmother, who refused to wear a hearing aid. “She would always tell me to sing louder. I got to this point one night where we were singing really loud. It was like I was practicing projecting, and over time, this natural vibrato thing developed and I learned to control the volume.”
Denny sang in church and played in the youth group band. When he was 14, he got a guitar. A neighbor showed him some power chords; other than that he was largely self-taught. As a freshman in high school, he played a solo acoustic version of U2’s “With or Without You” at the homecoming assembly at North Little Rock High. The nearly 2,000 students in attendance gave him a standing ovation. “People were freaking out,” he said. “That’s when I knew, this could work.”
His friends called him a human jukebox. “Before I kind of burned a lot of brain cells doing drugs, I must have known 500 songs or more,” he said. “I just played everything.”
After high school, Denny spent time busking across the country, including Chicago, New York and California, as well as all over Arkansas. It’s all a little hazy now. “I’ve done a lot of traveling,” he said. “I can tell you all of the places, but I can’t exactly tell you when I was there.”
By 2005 Denny had become a fixture in the music scene in Central Arkansas. The Arkansas Times‘ Rock Candy Blog described the early Denny performances as “just a rumor, a whisper of a performer who swept into town from nowhere. First he was the ‘crazy-voiced kid,’ the prize of the local scene, playing Beesonville block parties and small house shows. As his cult grew, and he performed regularly not just at White Water, but just about every venue in town, he became the ‘kid with the golden voice.’ “
Denny put out a self-titled debut album on a local label and then a more polished version, “Age Old Hunger,” came out in 2007 on the Brooklyn label 00:02:59. His talented and rollicking backing band, the Old Soles, helped give some punch to Denny’s old-timey crooning. The result was a soulful honky-tonk record that indie kingmakers Pitchfork called “sincere and even daring,” writing that Denny’s voice “would sound right at home on a low-signal Ozark radio station 40 or 50 years ago.” The Rock Candy Blog was thinking big: “With the backing of a powerful PR agency and rumors of an opening slot with a major touring act, Denny might be on the precipice of fame.”
But struggling with dependence on booze and pills, Denny was also on the precipice of disaster. Things fizzled out and fell apart. The Old Soles split in 2008. “They were 10 years my senior,” Denny said of his bandmates at the time, Chris Atwood and Marcus Lowe. “They weren’t going to put up with my shit forever. Here now I’m 30 — I wouldn’t be in a band with the old me either.”
Denny ended up reconnecting with some old high school friends — Jesse Bates, Ryan Hitt, Joshua Spillyards and Judson Spillyards — who became his new backing band, the Natives. In 2009, they signed with Partisan, another Brooklyn-based label (the label has a good reputation in indie circles and now includes Deer Tick and Heartless Bastards in its stable). The influential magazine CMJ named Chris Denny and the Natives one of the 10 best bands CMJ discovered in 2009, writing, “His voice sounds like something that should have first been recorded on a slate record, but the vintage sound pairs beautifully with unadulterated electric guitar and organ.”
Denny and the Natives headed to upstate New York to record an album. Yet again, Denny appeared on his way to a big break. But he was a wreck. “When we were up there, I just lost it,” he said. “I flipped my wig. One of the things that came with my severe alcoholism was really bad anger problems.”
“He was in a bad way at that time,” said Partisan co-owner Tim Putnam. “It was challenging to say the least.”
They completed an album (made up of nearly all of the songs that eventually made it onto “If the Roses Don’t Kill Us”), but “it just felt wrong,” Putnam said. The music had an angry edge that reflected Denny’s mood at the time. “What was coming out of Chris on the record was not Chris,” Putnam said. “I don’t know how else to put it. You get one chance to put out songs and that was not the proper way to do it.” Moreover, Denny was in no shape to promote the record. “He was in such a bad way at that point that I felt like putting out the record could actually harm him,” Putnam said. The album was scrapped.
