Denny Strickland took inspiration from his Arkansas roots, his favourite West Coast hotspots, and a series of valued mentors whilst writing his debut album, California Dreamin’.
The new release also coincided with the Nashville-based singer-songwriter being named as one of Rolling Stone’s 10 New Country Acts You Need To Know for October.
From the age of five, Strickland travelled with his parents presenting show horses at events around the country, and went on to become a nationally-recognised champion. But, it was after he began studying at Arkansas State University, he taught himself to play the guitar and write songs. One day, at a horse show, he met Marshall Grant, who was Johnny Cash’s bass player, and also an accomplished horseman. A friendship developed and Grant coached Strickland on the music business, before Grant’s death in 2011. This led to Strickland’s move to Nashville, where he has spent time focusing on his craft and writing music for the latest record.
I sat down with Denny to discuss his love of the West Coast, his mentors and what makes his sound and message unique.
How did trips to the West Coast inspire your latest release, California Dreamin’?
California Dreamin’ is the title and I am…I’m dreaming. I’m on this journey.
The Academy of Country Music is out there on the West Coast and I that was just the icing on the cake, that really got me stimulated. I was just like, ‘man I love it out here’. I ended up staying in Venice and that was amazing. I ended up driving from Venice, all the way to Malibu, and Santa Monica, of course, is in the middle.
I drove down to PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) and just the feeling of the ocean breeze and the palm trees, I thought this is right where I want to be. On the most recent trip, I was cruising down the coast and I was listening to Slo Mo. I’m looking for something, searching for the unknown. One trip I was in a 911 Porsche, that time I was in some Mercedes looking thing…they’re all convertible, but my all-time dream car is a Lamborghini.
Who did you collaborate with on this project?
It was produced by Sean Giovanni (Big & Rich). I met him through a mutual friend and magic happened from day one. I knew that he would understand my mindset and my direction. We did all the vocals at his studio. The one-on-one time, me and him, getting the vocal delivery, that was a special time. I envisioned every word, every place I was describing in my songs, I caught myself in the vocal booth really believing when I was in the moment. I really felt like I was there.
I would catch myself, like when you’re travelling and you wake up and think, ‘am I in a hotel, or am I at home?’ That’s how real it was.
How did the whole recording come together? Were the songs written over a short period, or have you been collecting them for a while?
This is my first album. It doesn’t resonate until you’re out there playing it in front of people, and that’s something that I’m so excited about. Going out there and kicking ass, you know? Leaving them wanting more. But I believe every word. I’m so hard-headed when it comes to things I want to say and do. You gotta check the publishing to know, but the ones I have my name on, believe me, I’m living that, every day.
All the songs have been accumulated throughout similar periods. I’d say the oldest one was probably a solo write of mine called, Damn Babe.
Do you generally work with co-writers, or prefer working on your own?
Right now, we’ve been plugging this brand-new album and I haven’t had any sit-down writes since. But, I’ve been working on my own. We’re always working and I’m always collecting ideas…I’ve had it (inspiration) happen to me in so many different ways, but it’s an emotion. It’s very emotional. I don’t mind to get a little teary-eyed every now and then, but I’m thick-skinned, too. West Coast, that is where my heart is and this album depicts that very well.
What do you want fans to know about Denny Strickland?
That I’m taking you on a journey that’s not ending any time soon. And it’s magic. I’m casting a spell.
What’s your long-term goal and plan for taking your music to the next level?
Being competitive. I feel like I can put my show up against anybody. I believe in every note, every word. I’m casting a spell here, I’m grabbing them and taking them to a place with my words. I’m describing a real place here and I think that’s what really defines me as an artist and separates me from the pack.
Tell me about your connection to Johnny Cash’s bass player, Marshall Grant, and how did having him as a mentor, help you?
It was another horse connection, we all had horses. Dad told me to go and give him my demo. Marshall listened to what I had and told me that it absolutely knocked him out. He called his wife over to listen, too.
Marshall was a great mentor, he passed away in 2011 and I keep all his secrets under my hat and apply them when needed. When I was younger, and just getting my feet wet, he encouraged me to try everything. We had conversations anywhere from the traditionals to Black Eyed Peas. He kept my mind open and made sure I saw everything, in all genres. Because Johnny was so open to every genre and everything that was magical, that was wonderful, that was touching. We did a big show in my hometown to over 7000 people, it was a benefit to raise money for Johnny Cash’s home in Dyess, Arkansas. Me and Johnny were both Arkansas natives, and Marshall introduced me to a lot of great acts at that show, Kris Kristofferson being one. Marshall made me aware of everything. I have a great respect for the legends, and I love to talk about the legends, and I love to talk about the new things. I love to talk about what drives, inspires artists, because I know what inspires me.
What does inspire you?
Technology. In the studio to be exact. We are an ever-changing species, we need to use the tools that we’re working towards, to make life easier and interesting.
What’s next? Will you be touring this album right away?
I plan on going on tour, and I want to very badly. It is finding the right accompaniment, the right other artist to pair up with, because when I go out there, you hold on because I’m going to take you all the way. So, whoever wants to pair up with me better be ready, because I’m going to go out there and kill it. We’ve been with a lot of greats and it’s magical. I’ve done some charity work with 3 Doors Down, and Jamey Johnson was a part of that show.
The next step is finding a big tour. Finding someone that I can trust, because my album is my kid, and I don’t want to give my kid to anybody. Somebody told me that’s what Lionel Richie would use as an example, “my songs are my children”.
Denny Strickland’s album California Dreamin’ is out now. Watch the video for We Don’t Sleep below: