The Making of an American Rock Musician
The Making of an American Rock Musician
Andrew Scott Denlinger
As told to Cliff Williams
As told to Cliff Williams
“I love moments when I and my listeners are connected. These energize me.”
Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Andrew Denlinger on June 1, 2023. Andrew creates and performs American Rock, which includes classic rock, alternative rock, country, and alternative blues. He has a steady schedule of solo and full-band shows throughout the Midwest. His latest single, “Things I Should Have Said” (at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A02Z-7R1owA), incorporates blues, gospel-like organ, and lyrics that speak about heartache, love, friendship, and death. His Web site is at www.andrewscottdenlinger.com. He was thirty-nine when we talked.
Music was deeply part of Andrew’s life from the time he was very young. “My mom played viola in an orchestra, which I listened to when I went with her to rehearsals. My dad was pastor of a small church, and he was the piano player for evening services. My two sisters were accomplished piano players.
“At my aunt and uncle’s, on holidays, we sang hymns and old standards. In church, I learned harmony from my mom, who showed me the different parts in the songs we sang. I sang the alto line with her. My family told me that I could sing on pitch by the time I was two.
“When I was four or five, my parents started me on violin and piano lessons. I practiced one instrument one day and the other instrument the next. I was a very excited kid, so I had a lot of fun with them.”
When Andrew was seven, his exposure to rock and roll music provoked tension between him and his parents. “Before that time, I listened to everything my parents and sisters listened to. We went to a fundamentalist Bible church, and everything we did fit into a very conservative mold, including the music we listened to: a lot of classical, religious, and southern gospel music—the Gaithers and the Cathedrals. Rock and roll and pop music felt very ‘off the table.’
“Both my sisters were in college by the time I was seven, in second grade, and they were making their own choices without interference from our parents. One of them had DC Talk’s ‘Free At Last’ album, and though ‘Christian,’ their mix of rap, hip-hop, rock music was exactly the type of music I was not allowed to listen to. I got my hands on her cassette, and I was immediately drawn to the lyrics and style of those songs.
“That started conversations between me and my parents. They thought that kind of music was wrong. My church thought it was wrong. I wanted to know why.
“In my third, fourth, and fifth grades, my parents and I went through the albums they believed were acceptable. Michael Smith’s ‘Go West Young Man’ may have gotten the ‘okay,’ but it was still pushing their boundary because of the lead guitar playing in it. It felt to me that making those sounds with that instrument was inherently wrong. But I loved it. Our intellectual disagreements became heated debates over time.
“My tastes continued to push my parents’ limits. I got a CD player when I was ten and a subscription at Columbia House Record Club. You could pay a penny and get a whole bunch of albums, then more month by month, by mail.
“The first CD I ever bought was at a Christian bookstore. It was an album by Carman, a contemporary Christian music singer, which was the most rocking thing I’d ever heard. I loved it because of its syncopated drumbeat. It sounded like the secular music I couldn’t listen to, except that it had a Christian message.
“By the time I got into my early teens, I had been exposed to a variety of music genres that didn’t fit well into my parents’ approved categories. I got into the hardcore music scene. One of the first album I listened to and connected with in that genre was by Klank, an American industrial-metal band. It was eye-opening for me because it was so dark. The singer, who is also called “Klank,” sang about childhood abuse, addiction, the struggle of life—about being a mess. I resonated with that as a young teenager. It articulated feelings I couldn’t always express. I specifically remember how uncomfortable the aggression in those songs made my dad feel.
“Hardcore vocals have a lot of rawness, which is always very emotional. The emotions need not be negative, though. I’ve been to hardcore shows and punk rock shows that have a very positive vibe. But they are always intense. Maybe ‘high intensity music’ is a good way to describe the hardcore genre. I took in so much ‘new’ music during that time. I felt, and still feel at times, that I had to catch up on everything I had not been exposed to. I listened to metal bands like Ozzy, Metallica, and Pantera and to rock and punk bands like The Offspring, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Bush.
“Over the years, the music I listened to included a lot of screaming. My parents didn’t understand screaming, so there was a big disconnect between them and it. Yes, screaming can be angry, and it can be dark. But it can also be positive. I feel like it is the ultimate expression of what you can do with your voice. It’s leaving nothing behind. It is beautiful, though not in a classical way. There’s not always a melody with screaming, but it always embodies strong passion.
