In a world of roots artists who can be self-effacing and self-critical, Ben DeBerry makes a refreshing observation. “I think we’ve made some great records,” he says. “And that was always the point. And now looking back, I'm really proud of that. You can see growth listening through them.” It can’t be bragging if it’s true. The Danberrys do indeed make great records. And the opportunity to make their latest came out of the blue at a critical time. But let’s back up.
The Danberrys, the band led by married duo Ben and Dorothy Daniel, have been East Nashville mainstays for a decade. Their first EP in 2011 and first album in 2013 came off like an especially enlightened fusion of Western hippie jazz, Deep South church house and Music City groove-grass. Topflight local pickers including fiddler Christian Sedelmyer, mandolinist Ethan Ballinger joined Ben’s skilled flatpicking to form the foundation. Dorothy’s warm honeyed voice surged with emotion, while her tambourine lent the band its signature jangle and propulsive syncopation. The couple’s harmonies are pristine and yearning. Listen back to “Rain In The Rock” or “Big Rig” from the debut LP for exquisitely-written, danceable acoustic Americana that stands up instrumentally and vocally with anything you might see on the main stage at Telluride or Merlefest.
The thing about stages though is that to make it in this particular lane, you basically have to be on as many of them as humanly possible, early and relentlessly, year-in, year-out, and that wasn’t quite in the cards for Ben and Dorothy. They slid somewhat obliquely into the band life as adults. They’ve maintained independent careers, he as an IT consultant and she as a CPA. And Dorothy battled disabling stage fright for years. Thus, we fans count them as beloved local artists who take national journeys rather than the national band with a local address that they might have been had things unfolded differently. “I think if we would have started when we were 23, (the road) would have been more of a thing. But by the time we started, we kind of had already established this life where we owned a house. And so it's kind of been a balance,” says Ben. “We didn't move here to play music. We moved here because Dorothy had a job here. And then we made a record. And oh, people like it! And so, we kind of came out of that.”
If talent and acclaim can’t always pay all of the bills, neither can they always sustain your love. Ben and Dorothy struggled in the mid 2010s, bailing on music for more than a year and nearly divorcing before throwing themselves fully into therapy. Yet when we sat down recently on their covered back porch during a gentle autumn rain, happy endings and beginnings were evident. The couple gracefully traded thoughts and smiles about their new album Shine, while their 17-month-old daughter Ollie played inside with a sitter. Dorothy offered a summary of what she calls “how we made it out of the weeds.”
“We had this great counselor,” she said. “I remember, he said, you know, you guys have got this awesome thing musically together. I've listened to it. You guys can break up and lose that and go your separate ways and find new people and work on your same issues and have the exact same experience that you're having right now with somebody else. Or you can decide to keep what you have right here and work through it together. And we just kind of had this moment where we just decided okay, well, he's right.”
Complexifying the marital dialogue was another factor. Dorothy had personally pursued years of multi-faceted therapy for a set of difficulties that manifested emotionally and physically, including overwhelming nerve pain and muscle atrophy in her arms. Through intensive analysis, it emerged in a terrible realization that she’d been assaulted as a child by a family member. “I was depressed and suicidal for no apparent reason, for my entire life,” she said in some of the press material released with the album. “People would always tell me how talented I was, and I truly did not believe them. I also had unexplained allergic reactions and anxiety attacks for most of my life. I understand now that I had PTSD.”
Just as things were healing, and as Ben and Dorothy were trying to figure out the next step of their musical lives, they got a fateful call from a fellow they’d never heard of named Brian Brinkerhoff, a Californian who has a history of investing individually in passion projects. He’d been tipped to the Danberrys by the festival promoter Hippie Jack, and Ben says it was the right idea at the right time with the right strings attached. “He basically is like, I want to make a record for you. And the rules are you have to co-write every song together.” That was new terrain, Ben says, because while they’ve both contributed songs and worked together to arrange and polish them, past co-writes didn’t really work very well. Now it was just what they needed, and it showed them something about their next chapter musically as well. Brinkerhoff had urged them to do a spare duo acoustic album. But “as we kept writing the songs, Dorothy's like, these are not duo songs,” Ben said. And at the same time, Brinkerhoff had let it be known he was close to drummer Marco Giovino, of whom Dorothy is a fan. As the project proceeded, it became clear Giovino would produce in his Boston studio.
As a past drummer for Buddy Miller and Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy, Giovino created one of the signature percussion soundscapes of modern Americana. It’s a loose, shambling feel characterized by shakers, world beat instruments and Native American overtones. That sensibility dovetailed perfectly with the overall trajectory of The Danberrys. After the neo-bluegrass of the first two recordings, the Give And Receive album of 2016 brought a more atmospheric and impressionistic tone, foregrounding Dorothy’s voice more than ever. Now on Shine, Ben’s guitar is mostly electric and Giovino’s beats are subtle but sturdy, like rebar hidden inside concrete. The strife of recent years evokes a melancholy undertone, but the songs celebrate forward motion and resilience.
“We've been through a lot,” Dorothy says. “And I think that comes through, especially on this album, because we were working through so much of it - or right at the end of the healing process. That was the goal. Let's write material that that gives people hope. We just really wanted to put something out there that that was going to help people move through dark things like we have.”
It is indeed hard to listen to Shine and the story behind it and not feel luminous.