Denny Lile: Hear the Bang – The Life and Music of Denny Lile

DennyLile_HearTheBangA sad, brilliant gem of early ‘70s singer-songwriter country

Talent and hard work aren’t always enough. They can pave the path, but fame is at the end of a road pockmarked with “timing” and “connections” and “luck.” And though hard luck provides grist for the artistic mill, it can also keep a career from catching fire. Such was the case for Louisville singer-songwriter Denny Lile, whose talent, ambition and artistic brilliance weren’t fully rewarded by the popular recognition they deserved. Other than a song turned into a 1987 Top 10 Waylon Jennings hit (“Fallin’ Out”), Lile’s music, including this long-lost 1973 solo album, were consigned to virtual obscurity. His hometown renown brought feelers from New York and Nashville labels, but the sensitivity that made his songwriting so touching also fueled the alcoholism and self-doubt that sabotaged his career.

Lile wended his way through a number of Louisville bands, including Soul Inc. and Elysian Field, before striking a deal for this solo album. At only twenty-two years of age, his voice was decades older, with the weary, wary confidence of someone who’d logged more miles on his soul than his feet. His singing offered elements of Jim Croce’s melancholy, Gram Parsons’ grief, and, unusually in this company, Neil Diamond’s power; but even among those monumental touchstones, it was the candid voice of his lyrics that really stood out. Backed by guitar, fiddle, steel, dobro and a tight rhythm section of bass, drums and piano, Turley Richards’ productions of “Hear the Bang” and “If You Stay on Solid Ground” garnered a well-deserved offer from Hilltop Records; but while Turley was selling the single in New York, Lile signed with the local Bridges label, in a deal that would haunt him to his 1995 death.

Bridges’ distribution agreement with Nashville’s Starday-King did little to help the single or subsequent album gain traction, and both disappeared without much more than local notice. It’s hard to imagine in this hyperconnected, digital age that an album this good could vanish so completely, but Lile’s deal had surrendered both the recordings and his song publishing, and as the accompanying DVD documentary explains, it took more than four decades to untangle the rights and find the tapes. Once revived, the tapes revealed productions that are crisp and spacious – the sort of record that made your mid-70s stereo system shine – and performances that hold listeners in thrall with their confused and wounded heart. And that heart, Lile’s heart, was worn quite visibly on his sleeve as he sings of loving, leaving and being left.

Lile found that fading love doesn’t always fade evenly, and that its slow decay may not even be noticed until realizations are past due and apologies are rejected. Resignation to sad truths permeated Lile’s life, and in turn, his best songs. It led him to recoil from opportunity and sabotage possibilities for success. By the time his solo album was ready he said “Every time I’ve tried to get out of town – with Field, with Soul – something’s gone wrong. Every time I turn around an older musician is telling me his plan for making it. But nothing so far has worked. I think it’s better not to plan.” That feeling of futility suffused his songwriting, even as he spent years honing his lyrics and melodies to perfection.

The productions include many terrific touches, including congas on “If You Stay on Solid Ground” and phased fiddles on “Rag Muffin,” and there are several optimistic songs of love on the horizon (“She’s More to Me Than a Friend” and “After All”) and in full bloom (“Oh Darling” and “Rag Muffin”). But it’s the sad songs that will haunt you, especially after you’ve viewed the accompanying biographical documentary. “Will You Hate Me When I’m Gone” offers a prophetic echo as Lile’s daughter speaks of his passing, and “After All” could be a memo from Lile to himself as he sings “so tell me how you’re feeling today, tell me if I got in your way.” As the documentary shows, Lile’s alcoholism often got in his way as the industry tried to help him capitalize on his talent.

Lile had a knack for sabotaging himself, starting with his momentum-killing solo contract, and extending through numerous fumbled opportunities. Worries about his marriage and his duty as a father – a hangover from his parents divorce – kept him from touring, and a chance to play FanFest in 1973 fell prey to one-too-many nerve-calming drinks. Follow-up meetings with Waylon Jennings’ staff also suffered from the rough shape in which his alcoholism often left him. Even an accident that landed him in the hospital with broken bones and a lacerated liver didn’t deter his drinking. His world narrowed to a home studio purchased with the royalties from Jennings’ single, and then to a custom van in which he lived the last few years of his life. He died alone in the van, estranged from his family, at the age of 44.

Lile’s one stroke of luck came twenty years after his death, when former bandmate Marvin Maxwell bought the production company that owned Lile’s album. That led Lile’s nephew Jer to send a copy of the album to Fat Possum’s Bruce Watson, who immediately put this reissue in motion. The album stands as a lost classic, but fleshed out by Jer’s documentary interviews with family, friends, bandmates and industry associates, the package draws a picture of an artist more interested in art than fame, and a writer whose fragility and sadness were simultaneously his muse and his downfall. Big Legal Mess’s reissue includes five bonus tracks recorded during the album session, the DVD documentary and an eight-page booklet, all of which adds up to one of the year’s best vault discoveries. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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