Beyond the Horizon with Denny Freeman
Austin lodestar offered the theories of life through a guitar
By Bill Bentley,
2:45PM, Tue. Apr. 27, 2021
Every time Denny Freeman picked up his guitar, whether a lean and mean Fender Stratocaster or a beautiful big box Gibson, he quested to solve the puzzle of the cosmos. Here stood a man looking for a way to learn his place on the planet. He never just played a song.
Too easy, that, because Freeman could play any tune, any time, but his journey manifested far more encompassing. As a musician the questions in his head revolved around constantly trying to figure out how his instrument could unlock an answer and set him free.
Thousands and thousands of guitarists have shred in Austin since the early wave hit in the Sixties. The city acted as a magnet for those six-stringers seeking space to unpack their axe and take to the streets looking for a friendly ear. For Freeman, born in Florida at a U.S. military hospital but as Texan as anyone who ever called the Lone Star state home, growing up in the Dallas area gravitated him toward the guitar the moment he heard the early blues and rock & roll records oozing through the radio waves.
When his mother bought him a slightly banged up Strat in a pawn shop, Denny Freeman – like so many before him – knew he'd found a friend for life.
Musicians are different. Most of the great ones don’t need a lot of words. Maybe that’s because language takes up a lot of room and isn’t always accurate in expressing the deepest feelings.
Yet give a guitarist, saxophonist, or pianist an instrument and there runs a direct line from one heart to another. Freeman discovered this as a teen. Never one known to cloud the atmosphere with speaking, the young stringer discovered he could use the telepathics of notes played by his hands and transplant them directly into the souls of his listeners.
Consider that the perfect solution for the teenager, then, because what he couldn’t always say, he could employ the ozone to convey. When that happened, in early bands playing skating rinks and high school gymnasiums, Freeman set himself free.
In the Great Dallas Musician Migration to Austin of the late Sixties, the guitarist set off on one of the early pilgrimages. Word got out that uptight Texas cities like Dallas and Houston could be broken out of simply by escaping to River City. Here, an air of freedom prevailed, fed by the University of Texas, pot dealers, peyote couriers coming up from the Valley, and several other fun-filled factors.
People wanted to hear music in Austin – they still do. No better manner exists in breaking loose Texas traditions that tie youth cultures into knots. Of course, it didn’t hurt that some of the students at the massive University smack dab in the middle of Austin stumbled across the chemical formulas of manufacturing LSD, or that the spin-off radical politics of the New Left took hold at the Home of Bevo.
As the Sixties ended, a sense of freedom prevailed and the Dallas brigade called the tune.
Freeman, Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, Paul Ray, and, before long, Stevie Vaughan set up shop at the dawn of the Seventies looking for clubs to call home. The One Knite notched one of the first, housed in a little semi-stone room on the corner of Red River and Eighth. Not much of a room size-wise, but it created a magical air of openness.
Jimmie Vaughan found the club when scouting for a spot to park his new band Storm on Monday nights. In so many ways, that's where the blues crew kicked off their journey to another land. The One Knite existed almost like a private club you had to have heard about, and when Vaughan, Bramhall, Freeman, and a few other players rolled in to start the work week off on Monday nights, the molecules in the air started exploding with the sound of liberation.
Hell broke loose at exactly the right moment.
Packed with a few dozen true believers, the One Knite gave the city a key to unlock the door of jubilation. The Armadillo World Headquarters hosted concerts a couple of miles away, but the One Knite swore the blood oath that blues lovers share. At the front of that herd rode Freeman and his Dallas homeboys, with swinging guitars and black-bottom beats that promised an eternal secret code for joyousness.
The blues is the antidote to troubles and pain, and for 50 cents the world opened up. In so many ways, Monday evenings at the One Knite became the Big Bang of Austin blues.
Denny Freeman offered his theories of life through a guitar. He found a way to speak with it, and would think deeply about what he wanted to share. An air of questioning dynamics sounded in his beautiful chords and cosmic sounds as he bore down on switchblade leads of ominous reckoning. Watching him then, as the Seventies started rolling into his Austin acts like Southern Feeling with Angela Strehli and the Cobras with Paul Ray, Freeman shucked his street clothes to reveal a Superman suit.
Those of us who zeroed in on the young man’s powerful passion and electrifying abilities became his Awe Squad, standing in front of the cramped stages around Austin, speechless at what we saw and heard. He usually stood on the side in the band line-up onstage, but instead of hiding from the spotlight, Denny needed the room to work in his secret laboratory of sound. You could almost see the thought waves moving down from his brain to his hands.
Nothing like it – before or since.
