I had heard about Denny Cluck long before I met him. A dear friend of mine was a member of a weekly drum circle, which met at his home. Denny lives all tucked back into a narrow ridge along the North side of Clinch Mountain. Before I met him, I assumed he was a “hipster” transplant from Sedona Arizona, or perhaps a hold-over from the “Back to the Land” days of the 1960’s. But, true to form for most of these kinds of assumptions, I was wrong. Denny is not from some New Age mecca, and he’s not quite old enough to have come along with the waves of communal living folks that sought shelter in our East Tennessee mountains during the sixties and early seventies. Nope--Denny Cluck is his own man, living life on his own terms, and sharing the humble wisdom he has gained from a simple life amongst, and intertwined with, the natural world.
Denny Cluck is an artist and crafter, a naturalist, a musician, and songwriter. He was born in Pennsylvania, in southeastern Amish country. Denny is a very handsome and vibrant sixty-one with clear-blue, smiling eyes. He makes boomerangs and “Singing Bowls’, and he hand paints ladies shoes with a fine eye for folk-art flair. He lives in a delightful, handmade home with a large, fully-grown, and living tree incorporated into the center of the living space. A round structure, Denny’s home rises in a series of circular ramps to an impressive height complete with two stories of space. His home is filled with images associated with Eastern philosophy, Native American spiritual iconography, and the many healing traditions from around the world.
In the spring and summer, native trumpet vine streams down the sides of the walls like an orange waterfall full of sweeping and diving hummingbirds. There is a large teepee, with simple decoration, on the property, as well as a sweat lodge, which he built with friends. Honestly, I think Denny may be an escapee from another dimension, or maybe a Lord of the Rings novel. He seems less modern, more like a wizard or mage, or perhaps a shaman. But, he would never agree to such easy, over-used, and ultimately inadequate labels such as these. But, whatever Denny is, I can tell you that he is a man full of magic.
In discussions with my dear friend, who introduced Denny and I, and with others who flock to his Saturday night drum circle, Denny is a teacher, friend, and their trusted leader. He sets a fierce pace on the drum each week, which entrances, energizes, and heals. He is consistently described as a “teacher-by-living-example”, which in my opinion, is a prized and especially rare methodology. As such, Denny lives authentically, abides by his values even when doing so brings discomfort, and seems to approach life from a compassion-first perspective. By his friends, he is seen as a light, which draws you in and keeps you close.
Like most interesting and complex people, Denny is not an easy interview. As I talk to him, we start with some basics. Denny started playing guitar at age 5 and is entirely self-taught. When I ask him about formal training, he jokes, “I’m still waiting to be taught”. Asking Denny to choose his major musical influences is like asking Winnie-The-Pooh to choose a favorite honey—he simply can’t. There are too many, and there is too much feeling to sift through.
From Denny’s perspective, he just loves music—all music. He especially loves the power music has to heal, uplift, and connect with people. As he describes his early musical experiences, it becomes abundantly clear that Denny values music beyond any aesthetics of melody and beyond any popularity or cultural relevancy of lyrics. He loves music beyond the technical challenge it offers an eager learner like himself. For Denny, there is something more to music than most of us fully understand or appreciate.
When he finally gets over the initial enthusiasm, Denny does offer that musician Bruce Cockburn is a major and early influence. Cockburn is best known for his participation in some of the most iconic music events of the 1960’s—like opening for Jimi Hendrix and Cream. He also headlined the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1969 as a solo artist. Cockburn is also known as an avid environmentalist and political activist. With this in mind and a few of Denny’s performances under my belt, it is easy to see why Denny would be drawn to Cockburn’s work—they share many of the same values and folk stylings. Currently, Denny says he is in a Van Morrison phase. However, either of these musical mentors are great picks for a guy with an easy disposition and something to say.
Denny made his public-performance debut at Rose Center’s 2019 Tennessee Songwriter’s Week: Pickers and Pros concert this past February. After hearing him that night, and seeing him since then, it is hard to fathom that he has kept this talent hidden away for so long. I ask him about his decision to perform publicly, and he answers this way, “You know, for eleven months before the Tennessee Songwriter’s Concert, my guitar had sad silent. I had put it down. I did not even touch it in all that time. It was weird for me. I mean, since I was five years old, I had played guitar nearly every day of my life, and then I just stopped.”
I ask him what that period of silence was like. Denny said, “It felt like I was waiting for something, but for what I have no idea, even now.” He chuckles at the ongoing mystery of musical process, then adds, “But, then you asked me to play, and I said yes. I thought I better write a song or two or three, and I just started writing.”
The wait and the silence were over, and the flood of material had only just begun. In just two weeks in the darkness of the February winter, Denny crafted enough songs to cover the time allotted to him for the concert. Denny says that the Tennessee Songwriter’s concert is the night he caught the bug—the performance bug. Since that show, the songs have kept coming and Denny has been adding performances to his resume. Now, Denny has enough material for an entire show on his own, and when he asked if he could return to Rose Center, I jumped at the chance to book him for 2020.
So, coming in January, Morristown music lovers will have a chance for a little magic, a chance to catch a glimpse at a force of and advocate for nature. In terms of musical performance, at sixty-one, Denny is a late bloomer. But, you know what they say about late blooms—“…when they open, they are often the most beautiful blooms of all.”
Rose Center Council for the Arts will present a Java Jive concert featuring Denny Cluck on January 10th at 7 PM. The concert is free and open to the public. Guests are invited to bring food and their favorite adult beverages. Rose Center’s Java Jive concert series is generously supported by a grant from the East Tennessee Foundation.