Christopher Denny has a voice that will stop you in your tracks; a fervent Orbison meets Dylan tenor that fills his songs with a tremendous emotional pressure. It’s the voice of a Southern choirboy who attended the church of alcohol, drugs and self-destruction in a failed attempt to deal with his inner pain and conflicts. He has a gift for infusing simple words with raw sentiment and marrying them to haunting melodies that immediately capture your attention. “The album was inspired by my struggles,” Denny says. “The moments in my life that caused me the most hurt and brought me the most beauty. The songs deal with the self-loathing, fear and thoughts of inadequacy we all struggle with, something I call soft suicide.”
The music on If The Roses Don’t Kill Us, his Partisan Records debut, is just as gripping as Denny’s lyrics; a blend of pre-country Southern music, folk, rock, gospel and singer/songwriter impulses, a style Denny calls Arkansas Soul. The album’s crisp, clean arrangements combine Denny’s acoustic finger picking with subtle touches of electric guitar, pedal steel and a solid rhythm section. It took one month to record the final version of the album, made with a mix of musicians from Denny’s band and A-List studio players. It is the end result of a process that saw some of the songs being recorded three different times over the course five or six years.
When Denny made his debut, Age Old Hunger, he was fighting his dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. “I started drinking young, but not as young as some,” Denny says. “It’s a southern tradition,” he adds with a touch of bitter humor. “When I made that album, I didn’t want to do overdubs. I wanted the band to play every part exactly the way I’d written it. The songs were angry, without understanding or maturity. When it was done, I got strung out. I couldn’t even look at my guitar for a long time, but now I’m clean and grateful for the opportunities Partisan has given me.”
“I saw Chris perform in the back of a club in New York in 2006,” says Tim Putnam, Partisan Records’ co-founder. “He had the kind of timeless, ethereal voice you seldom hear. There’s a sad, beautiful rhythm and poetry in his music that’s hard to wrap my head around. When I started the label, I searched him out and we made an album in upstate NY with versions of some of the songs on Roses. Chris was a mess. Although the album had some incredible moments, it was put aside. Chris went on a massive personal decline and we lost contact. In 2010, when he was putting his life back together, he got in touch. He was in recovery and we made If The Roses Don’t Kill Us. In the process, Chris and his music experienced a rebirth.”
Denny was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. As long as he can remember, he wanted to be a singer. “There’s a home video of me playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Gimme Three Steps’ when I was four years old,” Denny recalls. “I was dressed up in a cowboy hat and boots with my shirt tucked in, walking around like a grown man with a guitar around my neck. I loved country music and I knew there was a special place out there for me.
“My grandfather got me my first real guitar, showed me a few chords and told me to develop my own voice. He told me nobody could stop me if I really wanted success. My first time on stage was in front of 1,900 people at a ninth grade school assembly.” The crowd reaction was favorable; Denny’s path was set.
At home, things weren’t going as well. “There was a lot of poverty, insanity and self-destruction. I was never taught how to take care of myself. I barely lived through my childhood.” At 12, Denny’s aunt and uncle adopted him. They encouraged his musical talent and songwriting. “I had a neighbor who taught me how to make bar chords. That’s all I needed to started writing songs.”
After high school, Denny met a band called Parachute Woman. They morphed into Chris Denny and The Old Soles, the group that backed Denny on Age Old Hunger. After the album was released, Denny left town. “I was using and the band got serious too fast; it was too much to handle. I got on a train and went to stay with my sister in California.”
Denny cleaned up, returned to Little Rock and put together The Natives, a group composed of high school friends. “We did a tour, but I was controlling things with drugs and alcohol. When that didn’t work, I fell apart again.”
In 2008, Denny moved to Little Rock to take care of his father who was dying of Hepatitis C and cirrhosis. By 2011, Denny adds, “My wife and I were using, living harder than he did at our age. I knew I had to do something.” Meanwhile, Marlboro Cigarettes licensed “Roller Coaster” and “God’s Height,” songs Denny cut with The Natives, for their website. “They sent me a check for 20,000 dollars. I told my wife we could use the money to get clean or die. We got clean.”
As he was putting his life back together, Denny reconnected with Tim Putnam of Partisan Records and began work on If The Roses Don’t Kill Us. When the album was finished, Putman said he wouldn’t release it until Denny had been clean for six months. With that milestone passed, Denny’s performing again, taking it one day at a time. “At this point in my life I’ve realized it’s more productive to approach my problems by writing songs about them.”
If The Roses Don’t Kill Us was made with Grammy-winning producer Dave Sanger (Asleep at the Wheel) and his partners PJ Herrington and Jay Reynolds. They created a relaxed atmosphere in the studio that gave Denny’s vocals a sharp, visceral presence. The album opener, “Happy Sad” sets the stage for all that follows. When Denny strums a minor chord and sings the word “sad,” you’re pulled into his world of intense melancholy.
The descending melody line and bluesy guitar lines of “God's Height” gives the tune a sense of anguished longing, mitigated by Denny’s playful vocal. “I was laughing about the thoughts you get at the end of a relationship when you think you’re not good enough, but you know you’re going to survive.” The churchy B3 organ on “Our Kind of Love” suggests Memphis in the early 60s, a feeling echoed in Denny’s crooning. “No matter how bad it seems, we only have this moment. When I wrote, ‘It's our love, darlin’, and we beat ourselves black and blue,’ I was realizing how much I love my dark feelings.”
Denny’s jubilant vocal dominates “Watch Me Shine” with chiming acoustic guitar and sustained bell-like synthesizer notes adding to the track’s righteous mood. “If the Roses Don't Kill Us” is pure country funk with a New Orleans brass band supporting Denny’s lively vocal. “Sometimes you have to go crazy to figure out what’s important to you,” Denny explains. “This is about leaving a relationship when you know the situation isn't really resolved.”
That ambivalence is the thread that holds the songs on If The Roses Don’t Kill Us together. Denny’s barely restrained vocals have the ability to describe contradictory feelings with an intensity that gives every word he sings the ring of painful truth. His shimmering, one-of-a-kind voice reaches you on a deep emotional level, touching your heart and soul to deliver his hard won insights with an honesty that makes his singing and songwriting something unique and rare.