“I absolutely loved music. I recorded stuff off the radio, my friends let me borrow their CD’s, and I started going to shows. The first big concert I went to was at a Christian rally with the Newsboys, a Christian pop rock band. I became a big fan of Audio Adrenaline and Living Sacrifice, Christian rock and metal bands, respectively.
“All of this was adding to the tension between me and my parents. And it was becoming more of a tension point within me as well, because I was still putting in a large amount of energy into playing classical violin and piano. Although I loved rock and roll, I was not playing it. The music I played was my parents’ music. I have come to love classical and gospel music now, but at the time it felt forced for me to play it.
“Also, in my early teens, I started getting extraordinarily intense stage fright. I hated recitals or performing at church. One time, about fifteen, I was to play a song on the piano from memory in church because I was to play it at a recital soon. About halfway through, I lost it. I tried to get to the end, but couldn’t. I vividly remember how horrible I felt about myself.
“I did not want to do any more performing. If you had asked me then about becoming a playing and paid musician when I grew up, I would not have wanted any part of it.”
This sentiment did not last long. “When I was a freshman in high school, my parents gave me a bass guitar for Christmas. The person at the guitar shop told my mom there needed to be more bass players in the world, because everybody was buying regular guitars but no one really knew how to play the bass.
“There was a spark in me from day one. I remember lying on the couch that Christmas break with the guitar on my chest, not even plugged in, feeling the vibrations as I picked out the notes of the songs I heard on a CD. Almost immediately I started writing songs, which I had never done before. I became the bassist in a metal band that I formed with three friends from school,, and I invited my parents to the first show we performed.
“When we got home, they sat me down and told me I was playing the music of the devil. I ran out of the house. I didn’t have anywhere to go, but I did not want to be in the house. Eventually I came back home, but our issues were not resolved.
“The band was invited to play a public show in the small town in Illinois where we lived. My dad told me that I couldn’t do it because he was a pastor in the town and what would people think?—‘He isn’t doing his job, raising his family right.’ I was glad, though, to have a deacon on the church board who stood up for me. We played outside, downtown, right next to the historical dome there and in front of an assisted care facility. The people in it were older than my parents, and they must have thought the band was crazy.
“That band lasted three months. After it disbanded, I quickly joined a pop rock band.”
Andrew went through other shifts when he was a senior in high school. “The music department must have seen some of the natural instincts I had for music. They gave me the opportunity to have a free period by myself in a room with a piano.
“The first things I played were three songs from church church that I knew—‘Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,’ ‘Bill and Gloria Gaither’s ‘There’s Something About That Name,’ and Keith Green’s ‘There Is a
Redeemer.’ The lyrics of the songs were where my faith was: they were simple and heartfelt.
“Up until this point, I had always played from sheet music, but I figured out how to play those three songs without reading the music for them. And from that point on, I played without sheet music nearly all the time. When I perform now, I want to be in the moment, fully present with my guitar and the audience, without something between me and them.
“Also, when I was alone in that room, I figured out how to play in different keys. I moved my hands around on the keyboard of the piano until I could play the songs in every key.
“One day, in the study hall during the previous period, I wrote out the lyrics for a song. It was about death and someone’s last moments with a dying person.
“Right after that period was over, I went into the room with the piano, grabbed my guitar, which I had put in there, and picked out a pretty guitar tune. During the next forty-five minutes, the song was done. It was a magical moment. It was one of those ‘songwriter’ moments that you almost feel as though someone else wrote the song and you were just the pen.
“The song stuck, both the lyrics and the music. Many years later, I recorded it and included it as the closer on a hard rock album, and I am honored to have sung it at two different funerals.”
Andrew had a scholarship for football in college plus a partial scholarship to play the violin in the college’s orchestra and to receive private lessons. “I loved my violin lessons, and I loved my teacher. The orchestra director’s passion for music and his openness deeply encouraged me. Because of a conflict between football and the music department, though, I had to stop playing in the orchestra. I put my violin away and didn’t touch it for years.
