By Mark Ambrogi
The tragic turn his uncle’s life took has long perplexed Jer Lile.
So Lile began a quest to learn why his uncle Denny died from complications of alcoholism at age 44 in 1995.
“My motivation was to fill in the pieces of the story that I didn’t have,” Lile said.
Lile said he had to know how Denny let it all slip away despite his singing and songwriting talents and a family that loved him.
“Like he did, I have a wife and daughter, and I can’t think of any kind of darkness that would keep me from them,” Lile said. “He was just sick. Whatever he couldn’t get past must have been really terrifying.”
Denny would drink one quart to one gallon of whiskey each day.
Lile, now a 40-year-old Zionsville resident and owner of de Lisle Guitar Company, said he had not seen his uncle in several years when he died. His father, Dwight, only had occasional contact with his brother.
Now Lile, who played in bands until he was 20, is hoping his uncle’s songs will reach a broader audience.
The self-titled album was released in 1972. Never properly promoted, the album languished in obscurity.
“It was a small independent label, and they didn’t back it. Denny had some issues with the guy (Ray Allen) who owned it,” Lile said.
Lile said his uncle, who lived in Louisville, Ky., went to court in the 1980s to get the rights to the music but wasn’t successful.
“He wouldn’t give him the tapes back, and he wouldn’t do anything with them either,” Lile said.
Finally, Allen sold the rights to Marvin Maxwell, who played drums on the album.
Denny’s music has come alive again, as his 1972 album has been reissued. The new release includes the 11 original songs and five previously unreleased songs found on Denny’s tapes. Lile also made a documentary on his uncle’s life to accompany it. “Hear the Bang: The Life & Music of Denny Lile” was released by Big Legal Mess Records in mid-October.
Lile’s friend, Justin Kinkel-Schuster, a singer for Water Liars, fell in love with Denny’s album and sent it to Bruce Watson, who owns Big Legal Mess and co-owns Fat Possum Records.
“Maybe in death he can do what he can’t do in life,” Dwight said.
The DVD includes Denny’s version of “Fallin’ Out,” a song Denny wrote that was recorded by Waylon Jennings. It reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in 1987.
“By that time, he was already in a hole he couldn’t get out of,” Lile said of his uncle’s alcohol problems. “He ended up being homeless, living out of his van that he bought from the royalties he got from the song.” He was eventually found dead in that van.
Lile worked on the documentary for nearly two years and was able to reconnect with Denny’s ex-wife and daughter, Michele. Denny’s alcoholism led to their divorce in 1989.
“They had lost touch with him, too, in the early ’90s,” Lile said. “He kind of pushed everyone away.”
Critics have compared his voice to Jim Croce, James Taylor and John Denver.
“It’s kind of a folk-country style or Americana they call it now,” Lile said. “He has a unique sound and quality to his voice. He was underexposed. He didn’t try to sell himself. He was like, ‘I want to play music, and if something happens, it happens,’ He wasn’t pushing for stardom.”
Lile, a 1993 Carmel High School graduate, said the album is being distributed nationally by Fat Possum.
“It’s the best shot he got,” Lile said. “Unfortunately, it’s 20 years too late.”
Dwight, who owns Zionsville Autosport, confessed he became emotional when viewing the documentary.
“Jer presented Dennis probably in his best light, and there was a big sense of loss of what might have been,” Dwight said. “The world lost a very talented musician. You can hear the soulfulness, the remorse, the pain.”
- Personal: Jer is short for Jerry. Lile and his wife, Val, have a 6-year-old daughter, Sophie. Named his shop, de Lisle Guitar Company, so it wouldn’t be confused with Lyle Guitars. Lile makes guitars, amplifiers, guitar pedals and does repairs.
- Favorite Denny Lile song: “If I Had My Way, It’d Rain.”
- On Denny’s album: “There are probably four albums I could listen to over and over again, and that’s one of them for me.” The others are the Black Crows’ “Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Water Liars’ “Wyoming.”