Denny Strickland draws from the well of real life for his long-anticipated debut album, “California Dreamin.’” It’s the most credible way to get his music across, notes the rising star who scored a popular hit this summer with “We Don’t Sleep.”
“For this album, I tried to write what I was experiencing at the time,” he says. “Everything I do is a real story or inspired by a place or a feeling. I think that’s what really shaped the album. People like it when you tell stories about your own life or about growing up.”
Strickland wrote six of the album’s 10 cuts, and most were actually inspired by the West Coast, even though he grew up in Jonesboro, Ark., not far from the Memphis area. As he says, “California was kind of the muse for this album.” He has a little family history with California, as his father grew up there after moving from the family’s Arkansas home base.
“My dad’s father was the one who brought the family out to California,” Strickland explains. “Work was slow and a lot of people went out to California to find a job. A lot of my family stayed out there and some went back to Arkansas, where I’m from. That was kind of a culture shock for my dad, moving back to Arkansas from California. He got to see a lot and he heard some great music out there.”
Between his father’s love for West Coast rock and his own exposure to country music, Strickland developed a diverse range of musical tastes. Those influences permeate “California Dreamin’,” from the title track to “We Don’t Sleep” and “Don’t You Wanna.” “My influences are all over the board,” he says with a smile. “Arkansas was kind of in the middle of everything so we listened to Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, along with the country stars. Alan Jackson was big out there and Garth Brooks also. Jonesboro is only about an hour from Memphis so I drew from some of that R&B tradition. I was just exposed to so much different music.”
Strickland’s backstory features an interesting connection with another Arkansas native, the legendary Johnny Cash. Marshall Grant, Cash’s former bass player, was actually Strickland’s first manager and helped him network inside the business. Oddly enough, their mutual love of horses and all things equestrian formed the initial bond between the two. Strickland grew up around horses, traveling with his parents to shows around the country.
He became a champion rider himself, which eventually led to his first meeting with Grant. While attending one particular horse show, Strickland remembers that his father pointed out Grant, who was also an accomplished horseman, in the crowd. Dad encouraged his son to hand Grant a demo tape of his music.
“We both had a love of horses, and that’s what really brought us together,” Strickland says. “Marshall told me that he liked what he heard. It’s kind of weird that I crossed paths with the bassist for Johnny Cash because he became my manager.” Grant taught young Strickland the insider rules of the music business and helped him develop relationships with Rosanne Cash, The Statler Brothers and other artists.
Upon Grant’s death in 2011, Strickland decided to move to Nashville and make a go of it on his own. “I started writing more after Marshall’s death,” Strickland says. “I did a lot of co-writing, which is the way you do it in Nashville. That helped me a lot. When you’re just starting out writing, your ability is not really there because it’s new to you. But you find the tools that you need.”
Now, riding the wave of the hot single “We Don’t Sleep,” he’s about to take his biggest career step with his debut album. Strickland admits that it’s proved a rockier road than he might have imagined, even with the knowledge that the music business can swallow one up rather quickly. “You prepare for everything, and you still get surprised every day,” Strickland candidly notes. “But you just have to be genuine. You have to know your craft and where you are in life. I just want to make sure the music is accessible. Let the album speak for itself and hope that it resonates.”
“California Dreamin’” is available now.