Southern by the Grace of God by Bill Thames
More than anything else, Danny Brooks is spiritual, but Danny Brooks is soul, too, and deep South gospel tinged with haunting blues. And if you listen close enough you’ll even hear a touch of raw, chilling, Ralph Stanley style mountain music, too. In addition, Danny Brooks could easily be the most sincere man in show business today simply because he has discovered the key to touching his audience’s heart, and there is no smoke and mirrors involved.
His strength is his simplicity and sincerity, the power of which comes from his ability to inspire belief, and to compel every member of his audience to believe that he is singing to him or her alone. Brooks is, according to friend and producer, Johnny Sandlin, “The genuine article,” and his authenticity comes from a deep well of conviction and purity that most singer/songwriters can only pretend to understand—and pretend to convey.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Brooks began his musical odyssey by watching his hero’s from the balcony of the Colonial Tavern in Toronto. After a showdown with his father, and leaving home at fifteen, Brooks moved into a “wee tenement house” around the corner from the Colonial Tavern. The management allowed Brooks to watch Taj Majal, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and many more blues legends from the upper balcony—just so long as he promised not to drink.
“I saw all the blues greats when I was only fifteen,” Brooks remembers, “and that was a major influence in the blues end of my music.” Brooks also looked south from that upper balcony, to Macon, GA and the Allman Brothers for inspiration during his early days. “I really loved the Allman Brothers,” Brooks recalls, “and I think some of their points of reference, who inspired them, would be similar in some regard to mine—I liked that old school country, soul, and blues right from a young age.”
Brooks’ family attended a predominately white church “with a black attitude,” while he was growing up in Toronto, where he was encouraged musically by a lady at church that was the pianist. She took him under her wing and allowed Brooks to bring his guitar to church where she would teach, and encourage him.
Years later, as Brooks battled personal demons, and successfully clawed his way back from a deep spiral of alcohol and drug abuse, much of his strength and conviction came from that early church upbringing. It would be hard to listen to anything that Brooks has written, or talk to the man himself, without concluding that he has a strong faith, and an unshakable belief system. Today, his faith and his family are the foundation and inspiration for Brooks’ life and music, and there is a tiny glimmer of redemption in every one of his songs.
Hearing Brooks play, it is obvious that he can easily take his band to the Sunday morning service at the Ebineezer Baptist church, and then take the same band and the very same set list down to the local blues hall, and rock the very foundation. The term crossover is terribly overworked and does not accurately describe the universal attraction of Brooks’ music—for him it is a way of life; like two roads that wind around the same mountain, coming to an end at the same place.
Armed with a powerful new CD, No Easy Way Out, that was engineered and produced by legendary Capricorn producer Johnny Sandlin, and backed by the most renowned musicians in Muscle Shoals; Brooks is ready to take his show on the road. No Easy Way Out is an intimate look into Brooks’ life. The feeling exists in this CD that Brooks is giving us an emotional autobiography in every song he sings—singing himself into his music, and the material of his songs is the material of his life. The CD is musically steeped in the spirit of classic Memphis soul, but it is lyrically up-to-the-minute, featuring Brooks’ powerful, emotional vocals over a blistering band with horns punching in at all the right places. No Easy Way Out is a tour-de-force of rock, soul and blues. The list of musicians that Sandlin called in for No Easy Way Out reads like the charter members club of the Muscle Shoals Musicians Union—David Hood on bass, Spooner Oldham and Kevin McKendrie on keyboards, Scott Boyer, James Pennebaker, and Kelvin Holly on a multitude of guitars, Bill Stewart and Roger Hawkins on drums, and the lady herself, Bonnie Bramlett on duet and backing vocals, along with Tina Swindell. The nucleus of this amazing backing band goes by the name, The Decoys, and Sandlin was a founding member.
