By Al Kaufman Christopher Denny is the ultimate music redemption story. In a childhood full of poverty, instability, and self-destructive behavior by the people around him in Little Rock, Arkansas, Denny turned to two things, drugs and the guitar. Fresh out of high school, armed with a love of Southern rock and a strong, warbly voice that made him sound like the long lost love child of Ethel Merman and Roy Orbison if they lived in the Appalachians, he put out an album with his backing band, The Old Soles, called Age Old Hunger. But he was too strung out to capitalize on it. He got married and continued to drink and use crack and heroin. On more than one occasion he courted death. Then, his guardian angel appeared in the most unlikely of places. Marlboro Cigarettes paid him $20,000 to license two songs (“Roller Coaster” and “God’s Height”)he cut with the band The Natives. He and his wife used the money to get clean. That was 2011. He has been clean since.
Denny’s upcoming album on Partisan Records, If the Roses Don’t Kill Us, (release date August 5th) does not simply tell his story. Denny is too much of an artist to be that blatant. But there are songs full of darkness and redemption, and of love and longing (both of the flesh and the spirit). Denny, who currently calls Austin home due to its free healthcare for musicians, recalls Austin legend Daniel Johnston in the album’s opening track, “Happy Sad.” The song is full of boyhood wonder and deceptively simplistic lyrics (“I’ve got a song, both happy and sad/ Part of it’s good, part of it’s bad.”) that encapsulates his life and beliefs in three minutes. With its pretty finger-picking and gospel-tinged melody, it is also impossible not to sing along with it. “Our Kind of Love” has a gorgeous, minor-key melody that Gary Louris and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks would be happy to call their own, although they probably would never that thought up the rollicking Hammond B3 organ and horn combination. There’s a rolling New Orleans beat to the title track, and “Ride On” is a thing of beauty. Here, Denny’s whine sounds like a cross between Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Bob Dylan as he wishes his girl the best after their relationship crumbles. “We done beat this damn horse to death, so please, ride on,” he pleads. Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards provides beautiful back-up vocals throughout. Like a fine wine, Denny’s vocals are an acquired taste. But once you feel comfortable with his androgynous whines and wails, it is easy to appreciate his raw emotion. Able to lay out his feelings and desires so easily and beautifully in song, Denny is a bit more concise and tight-lipped during an interview. However, he did answer a few questions about his difficult past and his road to redemption.
Congratulations on your sobriety. Partisan Records wanted to make sure you were sober for six months before they released If the Roses Don’t Kill Us. Now you’re touring. What’s the plan to stay sober while on the road? Topo Chico with lime and a half salted rim.
You said “I barely lived through my childhood.” What happened at home that caused your aunt and uncle to adopt you when you were 12? My mom needed to find herself and she did. My aunt and uncle were sweet enough to show me another side of life. I wouldn’t be the person I am without both sides.
Most people who did the drinking and drugs that you did lose their voice. How did you manage to keep yours? I’m lucky and I’m strong.
You actually got your life back thanks to the Philip Morris cigarette company. Do you appreciate the irony of that? Cash is cash and Philip Morris has a lot of it.
Without your childhood and drug alcohol problems, do you think you would still be a musician today? I love music and always have. I loved it before I loved drugs. You never get over your first love.