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Column from web archive November 19, 2008

Danny Epps

Danny Epps, gone but not forgotten

I can’t for the life of me remember how Danny Epps’ self-titled debut album came into my possession, only that I played it constantly after its 1972 release on Columbia Records. I wasn’t getting reviewers’ copies yet, there’s nothing on the jacket to indicate I bought it used (there’s no way I would have bought it new), and I can’t fathom who would have gifted me with an LP by an unknown Texas singer – one who, in spite of being signed to the majorest of labels, never did become “known.” It was one album and out for Danny boy, who quickly dropped out of sight.

I can’t tell you either exactly why, after all these years, I dug the record out of storage, re-connected my turntable, and listened to “Stillwater, Sad Song”, “Houston’s Got Everything (But Me)”, and the rest of the album for the first time in at least twenty years. Possibly it had something to do with Hayes Carll, whose recent release Trouble In Mind I’ve been playing a lot in the wake of his recent performance in Chicago. Like Epps, Carll is a native of Houston. Just as Epps did, this laconic artist has drawn comparisons to Townes Van Zandt (one of the names Mickey Newbury drops in his brief liner notes on the back of Epps’ album). And like Epps’ LP, Trouble in Mind, issued this past April by Lost Highway, is a major-label debut.

But the truth behind my rediscovering and writing about Epps’ album – which no one I know remembers, much less owns – lies closer to its status as one of those unexplainable and even indefensible lost causes we music junkies adopt at one time or another. Through a mysterious process, such albums seem to choose us more than we choose them. And who’s to resist that kind of attraction? If we spent our entire lives becoming attached only to those albums we’re supposed to get excited about, where would that leave us? Stuck in a room with Sleater-Kinney, that’s where. Which may be better than being stuck with Denim, a band with, wouldn’t you know it, Houston origins, whose 1977 Epic album I loved for a while. But you get my drift: It’s the personal, offbeat choices that define us as listeners more than the easy consensus picks.

Epps’ album, which was recorded in Nashville with session all-stars including Kenny Buttrey, David Briggs and Pete Drake, sounds better to me three decades later than I thought it would. His plainspoken, marginally inflected vocals, reminiscent of Billy Joe Shaver’s, have an appealing directness. Epps, who enjoyed some success as a songwriter in Nashville (and played harmonica on Bobby Bare’s Lullabys, Legends And Lies album), could write some good, teary hooks. And if his record now strikes me as one of the more self-pitying – when it’s not self-lacerating – recordings of the confessional singer-songwriter era, its pained emotion is hard to shrug off. True to the album cover, which envisions Epps’ face as cracked concrete over a white traffic arrow (ironically pointing up), he’s a human highway wreck at which you can’t stop gaping.

The album’s desolate opening line sets the tone: “Lyin’ in an open field/Body shaking with the mornin’ chill/I come a long way in these few years.” Commuting between bouts with the bottle and romantic letdowns, Epps comes across as a nowhere man looking for somewhere to ease his hurts. “Houston has everything/From millionaires to baseball teams/And neon lights that shine upon its streets,” he sings, having escaped to Memphis. “Houston’s got my shattered pride/It’s got my babe and that is why/Houston has everything but me.”

For all I know, the surge of nostalgia I’m experiencing with Danny Epps is the sort of thing that happens all the time to young computerheads who stumble over old downloads buried deep in their hard drives. YouTube users have instant access to all manner of lost causes and odd attractions to call their own.

But these younguns will never know what it was like to invest emotionally, as well as financially, in these things called albums, to hold that black vinyl in their hands for the first time wondering what kind of bang for their buck they would get when they put it on. And they certainly won’t have the LP jackets to return to for the clever cover art and written commentary. Newbury’s prayerful notes are worth quoting in their entirety:

“Danny Epps, another Texas songwriter from the mold of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Dennis Linde and Gene Thomas. Danny learned in a few short months what some equally talented writers never learn: in order to write you must eat, in order to eat you must work, and while some people will give you a hand, no one will give you a handout. The release of this album will hopefully cut the number of Danny’s odd jobs down to two, a singer and a songwriter.”

Alas, Epps, a Vietnam veteran, ended up dropping out of music for more than fifteen years to work in construction, according to Wikipedia. He returned to Houston in 1999, released an indie album titled Rumors Of The Truth in 2005, and passed away in obscurity a little more than a year ago.

I was tempted to download Rumors Of The Truth from Amazon; with titles such as “Desperate Moves”, “Tears From The Heart”, “Lowdown Friends” and “It’s Over”, it would seem to occupy the same downbeat landscape as Epps’ debut album. But at least for the moment, I don’t want to mess with the process by which his 1972 monument has outlasted so many more noteworthy recordings from that year – in my head, and to my great surprise, on my turntable.

“Houston Has Everything (But Me)” by Danny Epps

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