“I joined a band with some of the football players, where I was the lead singer and screamer. I stayed with that band for a time after graduating from college. We were great at creating music and dreaming about possibilities, but we didn’t know how to make connections or make money. Things ended up falling flat.
“After that band dissolved, I wrote music and sang for friends at house parties or around bonfires. When I was twenty-three, I got a job at a church as worship director. I played piano there and sang, plus played acoustic and electric guitar, and bass, when needed. It was there that I learned to play the drums, doing my best to fill in when our drummer couldn’t make it. I am still with that church, and my position at it has expanded to other creative roles.
“In 2009, three years after college, I stumbled into a large loft apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. One of the people who lived there had an incredible studio set up in the space and gave me a super cheap rate to record. I recorded fourteen songs with members from my previous band, but did not release the album until 2016. I had the ill-conceived notion that you had to gain momentum before you should release an album.
“As with the earlier band, I didn’t know how to make money. In some of the places I played, I get a cut of the door, but I was able to get my friends to come out to shows only so long. I did some shows for free and got paid very little for others. I was naïve, not knowing how to create interest in what I was doing.
“In 2013, I shut down the band I was in then, because we were just spinning our wheels. A year later, though, I got a call from a friend asking whether I wanted to be in a country band. I said I would.”
The band Andrew joined was run by country music artist, Nick Lynch. “For the next eight years, until 2022, I toured the country with that band, playing bass. At our height, we played about 150 shows a year. We toured the New England area, Louisiana, Colorado, and once were on a talk and entertainment television show, Windy City Live, in Chicago.
“We did a lot of covers. I used to look down on playing covers, but soon came to realize that good songs have worth no matter when or in what genre they are played—when all the intangibles are right, we players can be fully engaged with them, and listeners can connect with them in the moment.
“The biggest thing for me about touring was seeing how the business of making music was done. After a few years of creative silence, I started recording.”
Andrew started releasing singles. “In May of 2021, I released my first single, and in August of that year, a second one. This past February, in 2023, I released my fourth one. These are digital releases on all of the streaming services, including Spotify. It used to be that radio was the big place where people could hear music. But that has changed. Now it is playlists online.
“So I had to figure out how to get myself listed on various playlists, then be consistent about putting out new songs. I put out a lyric video for every song I released to let people know what I was singing about. I made my art visible in every space and place possible.
“I had waited for so long trying to find out how to bring listeners to my music. Eventually I learned the importance of bringing the music to the world. It was always going to be up to me to do the work.
“After eight years with the Nick Lynch Band, I started doing shows on my own. Last year, in 2022, I did about fifty solo shows and another ten with my band.”
Andrew’s shows, he says, are a way he shares his overall message. “My overall message is that people are loved. I end most of my shows saying, ‘Thank you very much for being here! My name is Andrew Scott Denlinger. Goodnight. I appreciate you. You are loved.’
“My songs talk about my journey, wrestling with my faith, my addictions, and my own mess. I also sing about what I see in others.”
Andrew’s parents are now proud of what he is doing. “They have come to understand that God works in genres they might not like and in different ways with different people. They would love for me to play violin more, but are excited that I am pursuing music.
“Recently I have made enough money to start a small business and support my family with the shows I have been doing. I would love to tour hard during summers but right now am mostly doing weekend shows throughout the Midwest, some solo and some with the full band, some in Illinois, where I live, and some elsewhere. As long as I’m not getting stagnant and I see the path climbing higher, I am not going to stop.
“What keeps me going is creating music. I love moments when I and my listeners are connected. These energize me. And over the years I’ve learned a few things: how to market, make a profit, and expand what I do. Plus, I like feedback from listeners, both in the live shows and through stories of how a song or recording has impacted them.
“I’ll tell you what I love about a song. When it encapsulates what I’m feeling, that’s great. When it says something I didn’t know I was feeling, that’s even better. And when a song carries me to a better place, whether it’s processing something from my past that allows me to live better now, or whether it gives me a vision for where I can be going, that, most of all, is a special thing.
“These are why I create and perform music. They motivate me both when I am playing in church and when I am playing in bars and restaurants, and clubs.”
© 2023 by Cliff Williams