If there is one thing that is evident after listening to just one Wesley Dennis song, it is that he is “Country to the Core.”
And while that path never led Dennis to superstardom, his unwavering support of traditional country music has made him a star amongst the next generation of traditional fans and artists.
Though never achieving Top 40 status, Dennis saw himself sharing stages with Alan Jackson and Lorrie Morgan, and working with multi-platinum producer Keith Stegall to produce his critically acclaimed debut album, released on Mercury Records in 1995.
But before he was playing to crowds of nearly 10,000 people opening for Alan Jackson and gaining the recognition of the traditional country music community, Dennis was singing for his family and beginning a more than five-decade love of music.
“My mom swears that instead of speaking the first words out of my mouth, I sang them,” says Dennis. “I started playing guitar when I was three years-old. Nobody taught me anything on it, my mama says I just picked it up one day and started playing it. I knew right away that music is what I wanted to do.”
While absorbing artists like Charley Pride, George Jones and Keith Whitley, Dennis began carving his own path, writing his first song at age seven, which was published through BMI.
Though he took a job installing car windshields in Alabama, Dennis was constantly being drawn to Nashville’s country music scene, so much so that he began making trips to Music City, and eventually recorded a two-song demo, which would fall upon the ears of a man with a serious personal connection in Nashville.
“I was on my way back to Alabama, I stopped at a full-service BP station just south of Nashville, and I was playing ‘Lover’s Junk Pile,’ and the guy that was cleaning my windshield, I saw that he was listening,” says Dennis. “His eyebrows went up, and he asked, ‘Who’s that singing?’ And I told him it was me. He said, ‘That’s a good song, who wrote it?’ And I told him I did. He asked when I did it, and I told him I had just picked up the copies, and I had just made the demos that weekend.”
That man was Bob Stegall, whose son, Keith, had produced for Alan Jackson, Randy Travis and Tracy Byrd at the time.
“Bob said that he would play it for Keith, and that he might be interested in that song for Alan Jackson,” says Dennis. “He asked if I would be interested in having someone else cut it, and I said sure!”
However, Keith Stegall had much bigger plans than a cut on an Alan Jackson album.
“I came back home and I told everybody and all the guys at work,” says Dennis. “About a week and a half later, I got a call from a guy saying he was Keith Stegall. My exact words were, ‘Okay, which one of you assholes is this?’ I thought one of the guys I worked with or one of my friends was playing a trick on me. He said, ‘Excuse me? I promise you, this is not a joke.’”
Stegall invited Dennis to perform for himself and Carson Chamberlain. Dennis remembers the duo being “flabbergasted” after he performed ten of his songs, and immediately asking to cut a side session.
“We went in the studio and did 8 sides the next week. Two weeks later, Keith called me and said that Mercury Records was a new label in town, and they had just hired him as vice president of A&R, and he asked if I would like to be signed to the label,” says Dennis. “I said, ‘Just put a pen in my hand.’”
Soon after the ink dried, Dennis went from installing windshields full-time to opening shows for Alan Jackson, which set into motion a whirlwind of events for the Alabama native.
“I had to repeatedly just take a step back, close my eyes, and say, ‘This is really happening,’” says Dennis. “The largest crowd I had ever played for was about 300 people. My first show with Alan was in Springfield, Illinois in front of 8,700 people. I had a big 8-piece band, the whole 9 yards.”
However, the almost instant change came with an adjustment period.
“It was a whirlwind,” says Dennis. “I remember putting those windshields in during summertime, you’d pick a windshield up to set it into the frame of a car, and it would literally blister your hands. I was always getting cut, always getting glass in my fingers or my hands, so it was definitely a big change.”
The changes kept coming as Dennis’s first single, “I Don’t Know (But I’ve Been Told)” was released to radio in early 1995. Dennis recalls being shaken after hearing the song on the radio for the first time.
“You hear stories of people being in their car when they hear their song on the radio for the first time, that’s what happened with me,” says Dennis. “I had to pull off of the road and just listen. I actually cried.”
After Mercury Records released his self-titled debut album in March of 1995, the label released two more singles, “Don’t Make Me Feel at Home,” which peaked at number 51 on Billboard, and “Who’s Counting,” which peaked at number 58.