Denny kept playing with the Natives from time to time, but things were going from bad to worse. He came back to Arkansas to take care of his dying father. He started using drugs more heavily — and using heavier drugs.
“Drugs did not do me right,” he said. “I just couldn’t be a good person.” The band fell apart. “Same reason I lost my first band,” he said. “You know, things have worked out, everything has happened for a reason — but a lot of the reason was drugs.”
Denny was still playing music, writing songs and occasionally recording. But he played out less and less. He spent time in Conway, Maumelle, San Francisco, New York. He was homeless at times. He and his girlfriend, Tiffany, were using heroin. They were often broke, and getting desperate.
“I was on a destructive path,” Denny said. “Eventually it came down to me calling and asking for money from the label. Just some cash. I was hard up. Finally, they wouldn’t answer my calls. They told me, ‘We’re not dealing with you until you get sober.’ When I say sober, I was on the hard shit. I was on dope, junked out.”
In late 2011, Denny found out he was set to receive $20,000 from Marlboro, which had used his songs for promotional videos. With the check on its way, Denny and Tiffany were at a crossroads.
“Twenty thousand dollars worth of dope would have killed us,” he said. “We would have died. We literally said to each other, ‘What are we going to do here? We can live or die. If we’re doing dope when this check gets cashed, we’re going to die.’ So we decided to get cleaned up.”
There was another motivating factor: “We fell in love, too. There’s no life in being on dope together.” They got sober, and in July of 2012, they got married.
They settled in Austin, where they still live. Once clean, Denny got back in touch with Putnam at Partisan, sending along letters from his nurse and counselor at an outpatient treatment center — a prerequisite before Putnam would work with him again.
“It’s hard to see somebody totally destroying themselves — anybody, let alone somebody who has such rare gifts, to see them just totally disintegrating in every way,” Putnam said. “Chris came as close to being gone as anybody I’ve ever known.”
They began recording “If the Roses Don’t Kill Us” in Austin in 2012, finishing the album in late 2013. Putnam told Denny he needed to stay clean for another six months before the album would be released.
“What Tim is doing is what a label should do for people,” Denny said. “Make sure someone’s healthy. If they don’t even know the meaning of it, which I didn’t, help them learn that.”
The album came out Tuesday. “He’s unearthly gifted,” Putnam said. “I think he’s one of the truly great American living songwriters right now. Time will tell what he does with that. But I’m very proud, and I’m very proud of Chris. This has been an all-consuming process, but the fact that this record exists — the fact that I get to see Chris perform again — it’s unbelievable.”
“When you get sober,” Denny said, “you can sit there and say, ‘Oh man, damn it, I lost this much of my life. Oh man, I ruined that relationship and that friendship. My health is bad.’ It’s easy to do. I’ve done it. But you know, that sort of thinking leads to, what do I have? What can I do? I fucked up seven years, but I can still have an OK life.” Denny said he hoped to put out an album a year from now on. Here’s hoping.
In June, at Juanita’s, Denny played in Little Rock for the first time in years. Instead of the preternaturally talented kid, he was a 30-year-old survivor. He looks a little older than that. He’s already packed a lifetime’s worth of hard living in. He still has the same sheepish grin. And he still has the golden voice. During the show, my wife would periodically point to her arms while he sang — goosebumps.
Denny was gracious and humble on stage, eager to put some distance between himself and years of bad memories. “This has been a dangerous place for me, but it’s been a good place,” he said. “Man, I’m so happy to be here.”
When Denny launched into one of his early songs, the majestic “Time,” everyone sang along — family, old friends, old fans: “I couldn’t stop thinking about time, time, time/Ain’t it funny how it controls my life?” It’s hard not to think about all the time that Denny has lost, but it feels like something close to a miracle that he has more time yet.
In church, it’s the true believers that sing loudest, and that’s a little how it felt at the bar that night. Everyone was thankful to hear Christopher Denny play music again.