As clubs like Soap Creek Saloon, Bevo’s, Antone’s, Rome Inn, Hole in the Wall, and other nefarious nightspots spread throughout the Austin area, zoned-in Denny Freeman Freaks (as we called ourselves) made sure to be wherever he offered up sonic rides into the universe. I remember nights and certain songs now that still live inside me, those moments when time stopped and an incredulous wonder filled my heart as what the guitarist had just pulled off. Austin burst at the seams by the mid Seventies, and even if other musicians were hailed as the chosen ones, a hardcore collection of us knew wherever Freeman played remained the place to be. Guitar glory found us, and we weren't going to miss it.
The second half of the Seventies in Austin experienced a mini-explosion of national attention and growth. Willie Nelson world became the city’s calling card, but also the blues crew and soon-to-be rock pioneers planted seeds for the Live Music Capital of the World. A backlash bunch came up with a cadre of complainers called TMFG (figure that one out), but in so many ways, it was all good for a city on the move.
Overload still a few years away, Freeman continually explored how to make sound build a blanket of never-ending reverberations for all who had wanted to find the nexus of musical nirvana. Still, some of us getting antsy like Texans often do, heard the West Coast calling. When I made the California trip, I had just finished a Denny Freeman interview that sat in a box for over 30 years before I finally wrote the story in 2011.
When he, too, ended up in Los Angeles, his guitar playing, whenever I could find it, still felt like the answer to all my musical questions. The City of Angels is a tricky place to see music when nightclubs turn into houses of auditions and audiences hunt restlessly for the next wave, but Freeman dug in and began playing with his all-time musicians. Through the Nineties, he made his legend as a Texan firing at full force.
For a while, he lived not far from me in Studio City, and when I’d walk past his house and see his cream colored 1972 Cadillac out front, all was right in the world, because Denny was in town. Maybe that’s because I knew whenever we spoke, I would hear the truth. The man possessed a quiet but absolutely forceful way of expressing himself.
He didn't cut corners or sugarcoat what he believed. His soul swam in a gorgeous softness circling a granite-hard center. He knew the music that moved his emotions and found a place inside his heart. That's what he listened to and that's what he played.
And when he started working with Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band, it felt like old home night at Soap Creek.
I laughed at the 30-year run I’d experienced with a musician I looked to as my Statue of Liberty. The people who teach us because of who they are and not what they say are the ones we learn the most from. Little did I know that Denny Freeman sat poised to climb the biggest mountain of his musical career.
In 2004, Denny Freeman got a call from a Bob Dylan representative to set up an audition for the latter’s band. The list of guitarists who held that position remains among the very best: Michael Bloomfield, Robbie Robertson, Charlie Sexton. Now came Freeman's chance.
The first audition went well, and Dylan told Denny to come back the next day, “And bring a different guitar.” Of course, he got the job and for the next five years toured the world with him, performing over 500 shows. This is how Bob Dylan described that group:
“This is the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man. When you play with guys 100 times a year, you know what you can and can't do, what they're good at, whether you want them there. It takes a long time to find a band of individual players… .
“On this record [Modern Times], I didn't have anybody to teach. I’ve got guys now in my band, they can whip up anything. They surprise even me.”
Denny Freeman knew, too. He knew what it meant to be a human being, and he knew what it meant to open up his heart for others to feel and hear. He did it for almost his entire life.
In the early 2000s, my son Chet bore down on his 8th grade project. He planned on playing a song his grandmother wrote in 1949 for Nat “King” Cole titled “I Get Sentimental Over Nothing (Imagine How I Feel About You),” but he needed a guitarist. I called Denny.
“Where and when?” he asked.
He came to a practice one night, and next arrived at the small school auditorium with that big beautiful Gibson hollow body guitar. He played the song like he’d been doing it his whole life. A year or two later, off he went with Bob Dylan’s band.
I laugh now when I think about it, and count my lucky blessings I had the great fortune to call this man a friend for 50 years.
The last time I saw Denny was two years ago, playing pedal steel guitar with the John X. Reed band at C-Boy’s on South Congress. I walked into the club and started talking to someone in a cowboy hat and Western clothes who I didn’t recognize in the dark. Not really. After a while, the voice sunk in: Denny Freeman.
I’d never seen him in a cowboy hat. He fooled me completely. I copped to my mistake, and he looked at me with that wisened Denny look, the one that said he’d seen it all in life and wasn't surprised by anything. We chuckled.
Denny remains my Buddah of the blues and so much more. He taught me to listen, and he taught me to love. As we all grow into these later years, the things that matter most come to me in huge gold letters painted in the sky. They say, “Be grateful. Be kind. Listen to the music. Learn to remember, and when you have to, learn to forget.”
I’ll never forget Denny Freeman. He’s inside me, and lives forever there. Thank you Denny, for all of it.