From the archive: He's with Dylan

Updated Nov 26, 2012

Originally published September 10, 2007 .

Bob Dylan is about to hit the stage - and I gotta tell you, I'm really excited about this show. Not so much 'cause it's Dylan; I've seen him several times over the years. To be honest, I'm more excited about seeing Denny Freeman play lead guitar in this band. You know: Austin's own Denny Freeman.

You say you don't know about Freeman? Well, you're in for a big treat. The man's an exquisite player - more about style and tone and taste than sheer speed. Freeman loves chords, and space. He has a broad range of tastes: jazz, silky ballads, surf music, '60s wah-wah pedal. And yeah, he has a great ear for the blues.

Freeman is a charter member of the Austin blues scene. The Vaughan brothers have known him as a friend, a bandmate, a roommate and mentor.

Freeman lived a blues life here for a long time - playing music at night, doing construction work during the day. When he first got here in 1970, Freeman and his blues buddies from Dallas - Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, Paul Ray - played an 11th Street dive on the east side for a payday of beans and chicken wings.

Don't you just love it? Here we have a guy who played the blues for beans at the long lost I.L. Club, a guy who jammed with Eddie Taylor at Antone's, a guy who jammed with Otis Rush at Antone's. And this guy is about to step on stage before tens of thousands of people and play with the Bob Dylan band at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Tell me that's not poetic!

In the company of blues guitarists

Freeman has been playing with the Dylan band since March 2005, and he's part of a distinguished line of Antone's players to play with the master. Charlie Sexton was a member of the band a few years ago. And in 1990, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan played on Dylan's "Under the Red Sky" album. They'd agreed to join Dylan on stage, in Austin ... and then tragedy struck and Stevie Ray Vaughan was dead.

Freeman's all over Dylan's latest record, "Modern Times," which definitely tips its hat to the blues of Muddy Waters and Memphis Minnie on several cuts. He's never overbearing, though. Freeman knows how to do sly and spare and subtle.

" Denny is a great accompaniest," Paul Ray was saying not long ago. And man, he should know, having fronted a band called the Cobras that featured both Freeman and a very young Stevie Ray Vaughan. "Most guitarists can't resist that urge to play all over you. But not Freeman. He knows where the spaces are.

" Denny was never the kind of player who's into trading licks with other guitarists, either. He never tries to outdo someone. Because in his own (quiet) way, he outdoes them anyway. A lot of times, with the Cobras, we'd really be cooking, and I'd try to make him play one more round on the solo. He'd kind of wink, say no, that's all I've got."

Dylan's live sets are very polished and professional, you know, but there's a lot of room in them for Freeman to shine. Fans old and new are going to enjoy "Rollin' and Tumblin'", often played as an encore, on which Freeman and fellow guitarist Stu Kimball let loose on a wild, slidey blues ride.

Bitten by the music

Freeman caught the blues at age 12, around the birth of rock 'n' roll, while living in East Dallas. It started innocently enough: He'd go to parties, play spin the bottle with friends, listen to 45s on the record player. Older kids began to expose him to do wop, the Clovers, the Drifters.

"And at about that time, Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino started coming on the radio," Freeman said to me years ago. "I thought to myself, 'Wow. What's happening here is a whole new world.' All of a sudden, instead of playing baseball and shooting baskets, all this wild Negro music was going on in my life."

First came Jimmy Reed ... "wow, harmonica. I think I like that." Then came the song "Bo Diddly," "which at the time sounded as wild as Jimi Hendrix." Freeman would hang out at Oliver's record store in the Casa Linda neighborhood and take in Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter.

"I started to think in terms of record labels (not artists), like Chess and Excello and VJ," Freeman said years ago. (He can't talk now about his Austin City Limits appearance; Dylan sidemen are discouraged from doing interviews while the band's on tour). "Me and my friends would ride the bus to downtown Dallas on Saturday afternoon, go to the pawn shops and the record stores. We'd buy three 45s for a dollar and stuff."

As Freeman got older, he got into jazz - "the only guy I know who bought jazz singles," says Paul Ray. "Blue Note jazz singles" - fell in love with Cream, marveled at Hendrix, got into surf guitar. Freeman's sensors, then and now, were wide open to all guitar sounds.

If you want to know Freeman's heart, check out any one of his five solo albums, the first released here in Austin, the more recent ones after he moved to Los Angeles for a while in the mid-1990s. The albums are hard to find, all issued on independent labels, instrumental adventure tours with titles such as "Blues Cruise" and "Out of the Blue" and "Twang Bang." They're a little bit like Bill Frisell records in that they eschew label and form but forever explore the possibility of guitar.

The guy loves to play, in the most childlike sense.

No final bow in sight

Freeman has recorded with Taj Mahal and Jennifer Warnes and Jimmie Vaughan, played with the cream of the Austin blues divas, written country music that no one has ever heard. He turned 63 this year ... and in so many ways, his career has never looked brighter.

The upcoming Doyle Bramhall record, "Is it News" features some of the finest playing of Freeman's career. He's the featured guitarist on an album full of great players: Doyle Bramhall II, Jimmie Vaughan, Mike Keller.

"I've worked with two different Dennys," says Paul Ray, trying to put his finger on the beauty of his friend's style. "I've worked with one Denny that's lowdown, really lowdown, so lowdown it's like he's playing with a single-blade razor instead of a pick. Then you turn away, and there's the other Denny, the guy who will play something so tender, so beautiful, it will tear your heart out.

"All the guitar players in this town are in awe of him - and deservedly so. And I can tell you this: Denny's having a blast right now."

I know it's not cool to be sentimental during ACL Fest. But I remember Freeman talking about what it was like to play the blues with Jimmie Vaughan and friends 38 years ago.

"Man, I thought we were gonna tear this town apart when we rolled in here," he said. "And you know what? It was a long, long time before anybody came."

But hey, I think I hear the cheering now. Take a bow, Denny Freeman. Your time has come.
bbuchholz@statesman.com; 912-2967