Music: Let There Be Voice

Guitar virtuoso Jason Dennie returns to town, and this time he's doing the singing

May 21, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Burrill Strong

Jason Dennie

In the late '90s, on quiet, lone evenings, I often played Jason Dennie's solo acoustic instrumental record, Living on Melody Lane. I was between lives. Finished with school, back from a wild cross-country road trip, I dressed like a hippie and often slept in a tent in the backyard. Uh, in the middle of Dad's condo complex. Confused, drifting, alive.

But Dennie's playing always filled me with peace, a peace that seeped inside like wind through a cracked window. That album captured a meditative state, one that was deep, pensive and bursting with hidden energy. Soothing. Then sudden, surprising. Each time I listened, the notes grew richer, telling a vivid, artistic story through sound.

Channeling emotion straight through his instrument, Dennie's bare, sensitive style is captivating, dynamic, soulful and addictive. And his guitar playing is awe-inspiring. Like a slow gesture, like a mindful expression, there's no need for words.

And now he's letting out his voice. Adding the next best line in a secret charcoal sketch. Creating a new, smoky, vocally driven picture.

Dennie's family has a long history in the Bluegrass world.

"At the heart of a lot of that music is family, a simpler time," Dennie says. "I don't shy away from the Bluegrass roots showing like I once did, probably from starting my own family and seeing how precious it all really is, life in general. (But) what I do as a solo artist is not Bluegrass by definition. I'm just mixing in some Blues, Country, Funk and fun while keeping some 'grass roots always showing."

In 2000, Dennie was the Gamble Rogers Fingerstyle Champion in St. Augustine, Fla. An opening act for some amazing artists in Acoustic music, Dennie has played with Arlo Guthrie, Janis Ian, Merl Saunders, Sam Bush, Kansas and Medeski, Martin and Wood, among others.

Praised for his masterful, unique playing, he's also known for the hidden gem he recorded with Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band singer, Noah Hunt. Long Black Train (1995) still maintains a fierce fan following today. After Dennie moved to Redford, Mich., he released another solo record, Just Enough (2000). With raw, touching arrangements, there's no clutter here. It's emotion-packed, making the complex style sound as smooth as wet paint.

Home in Michigan, Dennie keeps tornado-busy. He plays mandolin with The Milroys, Annie and Rod Capps, Drew Nelson and then some. He also plays in the Funk/Rock band, Catfish 5.

"I get hired a lot as a sideman, and it just keeps me on my toes," he says. "The pile of music just seems to get bigger and bigger. I'm not trying to be a monster musician in any sense. I'll leave that to all the young cats. I'm now just trying to have fun with everything I do."

When he's not teaching studio and private lessons, he's in rehearsal. Dedicated finger-style guitar students come as far as five hours to attend his workshops. And when the music's done, there's the Dad part.

"I put my 6-year-old on the bus and watch my three-year-old every morning," he says. "My girls keep me very busy."

In the past, Dennie silently played, letting the guitar do the speaking. But for his upcoming Cincinnati show, he's giving up the sideman role. This time, he's singing.

And he's singing with Hunt on the new collaborative album called All the Dark Things, soon to be released. Since Long Black Train, the duo's work has evolved dramatically:

"In the 'old' days it was just two guitars and Noah's voice, which we still love," Dennie says. "We're singing together now, and with me doing some mandolin, electric guitar work and a little lap steel, the palette has broadened considerably."

Gathering songs for his first vocal record, Dennie explains, "I feel as though I sing like I play — a lot of dynamics and a lot of instinct and improv at every turn. I decided to stop looking for others to sing with and start singing my own songs. There's nothing like telling your own story."

A master of subtlety, Dennie's voice sounds as natural as his guitar playing: rich, humble and emotionally raw. Gut-hitters.

In the future, Dennie says, "To stay busy with good, productive work is what I hope for. I don't want to get stressed about anything. Just be able to play music freely. I'll see where that can take me for a while."

These days, on quiet mornings when I'm teaching yoga, I often play Long Black Train for my students. While they move, Dennie's guitar playing fills the studio, setting the unmistakable, smooth mood, one both startlingly distinct and intimately complex. No clutter here. Only tricky fingers that know the true meaning of improvisation: from the heart to the strings. And now the whisper of the voice.

JASON DENNIE plays Jaspers in Mount Lookout on May 24 with Paul Dugan. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.