An eerie voice and getting better on your own terms
Every other Thursday, in his new column Another Country, Duncan Cooper showcases country, folk and bluegrass music that's so often unsung around these parts, with an emphasis on new approaches to old American classics.
At its most pained, Christopher Denny's bone-rattling tenor sounds like an eensy little man crying out, roasting on a spit in hell. At its most joyful, his singing voice resembles the shaky squeal of winning the lottery, or love. It's been seven years since Age Old Hunger, the Little Rock native's debut album at age 23, and a lot of hard living in between. In the pour of addiction, he slid just about completely off the map, briefly reemerging a few years back to record and scrap an album, then disappear again into homelessness. These days he's clean—it was, supposedly, a condition for Partisan Records to release his sophomore LP, If the Roses Don't Kill Us. The record comes out in about a month, on August 5th, before he heads out on tour “forever.”Below, watch the (acoustic version) debut of "Watch Me Shine," one of the album's highlights. "That song was just about some of the more fucked-up times in my life," Denny told me over the phone, between chasing his puppy down as it tried to run off. "There was a lot of judgement being pushed down on me by myself and by other people. If you’re a human being and on this planet, you already have such a struggle. Just being born, existing, you deserve some sort of respect." Let the song sink in, then read some of his feelings about country music, addiction and finding his voice.
Why did you sign with Partisan? It’s not the most traditional country label. Honestly, I signed with them because I was pretty much just done. They came around and wanted to sign me, and I needed to work. I definitely wasn’t looking to sign to a country music label—not looking to sing country music either. Being from Arkansas and the South, it just sort of lends itself to that. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think my audience is people sitting around waiting for the next classic country album. It just makes sense more than it doesn’t. And they were great people. They run things with a little bit more heart. When I was all fucked up on drugs and stuff, they didn’t keep working with me. They said, “Hey, you gotta get cleaned up.” I think most labels should do that, and not all of them do. They were just waiting till they knew I was going to be able to work. There was a time when I was so fucked up and homeless and wouldn’t answer the phone and was calling and asking for money, obviously high, and shit like that. I’m sure they were scared to get back involved with me. I was wreaking havoc on all of them, you know.
What helped you get out of that? Just getting sober. I got married. When Tiffany and I got together, I was already getting sober, and Tiffany was pretty bad out there. I had gotten this check from Marlboro for $20,000 [for song licensing] and we decided that we would probably do $20,000 worth of drugs if we didn’t stop. Life’s been better. I was never motivated by people taking things away from me. I don’t take kindly to people threatening me, for sure. The label would say, “We’re not going to put your record out unless you get sober.” Okay, I don’t give a fuck, you know what I mean? I really didn’t. What motivated me was being able to have something. If you quit doing drugs, then you can have a life.
Do you feel those days are really behind you now? Oh yeah, I do. I’m going to be honest with you. A lot of it had to do with turning 30 years old. I think something kind of clicked. I slowed down in my mind. It’s weird, man. I don’t want to wait seven years before my next record like I did with this one, you know.
There was an earlier attempt at the album, too, right? We recorded it with my old band. We recorded it in upstate New York. It wasn’t really good. Me and the keyboard player—he’s the keyboard player in Deer Tick now—we were drinking literally like, a gallon a day of vodka. I just couldn’t handle it. I was eating pills and all this shit with it. I wasn’t singing, I was more like screaming, basically. Then Tim and Ian, the owners of the label, had a big falling out with me. I was like, “Y’all can just fucking go, I don’t care.” That’s when I just sort of fell of the map. They were put off, but it wasn’t in any way like they were like, “We’re not going to work with you.” It was basically that for a while they couldn’t get a hold of me or know where I was. I was living on the street in Galveston, Texas, living in a crack dealer’s house for a while. It was just bad, you know, so there wasn’t any getting hold of me.
You’re open in a way that not everybody would be. Where does that come from? It probably comes from my mother. She’s just like that. I don’t understand why people aren’t. People are just too scared. And a lot of people are hiding something. I realized I’m not good at it, but a lot of people are fucked up. If I’m fucked up, then I wouldn’t be on this phone call. But my mom didn’t really—she’s crazy, man. One day, I remember her telling me, after all these years, “Listen, you need to get your record deal back. If you gotta run around the corner to take a drink of whiskey then come back to a meeting, then do it.” I was like, that’s basically impossible but thanks for the advice. It just doesn’t work that way. I don’t write music, I don’t play well, any of that stuff when I’m getting fucked up. But she was definitely like that. My dad died of cirrhosis of the liver last year. They’re all a bunch of great people, but substance abusers and alcoholics, you know.
You have such an uncommon singing voice. Was that ever a source of struggle or stress for you? I don’t think so. I’ve always felt kind of weird. I think not having an uncommon voice at first was a source of struggle. I was really happy when I found my voice, really happy. One of the things I did have to get used to was that there are people who are going to hate it if there are going to be people who love it. But a lot of those people that hate it, they come around and they like it the most.