Denny Freeman: On Stratocasters, the majesty of Ray Charles and ‘Diggin’ on Dylan’
Guitarist Denny Freeman has a new album out — “Diggin’ on Dylan” — an album of instrumental music inspired, in part, by his experience of playing in Bob Dylan’s band between 2005 and 2009. And he’s happy to tell you all about it. Really. But larger passions keep getting in the way.
First, Freeman wants to explain to you the majesty of Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles and Fats Domino. He wants you to see the beauty of a vintage 1954 Fender Stratocaster guitar. He wants you to understand music, in the context of love.
“I never gave music any thought as a child,” says Freeman, who grew up in Dallas in the 1950s. “But one day, I’m walking through the kitchen of my house … I’m 11 years old, maybe … and I hear ‘Hallelujah I Love You So’ on the radio … white radio … and the sound of Ray Charles just stopped me in my tracks.
“All of a sudden: My ears! I was ready to start hearing! ‘Hallelujah I Love You So’ wasn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll, you know. But it sure wasn’t white pop radio, either. And it knocked me silly. There was sophistication in that music … in Ray Charles … in early Fats Domino. And it just killed me.”
Excited by the memory of it all, Freeman flips on a turntable – one of two in his apartment living room – and starts leafing through hundreds of vintage 45 rpm records, lined up in long rows like books on a shelf. These are the artifacts of his childhood. Most of the singles are still in their plain paper sleeves.
“Hallelujah” is in here, somewhere.
Freeman stands with two fistfuls of 45s, shuffling and shifting them from hand-to-hand, hooking his thumbs through the center holes as if they were record spindles. He glances at a dazzling array of artists: Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Lazy Lester. Chet Atkins. Horace Silver. John Lee Hooker. Johnny Smith.
Denny Freeman is one cool cat on stage — earnest, tall, masculine, no chit-chat, a man in charge, forever focused on craft. But this is the real guy, right here in the living room, still a kid at 68, rifling through his records with a sense of wonder.
The essence of Denny Freeman — as a musician, as a guitarist — is this very scene. His style is a reflection of this enthusiasm, this sense of respect. Freeman the guitarist is all about curiosity, about a sense of play, about openness to all forms. Blues. Jazz. Soul. Pop. Anything vintage. Anything authentic.
Freeman takes a seat by his turntable, lowers the tone arm onto “Honest I Do” by Jimmy Reed. We hear a half-century of crackle. And beyond it: Reed’s shrill, lowdown harmonica line. A squeal, a screech, with a tickle of guitar around the edges. Man, young Denny exclaimed a half-century ago, that sure ain’t no campfire harp.
“This is the music that did it,” he says. “This is when music started to ruin my life.”
Denny Freeman was a vital part of the Austin music scene before anyone thought of it as a “scene.” He saw the city the first time in 1969, felt the magic and the “innocence” immediately, moved here within the year. Freeman shares a birthday, Aug. 7, with the Armadillo World Headquarters.
On the living room wall, there’s a photo of Freeman backing Freddie King at the Armadillo in 1970. Below it, another photo: Freeman on piano, flanked by blues giants John Lee Hooker, Eddie Taylor, Hubert Sumlin and Big Walter Horton.
Freeman moved to Austin, en masse, with a group of Dallas buddies — Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, Paul Ray, Jamie Bassett — who were committed to playing blues before the blues were cool here, before Clifford Antone opened his first club on Sixth Street. In the mid-1970s, Freeman played lead guitar in the Cobras — a band that also featured an up-and-coming player named Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Denny Freeman can tell you about those days, rooming with Stevie, playing that old roadhouse in the hills — the Soap Creek Saloon — before it was even known as the Soap Creek Saloon. He’s happy to do it. Really. But larger passions keep getting in the way.
He talks about the beauty of old record labels: Chess, VeeJay, Excello. Blue Note. Atlantic. RCA. Each with its distinct musical identity. He talks about how music brought him to girls, through dances. He sits down next to a sand-colored Stratocaster — there are five different guitars in sight, including three Fenders — and on impulse, holds it in his arms.
“I mean, I really like this guitar … the shape of this guitar,” he says haltingly, as if unsure that he’ll be able to explain himself. He’s talking about all Stratocasters. “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful … anywhere.”
Freeman raises his eyes, making sure we understand the depth of feeling. Then traces the curves of the Stratocaster with his cupped right hand, not touching the body. “I mean: This design, it’s perfect. So modern, to my eyes. And to think it’s from 1954.
