Jamen DentonSummer’s here and with all the rain this season, the East Tennessee landscape is lush. Seems like there are more soggy days than sunny ones, but that’s not a bad thing is it?

Regular showers keep things fresh and fertile in the mountains and the smell of honeysuckle and wildflowers are hard to ignore driving the back roads.

The road to the Marker 2 Grill leads past Tri-Cities airport back into farm land before it ends at the banks of Boone Lake. It’s here I joined a small crowd recently to here Jamen Denton and Wise Old River. Jamen is an extraordinary local songwriter cultured here in the mountains of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

When it comes to being a good songwriter or poet, some say you’ve got to weather the storms of life. It’s a rite of passage and during these times many artists find their most creative verse.

It wasn’t long ago, Jamen and his band Virginia Ground were one of the most talked about acts on the local scene.

Together with his brother, Justin, they were appearing before large rowdy crowds all over the region. Country Music Television had featured their act on a documentary and it seemed they were on the verge of something great.

All of a sudden, the wheels seemed to get caught in the mud and rumors of disagreements, girlfriends, over-indulgence, relocation, frustration, false starts and other gossip seemed to indicate the band was finished.

At the heart of Virginia Ground was the voice and verse of Jamen Denton and although the band is history, I’ve stayed in touch with him on Myspace – hoping to see him resurface – because he’s got much more to give.

Recently, he sent me an invitation to join him with his parents in their new trio – Wise Old River.

His father James and mother Jeanie moved South several years ago and have always been great supporters of their son’s artistry. They currently live in Tazewell, VA and are working with their son as he returns to the music scene. They had rented a room at the La Quinta for the weekend and had scheduled two performances stating at The Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City and also appearing near my home at Marker 2 Grill on Boone Lake.

It was overcast and a bit damp when I arrived at this lakeside venue in Blountville. Jamen was walking toward the water during a break and I sat down at the bar for a basket of boiled shrimp and a Fat Tire.

Sitting across from the stage, I waited for the band to start the next set – hiding out in the shadows. As they began to play, you could tell there were fans out tonight despite the small crowd because they called out the songs one after another and sang along with the choruses.

I made my way to the front of the stage with cameras in hand and sat down to listen to Jamen as he played ‘Back for You’ – my favorite Virginia Ground song that highlights his distinctive soulful style.

Even though their music was often described in the style of Americana artists and most noticeably The Old Crow Medicine Show, I always appreciated Jamen’s songs because of the intensity of the lyric and the soulful/bluesy quality of his music.

“Back for You” is more in the spirit Sam Cooke and John Mayer than the typical country flavored songs you hear in most original venues in the Tri-Cities and it was sure a favorite of the small audience that gathered here tonight.

Jamen Denton performs at Marker 2 Grill from David Cate on Vimeo.

Jamen’s father played a Greek guitar called a bouzouki and a slide guitar which added a rich tone to his music and his mother Jeanie sang silky backup harmonies as the night’s set progressed.

This acoustic set of original Virgina Ground songs worked well tonight for this small crowd. The songs are naturally elegant and even though I miss the rowdiness of the full band – it’s still a treat to hear a great songwriter perform these songs with such passion and intimacy. Jamen seemed unmoved by the room too as he closed his eyes and sang with an intensity that was augmented by the sweat gushing from his brow and leaving a ring around his shirt in the humid night air.

There were a few cover songs that pleased the audience including a Stevie Ray standard, Ben Harper and most notably a version of Ryan Adam’s ‘My Winding Wheel” where Jamen proves his ability to turn his own inflection on another artist’s material.

It was clear through the night there were several new songs that have surfaced in Denton’s set list since I had seen him list. A library of new songs about love, despair and words about mountain life including the one of my new favorites ‘Down in the Valley of Crows.”

Jamen’s songs are supported by a natural pulse on an acoustic guitar, but his talent was best summed up by Sunny who runs Marker 2 Grill. She mentioned to me after the performance that Denton was “definitely possessed by the music” and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

“It’s been a real good year,” Jamen shared with me after the show.

He evidently had recently come through a mutual divorce, but lit up with a broad smile as he showed me a picture of his young son Noah.

Tonight, they were wrapping up their last show and heading back to Tazewell and although the crowd wasn’t what most musicians would be satisfied with– Jamen said he didn’t care – “he loves it and glad to play anytime and anywhere.”

Wise Old River is a new outlet for Jamen’s music and the comfort of his immediate family adds a reinforcement to his talent as he reconstructs his sound with new material and a new spirit. It’s hard to say where he’ll wind up next, but he’s got plenty of fans like me who will continue to support him and enjoy his poetry.

As one fan stated as they were packing their gear from tonight’s show – “as long as you keep playin‘ – we’ll keep coming back.”

I can live with too and I’m certain we’ve yet to hear the best from Jamen Denton.