Coming seven years after his debut solo record, Age Old Hunger, Christopher Denny's If the Roses Don't Kill Us (out this month on Partisan Records) marks not only a return to music but also a brilliant triumph. The Arkansas native channels Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Roy Orbison (among others), with a sound that lives up to those comparisons. But Denny's songwriting has come into its own. Some of the tracks on Roses recount solemn chapters of a troubled past, yet there's no hint of self-pity. Often, in fact, there's joy.
In May, I talked with Denny by phone, ahead of a scheduled Kansas City stop. That show was canceled last-minute, hung up by scheduling conflicts. Now, Denny is back on the road, opening up for fellow troubadour Strand of Oaks on a string of North American dates — including a makeup date Friday at the Riot Room.
The Pitch: You're honest when it comes to your history of alcohol and drug abuse. The songs on If the Roses Don't Kill Us are largely about that self-destructive period of your life. What role did Tim Putnam [co-founder of Partisan Records] have in getting it out?
Denny: The truth is, the way he helped me get it done was to not put it out until I got sobered up. I think a lot of it's more what he didn't do. I've said before that, in a way, Tim did what all record-label people should do for their artists when they're suffering and killing themselves. And so many don't do what he did.
Another thing is that I wasn't necessarily making anyone any more money, and you don't put money into an alcoholic. It wasn't so much the alcohol as some of the other stuff. I went down to the bottom as far as you could, and whatever was put in front of me, I'd do it and do it all. It took a few years. I wrote tons more songs over the four-year period [2008-12] other than just the ones I was recording, and I had written a couple of newer ones. But Tim stuck with me, and I think that, in a way, it's a testament to my talent and a testament to the label. They care about their artists.
When did you realize that you needed to change the way you were living?
My body was just shutting down. I was physically ill. My body wouldn't take it anymore. And that was around the time that my father died of hepatitis C and cirrhosis. My body was shutting down, and I was to the point where I was trying to figure out what antidepressants I could take to keep drinking more. I was so depressed and I didn't want to live. And losing my father, which happened after I got sober [in 2008] — I don't think I would have made it through if I was still drinking when that happened. And I fell in love with someone who had all the same issues as me, and we decided that we loved each other enough to stop.
You're sober today, but you're also touring hard, playing in bars every night, encountering people who expect you to maintain a certain kind of lifestyle.
It doesn't hurt my feelings at all that I don't spend 50 or 60 bucks buying booze anymore. When I wake up, all my money is in my pocket. After this tour is over, I'm gonna be actually finally making some money. My mom has been clean almost 11 months, and I want to help her, too. So that's what I think about every day: my wife, my mom, my mother-in-law. And I love them all so much. I want to be around, and because of my health, I don't have the option to keep drinking and doing drugs and trying to hide it. It's a blessing, the things that have happened with my health. And on the other hand, I don't have to live with it forever. It's a really amazing blessing.
You can't just go get better and then hurt yourself again. All these things aligned in your universe to make you better. If I was 24, I might want to get fixed and then go fuck myself up again. I think it's just good timing. My uncle-in-law, he told my wife the other day: "This is Chris' time." And I believe him. That pumps me up. I'm 30, and I'm ready to have a family. Over the next five years, I want to build something solid so we can start having a family and stuff like that. And I feel blessed.