The Amazing Denny Freeman
With The Amazing Denny Freeman, the complete early catalog of one of Austin, Texas’ better kept secrets, one of the most influential yet shamefully under-recognized architects of the city’s sound during the 1980s is back in print. It marks the first time, since their initial release on Amazing Records over 30 years ago, that these two records (plus a bonus single never included on any album) are available in their entirety. That amount of time tends to erode a lot of things, but thankfully, the soul that poured through Denny’s playing endures, as raw and pure here as the day it was put to tape.
When Denny began recording these tracks in April of 1983, his reputation as a first-rate guitarist in Austin’s increasingly renowned blues scene had become a double edged sword, threatening to define him, restrictively, as a ‘blues guitarist.’ “Denny loved music,” remembers friend and eventual label-mate, Conni Hancock. “It wasn’t a matter of the name or the style of the music, he just loved music,” and he always considered himself a musician — unconditionally. So, while Denny’s music could never be accused of having an agenda, the material he brought to these early sessions carried a clear statement: Denny Freeman is much more than just a ‘blues guitarist.’
In 1984, two singles, “Out of Control” b/w “Denny’s Blues” and “Time for a Change” b/w “Tired of Television,” released on Denny’s own V8 Records, were the first to deliver the message. Although Denny did not seem to pursue lyric songwriting much past this point, the vocal tunes demonstrate a willingness to explore outside his comfort zone, while highlighting his often underrated knack for collaboration. The lone instrumental side, the namesake “Denny’s Blues,” proved a quintessential representation of who he was as a player and a writer, as his classy touch and restraint on both guitar and piano deftly weave through elegant passing chords, exposing his command of melody and an ear for arrangement.
While the singles were modestly successful for self releases in the mid ‘80s — with “Time For A Change”/“Tired of Television” the Best Single runner up in the Austin Chronicle’s year end poll — Denny always intended to put out a full length album, and he returned to the studio as often and scheduling and personal finances allowed, as he was still footing the bill himself at this point. By the time he signed with Jim Yanaway’s Amazing Records in April of 1986, he had already recorded all but one of the tracks that would eventually make up Blues Cruise, quietly proving his dedication and determination to define himself on his own terms. Blues Cruise hit shelves later that year, with the followup effort, Out of the Blue, hot on its heels in 1987. (For the remainder of his career, Denny would release a new album roughly every decade, suggesting either a burst of creativity around this period, a backlog of developed material, or some combination thereof.)
Taken individually or together, both Amazing albums were, and remain, artistic successes. Whether highlighting his interpretive prowess and melodic range, or revealing a talent for production, especially utilizing sound effects and non-traditional instruments, the end result is a portrait of an accomplished, musically minded player far beyond the connotations of a ‘blues guitarist,’ and both fans and peers took note. “I remember being blown away by the fact that a guy who wasn’t a singer could make a record,” recalls Derek O’Brien, another of Austin’s non-singing guitarists. “It was really bold – just like his playing: bold, adventurous, take no prisoners – to go out there and just get it done. And then do it again!”
However, the financial realities of a small, independent label like Amazing meant that initial runs of both titles, on vinyl and cassette, were limited. As the industry moved towards CD as the dominant format, both titles were combined onto one CD in 1990, dropping three songs — seemingly arbitrarily, as Denny recalled having no input in the decision. In Europe, separate CD releases by Line Records credited Blues Cruise to Danny Freeman while Out of the Blue’s “Dive Bomber” was inexplicably split into two tracks. These copies, too, were manufactured in low quantities, and as the years turned into decades, copies of either title, in any format, became more and more difficult to dig up.
Even so, many of the tunes from these albums became staples of Denny’s live setlists for the remainder of his career, exciting audiences and bandmates alike. Although he played the songs nightly, on stages from Austin to Los Angeles, from Paris to Sydney, it genuinely bothered him that his earliest records remained unavailable. It wasn’t a monetary concern — he would happily burn copies for any fan who asked him — but what his acute humility could not let him express another way: it seemed he was still very proud of what he had accomplished with these records and how they presented him as a musician.
Denny regained control of his Amazing material in 2017 and was working towards a reissue when cancer swiftly and suddenly put an end to his plans. His request that this release come to pass, even after it became clear he would not see that happen, confirms just how important these albums were to him. Although The Amazing Denny Freeman can no longer benefit him materially, his earliest recordings are now once more accessible to fans of original, authentic, soulful, instrument-driven music; fans of music, no matter the name or the style of the music. That is surely a different kind of reward for someone who loved music so completely and so fully as did Denny Freeman.
“Denny was a unique musician who everybody learned something from, if they ever heard him. He did a lot of good with his music. I’m glad he got to leave some,” says Blues Cruise producer, Fran Christina. “Thank you, Denny, for leaving us some.”
-- Stu Gilbert, 2023