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Hear The Bang: The Life And Music Of Denny Lile (CD/DVD)
Denny Lile
Label: Big Legal Mess Records
Review Date: November 1, 2015

Denny Lile was a local legend — a gifted songwriter, singer and guitarist who seemed poised for fame, but his once-rising star sputtered out in a tragic spiral that ended with his death from alcoholism at age 44 in 1995. The new CD-and-DVD set, Hear the Bang: The Life and Music of Denny Lile, blends Lile’s brilliant and visionary unreleased debut album with a documentary film that tells his ultimately tragic story. Within its fabric lie 16 songs that foreshadow the arrival of the Americana genre and were recorded at the same time as Neil Young’s foundational Harvest album. Lile’s story also stands as a broader fable. It parallels that of many other formidable regional talents who lived and died in obscurity within the sprawling landscape of American popular music. 

When Big Legal Mess Records head, Bruce Watson — who, as co-owner of Fat Possum Records, has specialized in resurrecting and releasing obscure-but-great music from the South since the early ’90s — first listened to Hear the Bang, the debut full-length that Lile recorded in 1972, his reaction was typical of those who get their initial earful of the brilliant singer, songwriter and guitarist’s work. “I thought, ‘My God, I can’t believe nobody’s heard this,’” he recalls. “‘This guy’s a great singer-songwriter who never got his due. I’ve got to put this out!’”

Lile’s recordings, which spent four decades entangled in a web of legal issues, reveal an artist of subtlety and depth, with a streak of melancholy. His songs, including the haunting title track and the country-rocker “Looks Like the Feeling’s Slowly Fading,” often deal with lost love and its complexities: longing, alienation, issues unresolved. But with his honey-and-butter voice and shimmering lightning-strike guitar, even the bitter pills go down sweetly. As with Harvest, the songs on Hear the Bang — which was recorded when Lile was just 21 years old — are filled with imagery from the American landscape: rivers, freight trains, blue jeans and tee shirts, sun-dappled spring days. Also like Harvest, the instrumentation blends acoustic and electric elements — including Lile’s own six-string and dobro — mostly played by musicians who performed with Lile in various Louisville-area bands: the Matchbox, Soul Inc., Elysian Fields, Otis and Puddinfoot. Of course, there are also unqualified love songs, like the moon-eyed “Rag Muffin” and the soaring “Oh Darlin’.” And “’Cause You’re Mine” taps the era’s psychedelic vein with its ringing raga-like chords.

As these musical gemstones reveal, and Lile’s surviving bandmates and one-time song publisher attest in the documentary DVD, melody and lyrics were the cornerstones of his art. He polished them until they gleamed, sometimes working on a song for more than a year before revealing it even to his closest collaborators. Forty-three years later, these tunes are still radiant and remarkably undated.

The film was made by Lile’s nephew, Jer, a 39-year-old Zionsville, Indiana-based custom guitar and amplifier maker. Denny has hung over Jer’s life and his own career in music like a specter. By the mid-’80s Denny, battling alcoholism, was largely estranged from Jer’s father, Dwight, and his family. So the movie is as much the tale of Denny Lile’s rise and fall as an attempt by Jer to get to know and understand his uncle as a man and an artist.

Including interviews with Denny’s friends, bandmates, business associates, ex-wife and daughter, and a Ken Burns-like assemblage of still photos and artifacts, the doc begins with Denny’s childhood, which was fractured by his parents’ divorce. The break-up greatly affected Denny’s outlook, which was already emotionally insulated due to their style of parenting. “We were expected to take care of ourselves,” Dwight explains. “Mom and dad were not nurturing.”

Melancholy and insecure, Denny nonetheless rose to fame around his native Louisville with a series of bands and had numerous near-scrapes with the big time, including a major-label signing that crumpled before he entered the studio to cut an album and a disastrous no-show at Nashville’s annual country music confab Fan Fare, where Denny was unable to take the stage after drinking too much in an effort to calm his perennial stage fright. Denny’s biggest break arrived when Waylon Jennings recorded his song “Fallin’ Out” and it became a top 10 single on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in 1987. He built a studio and bought a conversion van with the money. As his relationship with his wife and daughter fell apart due to his alcoholism, that van became his home. It was also where he died, alone.

Jer Lile described the process of making the film as both enlightening and heartbreaking to Insider Louisville writer David Serchuk. “I’ve talked with all these people to get a better sense of who he was, and that kind of makes the sense of loss a little more intense, more defined … I can’t tell you how often I’ve cried during this process. 

“If I could have dinner with anybody, he’d be at the top of my list,” Jer told Serchuk. “I’d want to find out why … why couldn’t you kick it? You had people that loved you, talent and all these opportunities to succeed. It seemed like every time he made a step forward, he took two steps back.”