Ronnie Dennis isn’t cool. Or at least that’s what he would say. But on a winding and sometimes solitary road, Dennis is searching for a place for himself in the music scene.
No stranger to the hectic schedules of gigging and rehearsing, Dennis was once part of the band Ninth Hour that enjoyed regional acclaim in Christian music circles. As that chapter of life came to a close nine years ago, the 35 year old Madison-Ridgeland native moved north — to New York City — in 2004 to work as a worship leader in a Manhattan church. It was there he met his biggest challenge: loneliness. It’s a hard city,” he says, “and really lonely if you don’t know anyone.” But that’s when the muse came calling. “I had never written songs before, but those first few months, being by myself, and wanting to meet a girl inspired me.” Dennis says he’s glad that happened. He’s also glad that period of life ended when he began meeting people, especially his wife Shaunti, a Los Angeles native. “I somehow talked her into moving back to the south with me six years ago.” The couple married one month before leaving NYC and has a four year old daughter and two year old son.
Once settled in southern style, Dennis believed his songwriting days were numbered. “I thought, ‘I have nothing left to write about’,” he says. “I figured ‘I’m done with songs’.” So he began crafting songs from the perspective of being left behind. “That’s never happened to me, but I’ve always been drawn to that subject.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, never being alone again finds its place in Dennis’ writing, too. “I love my wife and kids and that comes out in my lyrics.”
As worship leader for The Journey here in Fondren, Dennis found his day to day and source of income, but his creativity wasn’t flowing as he had expected. “For a year, I didn’t write,” he says. “I was in a funk.” Dennis tells us he and his wife went to Tanzania to work with a missionary friend. And the songs started pouring out again. “I wrote in Africa, and they just started to come.” When the couple returned, Dennis says they wrote a long term plan out in crayon on restaurant table paper. It was his plan to pursue a music career full time in Nashville. “I’m going to write twenty songs and I’m going to get in touch with Neilson (Hubbard — a Jackson native and his producer).” Hubbard had produced an ep for Dennis in 2009 but this new project, he says, would be more personal.
So far, he tells us, the plan is working. All except the finding jobs in music city and selling their house here part. “The last year, creatively at least, has been the best,” Dennis says. “It’s exciting to know I can write from a different place.” That place, according to him, is an earnest one. “I feel like I come from a real place. I’m not cool and I’m not trying to compare myself to anyone.”
But who is Ronnie Dennis? He says “I say singer-songwriter but I don’t know what that means. It’s definitely acoustic driven.” And that’s a place that has him feeling out of place. “For me, I don’t know where my fit is in the Jackson music scene.” Dennis says his craft is more about writing the song and not so much performing it. “Opportunities for that seem limited here. But that’s just me.” Dennis says he knows Nashville may be seen as a long shot by some. “I know tons of people move to Nashville, but the truth is, there are way more opportunities there. I don’t know if I have what it takes, but I want to work on it.”
In the meantime, Dennis will release a new project, Gone is the Day, on July 3. Produced by Hubbard (Trent Dabbs, Matthew Perryman Jones), the songs were mostly written at night while his family slept. He hopes it invokes feelings of familiarity. He says “I’d love for someone to (hear the CD and) say ‘that sounds like me’. You’re speaking from where I am. I’d like that.”
Hear Gone is the Day, live, with a CD release party at Duling Hall this Sunday night, July 8, at 7pm. Admission is $5 and proceeds benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Dennis’ son was diagnosed with the disease last October and he hopes this money will help in the fight to find a cure. Albums and tee shirts will be available.