“For us Dallas boys, there was something about Stratocasters that made us go crazy. Somehow, when I was 14, my sweet mother and I went down to Elm Street one day, and she bought me a Stratocaster at a pawn shop … my first guitar . She didn’t have any money. It cost $120 or something. My mother would go three years without buying a dress. But she bought me Stratocaster. A sunburst. Gol-lee.
“Imagine being 16 years old. And poor. And someone says to you, ‘Here, son, here’s your car’ — and you look out the window and you’ve got a red Cadillac convertible. That’s how I felt — as if my first guitar was a ‘59 Cadillac convertible.
“You’re gonna start me crying, thinking about that.”
Crazy and Crying
On stage at the Saxon Pub, Denny Freeman commands the stage without saying a word — cream-colored strat on his hip, right foot forward, feeling the music around him. His posture suggests style and understatement; he’s never slouchy or indifferent on stage. At the same time, Freeman’s shoulders and hips move to the drumbeat, to the beat and the groove of the songs. The set list bounces from Fats Domino’s “Please Don’t Go” to Johnny (Guitar) Watson’s “Lonely Nights”
During a rendition of “Soul Street” — one of his finest original tunes — Freeman and John X Reed trade guitar licks in a stylish song that spins around jazz and soul, rock and blues. Wild and tasteful, at the same time. Singer and drummer Rodney Craig, who has known Freeman for 40 years, addresses the house at the end of the song.
“You won’t see any of that stuff at the Aerosmith show,” Craig says through the microphone. No star-studded contrivances at this show, no sir. Just grit, taste, authenticity. “I looked around for three days at ACL (the Austin City Limits Music Festival) and didn’t see ANYTHING like this.”
Freeman has been playing all over town since leaving Dylan’s band — each show, each band, its own distinct adventure. Vintage blues and R&B with his Friday night Saxon band; jazzy textures with Jon Blondell at the Elephant Room; Tuesday night blues jams at Antone’s; smoking organ trio nights on random weekends with Mike Flanigin and Barry “Frosty” Smith at the Continental Club Gallery.
“I love to play crazy. I love to play wild. But I also love to play music that can make a woman cry,” says Freeman. “If I had to pick a favorite guitarist, if you made me pick one, it just might be Wes Montgomery.”
Freeman’s shows at the Gallery are gems, featuring a most eclectic set list. “Song for My Father.” “Love Train.” “Autumn Leaves.” “I’ve Got a Woman.” And best of all: a transcendent cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Freeman, sitting on a stool, facing the band, goes four, five, six passes deep into the melody, burning, soaring, shouting, chording, winking, blasting his audience into a different solar system. He brings a different guitar to each show — sometimes a jazzy Gibson, sometimes a rockin’ epiphone — which only enhances the sense of play each time out.
“I’ll never be the guitarist I want to be,” says Freeman, rarely satisfied with his own performance.Yet Blondell, a bass player and trombonist who has played with Freeman for decades, shakes his head with wonder during their Elephant gigs. How many players, he asks, can blast “Ode to Billie Joe” to the limits of ecstasy — and then go pretty with a delicate rendition of the 1940s classic, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”?
In the end, Freeman’s curiosity, his sense of style and respect, live at the heart of “Diggin’ on Dylan.” Freeman admits that he knew little about Dylan’s work post-“Nashville Skyline” before joining his band. (“I’d only been to one Bob Dylan show in my life before that gig.”) But the melodies of Dylan tunes, from the original records, clearly touch him. His album honors Dylan, honors the beauty of the melodies, while drawing from musical ideas that reside outside the “Box of Bob.”
Freeman plays at a dozen different instruments on the album: Three or four main guitars, organ, piano, harmonica, bass. He brings a jaunty, waltzy treatment to “My Back Pages,” with Elana James (Hot Club of Cowtown) playing under Freeman’s organ part. “Ballad of a Thin Man” burns, blues-style. “Gotta Serve Somebody” has a 50s jazz feel to it, utilizing a trombone chorus arranged by Blondell. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” feels like Hank Williams country, with James on violin.
“I wanted to be true to the spirit of the songs, but to do them my way,” he says. He’d happily talk more about it. Really. But larger passions keep standing in the way. Inside his apartment, he shuffles through those old 45s, feeling magic. Barney Kessel! Kenny Burrell! Jimmy Smith! Muddy Waters! Elvis Presely! Slim Harpo! “Have you heard of a guy named Al Viola? And Jackie Gleason! Do you know his album ‘Music for Lovers’?” Oh, man.
Denny Freeman carries more records to the turntable. You can hear tubes, humming. Freeman lowers a tone arm, listens to the crackle, talks about a love beyond time.