Highlights of the CD are almost too numerous to mention, but include the sullen, but driving pulse of the title song, “No Easy Way Out” a beautiful, but painful description of broken relationships and the bruised lives that epitomizes Brooks’ sense of flying on borrowed wings. “Ain’t That The Truth” recants Brooks’ musical baptism, and spins a narrative account of his early hero’s passionate, energetic live performances. “Miracles For Breakfast” and “Keys To My Heart” wrap around the listener with familiar, soulful ease, and at the end of the day, there’s nothing more comforting. In “Bama Bound” Brooks communicates an astonishingly genuine homesickness for the south, with it feeling lyrically like an itch that needs scratching.
The overall texture of Brooks’ CD is gritty and driving, blending Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Delta and Appalachia, gospel and hillbilly. Brooks’ persuasive, broad-shouldered voice weaves together the varied material—and he delivers what he promises.
Brooks is anxiously putting together the final pieces of the big music business puzzle. However, a few of those final puzzle pieces have eluded Brooks for years. “I’m still ‘Danny Who?’ to a lot of people,” joked Brooks, “so it is hard to accurately convey the importance of working with a group of musicians like the ones that recorded my CD, or having Johnny Sandlin and Carl Weaver in your corner. It gives me instant credibility, as an unknown person, and it is an incredible selling point. Hopefully, with this new credibility, I’ll be able to nail down a really solid booking agency.”
For a multitude of reasons, securing the right booking agency can be an enormous help to any musician’s career. Obviously, the right agency can help to fast-track Brooks’ career, and book him into premium clubs and venues, but there is another, not so obvious reason that a Canadian citizen needs a top shelf agency. Because Brooks is a Canadian citizen coming into the U.S. to work, he will need proper papers, and the larger booking agencies have in-house people that can deal with the mountains of INS paperwork, and help streamline the visa process.
“Without proper papers, a Canadian musician working in the U.S. illegally can be banished for five years,” explained Brooks.
That would be a devastating blow to his career at this point in time. The level of frustration for Brooks is unimaginable, knowing that a great record has been made, and in a few weeks time, legalities would make it impossible for him to come into the U.S. to perform. To properly promote his record, Brooks feels that he must be living in the U.S. “I can’t be an absentee landlord, in a sense. I need to be down there in the south where that music can break out of—because my music belongs there.”
While waiting to unearth the final pieces of his music puzzle, Brooks is living on the Niagara Escarpement, forty-five miles west of Toronto in the small rural town of Milton with his wife, Debra, and daughter, Caitlin. Living in a farmhouse in the country has been a blessing according to Brooks because his writing has picked-up, and the beauty of the Canadian wilderness has set a watermark for the family’s imminent move south.
“We’re hoping to move south next year,” said Brooks “I want to have all my ducks in order so that the move will be a fair chance for all of us. The main thing is to move my career to the next level. With some hard work, the new recording, and a book coming out the first of next year, I think that we’ll be heading south.”
Brooks has drawn a circle around Nashville, TN with a radius of an hour and a half drive, and he would be happy living anywhere in that circle. “Nashville’s a songwriting town and I am sure that is going to play a part in it, but I’m also looking at either northern Alabama, or southern Tennessee.”
Brooks also likes the Muscle Shoals area with its great musicians, as well as Decatur, and Gadsden with Johnny Sandlin, and Carl Weaver’s Rockin’ Camel label becoming a modern day Capricorn Records. “They have Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie, the Capricorn Rhythm Section, Cowboy, and Bonnie Bramlett who is currently doing a record with Johnny,” said Brooks, “so they are doing a pretty good job of reviving the spirit of Capricorn Records.”
According to Brooks it takes an irritated oyster to produce a pearl, and over the years that irritation has allowed him to come up with the songs and music that have led him to No Easy Way Out. There is a place in the U.S. for Danny Brooks and his music, and it is here in the south, where audiences will appreciate and understand his unique perspective. When Brooks finds that last piece to the puzzle, and turns it over, it’ll most likely read, “Sometimes you have to hang your hat a long way from home, Lord Halleluiah, I’m Bama Bound!”
Photos by Bill Thames