By Kelly Dearmore
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"I could probably make a guess as to why," muses Freeman, doubtless alluding to Barton's well-known love for the bottle and other, less legal, distractions. "Since everyone had already quit their bands, we backed Lou Ann for a few months, but decided not to continue with that."
He got more mileage from the band sans Lou Ann. Continuing as the Heartbeats (with saxist Joe Sublett and drummer Doyle Bramhall), they played well-reviewed dates in and around Austin, and Freeman got lots of bread-and-butter gigs backing the blues stars who played at Antone's, the famed Austin blues club. He also played for the Antone's label, appearing on albums by Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli in 1987 and '88 respectively. He did two albums of his own--Blues Cruise and Out Of The Blue--for Amazing Records, both of which were reprised on a single Amazing CD, but all of them are hard to get since Amazing went belly-up.
In 1989 ailing family members necessitated Freeman's return to Dallas. While here, he was in the Doyle Bramhall Band, and while it was excellent, the guitarist felt he'd gone about as far as he could in Texas. One day he just packed his stuff in his '81 Cadillac and split for L.A.
"It didn't take long for me to start gigging out here," said Freeman from his North Hollywood home. "You can't make a living playing blues in clubs here any more than you can anywhere else, but it's a way to meet people and get exposure."
Juke Logan calls Freeman "the John Coltrane of guitar," a plaudit likely to come in handy, given Logan's ties to the TV industry. As for the Taj Mahal gig, it's a good one not only for the solvency it provides, but also because Taj--now teamed with producer John Porter (Buddy Guy, Otis Rush)--has been doing hard blues and R&B chestnuts like "Oo Poo Pah Do" and "Mr. Pitiful"; guitarists of Freeman's vintage love playing such soulful classics. Throw in the '94 tour with Vaughan, and Freeman had enough money to finance his self-produced CD.
A Tone For My Sins is that rare sort of album that's all over the place (guitar-wise) but still focused. Freeman plays some blues and some Crusaders-like funk, and tosses in a dab of psychedelia along with the kitchen sink, using the tactful but compelling guitar vocabulary he's crafted over the years. He shopped the tape around--he even got a lucrative offer from a big indie up East--but if there's one thing Freeman has not gotten better at over the years, it's waiting. When the eastern indie dithered, Freeman yanked his tape, got up from the table, and threw in his lot with Chuck Nevitt's Dallas Blues Society label.
"It's a smaller outfit, but there's no funny business, and no secret delays," says Freeman, speaking with the tone of one who knows funny business all too well but--thanks to his gutsy move to L.A.--has reason to believe that, at long last, he no longer has to put up with it.
Denny Freeman will be playing guitar with Taj Mahal when Mahal comes to Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams Tuesday, September 16.