Looking back, Dennis now knows how his first single was chosen, and believes there were missed opportunities with two other songs on the album.
“My manager told me they were putting ‘I Don’t Know (But I’ve Been Told)’ out there as a sacrificial lamb,” says Dennis. “I didn’t understand that at the time, but I eventually realized that they were just going to throw the song out there and see if it sticks.”
However, Dennis was receiving input from country radio about a different song.
“Everywhere I went at radio, all the DJs and program directors and music directors, they would say to give them ‘In the Middle of a Little Love,’” says Dennis. “They said that people were loving that song and that it would go straight to number one in no time. They never released it. That and ‘It Ain’t Fair.’”
Dennis came to realize that being the first artist signed to Mercury Records came with certain disadvantages.
“I was new to the business, and even though they were my songs that they were putting out, I didn’t have a whole lot of say in it,” says Dennis. “It just wound up that I was the first artist they signed to the label, and I was kind of an experiment.”
That experiment ended when Keith Stegall told Dennis that Mercury Records decided not to record another album, a moment which Dennis labels as the low point in his career.
“When I lost that deal, I cried,” says Dennis. “It really saddened me because it felt like a part of my life that was dying, and that part meant so much to me.”
Soon after, Dennis began the search for a new label. That search led him to Benny Brown, owner of Legends Studios in Nashville, who would soon form Broken Bow Records.
“We cut a CD at Legends Studios called “A Little Bit of Love,” says Dennis. “It was never to be released, it was going to be used to get another record deal. Then Benny started Broken Bow Records, and I signed with them.”
However, this promising moment would lead to more disappointment.
“I honestly don’t know what happened,” says Dennis. “I called them up one day and said I was ready to get in the studio and get things rolling. They said I no longer had a record deal.”
"Civil War" from the unreleased "A Little Bit of Love" album
Though bruised, Dennis remained unbeaten, recording a new album, “Country to the Core,” in the late 90s, and signing with Millennium Records. However, Dennis read the third chapter to the same story, with the label shutting down before the album’s release.
“They had around a thousand copies of that album pressed, and they were getting ready to ship them to radio stations all over the world, but the label closed before any of the CDs got shipped out,” says Dennis. “It was a ‘well, here we go again,’ moment.”
"How Do I Talk to An Angel" from "Country to the Core"
Though present on stages and in clubs, Dennis remained absent from the recording studio for 13 years following the closure of Millennium Records, though constantly feeling an urge to release new music “every waking moment of every day.”
That moment was finally awarded to him in 2012, when a Canadian record label signed Dennis and released the critically acclaimed album “Country Enough.”
That cathartic moment was followed by another, when former Millennium Records owner, Doc Livingstone, contacted Dennis a few years later.
“I was scheduled to do a show in Illinois, Doc told me that he had been cleaning out his garage and found something that I might want. It was the rest of the ‘Country to the Core’ CDs,” says Dennis. “We met Doc and his wife, and he said that I needed to sell them. He said to make some money off of them, because I was due something from it.”
After making “Country to the Core” available in 2017, Dennis has plans to release new material in 2019, with a new army of fans behind him; the next generation of traditional country music fans and artists, who Dennis welcomes with open arms.
“There’s not a greater feeling in the world than knowing that your peers like and appreciate what you’re doing,” says Dennis. “I have kids contacting me all the time saying how much they love my music, and it’s it a great feeling. It makes me know that once this ol’ boy has done his time on this earth, there are people who are going to keep it going.”
And though he has taken his fair share of punches from the music industry, Dennis still cherishes the relationship he has with music.
“Music soothes the soul, and there’s nothing that was any truer than that for me,” says Dennis. “Even way before the record deal, music has gotten me through some rough times. It’s like therapy. With everything that has happened, the highs and the lows, something that’s always stayed true is the music.”
Dennis’s staying power in music may come from staying true to himself as well.
“I’ve stayed real. I’m true to the roots of country music,” says Dennis. “If you see me up on a stage singing, you know I’m singing from the heart.”
And after the roller coaster ride of the music industry, Dennis is grateful for the platform he has been given.
“I don’t have to have a bunch of number ones,” says Dennis. “People know who Wesley Dennis is, and they know that I’m a traditional country singer, and they know that I will always be a traditional country singer, and that’s okay with me.”