We’ve heard this story before. An extraordinarily talented artist cuts one perfect record and, too often under tragic circumstances, the album is lost in time. Then, years later, a dedicated archivist or a savvy record label comes upon this artist as if discovering a shipwreck deep below the sea that holds stories upon stories in its lost wreckage. Such is the case with the new release from Mississippi label Big Legal Mess and the unfortunate yet musically brilliant story of Denny Lile, Hear The Bang.
Denny Lile was a young singer-songwriter of exceedingly impressive talent in the 1970s, known throughout his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky as an artist poised for the big time. But he had to get there first, and even though he wrote songs that were later recorded by country stars like Waylon Jennings (“Fallin’ Out”), Lile’s life was never quite stable as he fell into alchoholism before ultimately succombing to the disease in 1995 at the young age of 44. Tragically, Denny Lile passed away in his van, which he had purchased from the payments he received from writing that hit song for Waylon. Estranged from his family throughout the 80s, the songwriter spent the latter part of his life rambling around in that van, a vagabond of sorts, in possession of a remarkable gift for song that was drowned in a sea of booze brought on by financial and marital problems. He was an artist doomed by stage fright, which caused him to bail on gigs that would’ve been pivotal moments of his career while also furthering a dependence on the bottle to calm his nervousness. This is a story we’ve heard all too many times in the world of music – the rapid rise and fall of a great artist who never gets his due.
Before all of that, Denny Lile cut a damn near perfect album that stands as a testament to his natural ability for writing flawless songs that could be heart-wrenching as well as unbelievably beautiful. Lile was just 21 when he recorded Hear The Bang in 1972 around the same time artists like Neil Young and Nick Drake were cutting their masterpieces Harvest and Pink Moon. One can’t help but wonder if, had things worked out differently, Hear The Bang would have gained the legendary status of those other albums. Its songs demand your concentration, which is almost impossible not to give once you are sucked into the opening title track. Here we are introduced to a man with a voice that is heavenly and close to the land. His lyrics on this song are at once heartbreaking and sentimental, backed by an almost orchestral arrangement of strings and the slow, simple beat of a drum. Lile assembled a cast of mostly local musicians for this album, but you would hardly know it based on the pristine recording quality.
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“Oh Darlin’” finds Lile choogling along and tapping into a John Fogerty-esque vocal style that rambles along right into the touching “Looks Like The Feeling’s Slowly Dying”, a sure highlight of the album. Denny Lile was not just a talented songwriter, but also a guitarist of considerable skill, and his dobro playing takes center stage on this tune as it matches his own sentimental lyrics and entertwines gorgeously with the twang of a pedal steel. The pace picks up with the rowdy, freewheeling country tune “If You Stay On Solid Ground” before the sweeping rush of “Once More With Feeling”, a song that feels reminscent of Cat Stevens had he spent time in Nashville. There are also songs that haunt in name alone, like “Will You Hate Me When I’m Gone” and “Good-Byes And Other Sad Things”. These are songs that stir up melancholy and make you wish this fantastic spirit was still around and making music.
Listening to Hear The Bang is a simultaneously enlightening and troubling experience in that it is an introduction to an artist capable of making incredible music, yet an artist who, based on the quick decline in his professional and personal life, probably only achieved a fraction of his capabilities. Denny Lile’s music is timeless and this release warrants many repeat listens to really grasp the depth of his talent. Accompanying the release is a documentary about Lile’s life that tells the story of how a young kid from Louisville became obsessed with music and had huge potential to be the next big thing, but was plagued by what at times seemed like terrible luck as he was always on the brink of success only to be shot down by one mishap after another. The film may be a bit dry and straightforward for a casual fan, however, after hearing the album you will undoubtedly feel the need to understand the story behind Denny Lile and his music. In the film and in the liner notes of this release we see a local newspaper clipping from the 70s with the headline ‘Maybe THIS time it’s Denny Lile’s turn’. Almost sympathetic to his plight yet a bit condescending, the headline is a reminder that Lile was an artist deserving of recognition. At least now, twenty years after his death, somebody is giving Denny Lile his turn.
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Hear The Bang: The Life and Music of Denny Lile is out now on Big Legal Mess Records.
I had the pleasure of playing with Denny Lile for a year or so in the local band Puddin Foot, He was a remarkable guy and a truly excellent musician, I am happy to see the article and the news that “Hear the Bang” has been reissued . thank you