Arkansas songwriter Christopher Denny lays bare the hard-earned wisdom of a misspent youth on his upcoming album, If the Roses Don’t Kill Us, arriving August 5. After years of substance abuse, the folky soul singer has willed himself back from the edge of oblivion and lived to tell the tale.
“It’s hard to break a wild horse,” Denny told CMT Edge before a small show at Nashville’s High Watt. “And when you are that wild horse, it’s even harder.”
He’s still working hard to stay clean, but for now, Denny is living well. And that’s just what his music needed.
With his otherworldly vocals — he’s frequently compared to Roy Orbison — Denny’s songs haunt the air and often sink to depths of despair unknown by most, pulling the listener down with him. But then, somehow, he pulls you back up. Through spirituality and honest self-assessment, Denny paints a vivid portrait of himself, faults and all.
CMT Edge: Your voice is unique. Does anybody else in your family sing like that?
Denny: No, nobody else in my family really sings at all.
So where does your music come from?
Sometimes when you’re answering these questions, you realize how you feel about it, you know? I can remember as a kid, I didn’t want to sing kids songs. Even at 5 years old. There’s this video of my aunt asking me to play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or something, and I got mad on the video like, “I don’t play kids songs!”
So I’ve always been pretty serious. I can remember back when my grandma didn’t like Willie Nelson’s voice. She liked Johnny Cash. I did, too, but I really fell in love with Willie because he was different. I was always different, so it makes sense that my voice is different. I think that’s where my addictive stuff came from, too. Like, I feel the need to be different. But now I’m realizing you can be different without hurting yourself.
This album has been a long time coming. Can you describe what’s been going on in your life?
Basically, I got overwhelmed with the business and politics [of the music industry]. I had a record deal, and I was in talks with Atlantic and Rounder, and I stayed with the label I was on and it just completely fell through. I felt let down. I had this feeling like I couldn’t trust the big machine, so to speak, but then the little guy let me down, and it was just heartbreaking.
But I didn’t really regret it because I didn’t feel like that was my path. So when this Partisan [record deal] worked out, it was like, “Yeah!” But by then, I had picked up a lot of addictive behavior again like I did when I was 20.
I was in AA from 20 to 23 and started to slowly dabble in stuff again. And then when I was sitting there after all that letdown, I got hooked again. They signed me, and they realized when I went up there to record the album, I mean, my behavior was insane. It was like an Outlaw country story. It was bad — with amphetamine pills and everything else.
How long did that go on?
They told me pretty soon after that, “We can’t do a record with you until you clean up,” and I said “Fine.” That’s what they had to do, so I said, “Fuck it” [and continued using]. And then when [my fiancée] Tiffany and I met and fell in love, it was like, “We’re gonna get married, and we need to both clean up.” That was the motivation, seeing that I could have a life and that I was not going to have one if I kept doing that.
So I went along and did the things they asked. That was almost three years ago, and it took this long to see if I was gonna make it through. This tour’s a little test, like, “How’s he gonna do on the road?” And I’m passing because I want to.
Did you write any songs expressly about getting clean?
“Some Things” is just about getting older. Sometimes you just grow into a better person. If you want it bad enough and you want to get rid of your character flaws, it just happens with some things. It’s not a message like, “I’ve gotta get something right.” It’s like, “This is happening. This is the way it goes. If you put enough energy into something, it will happen eventually.”
Tell me about the title track, “If the Roses Don’t Kill Us.” It seems special to you.
It’s cool because I never really thought about this too much before people started asking me, and I’m seeing a lot more meaning in it now. The truth is, at first, it meant I’m gonna do things the way I want to do them because living a fake life will kill me even if I look happy. But now it’s like, damn, I didn’t realize how trapped I was in something that I thought was making me so happy — the drugs. I was completely ensnared and imprisoned by my attitude. So that’s kind of what it means to me now.
You can catch Christopher Denny on tour throughout the summer in the U.S. and Canada. Enjoy the CMT Edge world premiere of “If the Roses Don’t Kill Us.”