Dennis J. Leise grows his own

Categories: Chicago Reader

His Indiana farm doesn’t just produce food—it’s also the wellspring for his smart, witty country and rockabilly tunes.

by Mark Guarino

July 1, 2021

Dennis J. Leise whistles a high note and a crowd of turkeys, roosters, chickens, and ducks explodes in shrieks, quacks, and clucks. A 250-pound boar named Hamilton grunts as Leise massages his snout. Rabbits snooze on the side porch. Goats box for position to lap up the dry corn he pours from his hand.

This might look like a Doctor Dolittle scene to musicians who have to google the difference between a pig and a hog, but Leise is right at home. The life he leads on the three and a half acres he owns in unincorporated Gary, Indiana, is an extension of his childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where he didn’t eat a store-bought chicken until he was a teenager and spent free hours working the farms of his extended family.

“It’s really the fortress of solitude,” he says of his homestead. “But how could anyone be bored by all this going on?”

For the past few years, Leise’s farm life has run in parallel with another life as a singer-songwriter. Now 46, he’s played guitar in country and bluegrass groups since he moved to Chicago 16 years ago, but he only started to record his own songs under his own name in 2016. That year he released an EP of originals called Once in a Black Moon, and three years later he put out a full-length called State of Fairs. The latter included his breakout song, “Nobody’s Comin’,” whose country-gospel ebullience and clever video have helped it rack up more than 65,000 YouTube views since its debut in December 2019. In the video, Leise plays a country preacher setting up a revival tent and waiting for the faithful, who never show up. Not since Robbie Fulks’s “God Isn’t Real” has atheism been expounded with such a loving touch.

Leise scheduled a release show for State of Fairs last spring at FitzGerald’s, but the pandemic shut it down. On Wednesday, July 14, he has a gig at the Montrose Saloon where he’ll play State of Fairs plus material from The World That You Grew Up in Is No More, an album he’s releasing in installments throughout 2021. The first three songs came out in May, and three more will follow on July 1; he’ll follow that up with two more batches before the end of the year.

For years Leise’s go-to backing musicians have been an ace crew that includes Brian Wilkie of the Hoyle Brothers and three members of the Flat Five: Casey McDonough, Scott Ligon, and Alex Hall (McDonough and Ligon also play together in NRBQ). He’s schooled in honky-tonk country, gospel, and blues, and he uses his songwriting to inject them with his own ideas about mortality, madness, and food. Leise’s baritone voice and heavily reverbed guitar could’ve made “Hurry Up and Die” sound like a Johnny Cash homage, but instead it wraps up its self-loathing in a sweet-sounding proposal. “Multiflora Rose” and “I Think About You Naked” are prime rockabilly and western swing. Other songs subvert genres to comment on them: “So Tired of Stormy Monday” lambasts tourist blues, and “Americana Music” does the same with Nashville pop country. On the intimate “I Only Do It ‘Cause I Have To,” Leise addresses the serious topic of depression without sounding morose or self-pitying.

“His humor is always present in the songs, but sometimes that’s not necessarily the point,” says McDonough. “His lyrics are always dead serious, even when they’re trying to get a laugh.”

Leise moved to the Chicago area in 1998 to take a job selling steel parts used in drywall construction for a company in Franklin Park. Music was mostly a weekend affair. While living in the western suburbs, he spent hours each week hanging out at Val’s Halla, the Oak Park record-retail institution where owner Val Camilletti created a clubhouse atmosphere for musicians and music lovers alike. Leise credits his time as a store regular with exposing him to alt-country singer-songwriters such as Robbie Fulks and David Mead, whose music inspired him to try writing songs. His main discovery was Chicago folk singer Steve Goodman, who was known for his storytelling, wizardly guitar picking, and energetic shows. “He played music from all sides of the tracks—blues, jazz, country,” Leise says. “He was an incredible songwriter who went for it every time.”

Leise met McDonough at a Joel Paterson show at FitzGerald’s, and in 2006 they formed the Possum Hollow Boys, a retro outfit that plays rockabilly, country, and blues. Their lone album, 2008’s Introducing, includes one Leise original; they continue to play as a band, and outside it the members are all regulars on the local Americana circuit. Around the same time Leise started that group, he was honing his chops at a Wednesday-night House of Blues residency, playing acoustic blues covers to diners. He also took a side job working the door at FitzGerald’s that doubled as helpful training in how to structure a show. But Leise insisted he was still only moonlighting. “I never really aspired to be a musician that played out anywhere—this was just therapy, born of loneliness and boredom,” he says.

McDonough says Leise exceeded his expectations. “I was impressed right away,” he recalls. “For a guy who didn’t claim to be really doing this seriously, he had no problem scuffing his way through songs he may not know. He was not hung up on genre or format, which has always been a big thing for me as well.”

Five years ago Leise realized he missed the wide-open fields of his childhood in Portersville, a town in the Appalachian region known as Pennsyltucky. So he sold his house in Brookfield and found land on a nondescript road outside Gary, surrounded by dense woods and swampland. The setup makes him feel closer to his parents, both of whom were children of the Great Depression and taught Leise and his nine siblings about sustainable living. He remembers his mother spending summers canning vegetables for the winter; his father, a mechanic for the Kerry Coal Company, would work with him on the nearby farms of uncles and aunts.

Today, Leise tends to about 100 animals, a sprawling garden, and an apple orchard. He ends his nights by locking the free-range birds into their pens to protect them from predators, and he starts his mornings by feeding the goats. He makes a living working remotely in quality assurance for a technology company, but he has a brisk side hustle selling eggs in Chicago. (His backing musicians get them free at gigs and sessions.) Word’s gotten around about those savory eggs, and Chef Xiong from Taste of Szechuan in Chinatown has made a trip to check out Leise’s farm.

Leise followed restructuring his life with restructuring his priorities as a musician. He wrote most of State of Fairs and The World That You Grew Up in Is No More two years ago, during a month he spent in Australia to play festival dates. The experience of being in a foreign environment doing nothing but playing music forced a personal reckoning: “I had to contemplate why I do what I do, and by extension, what I should do with my idle time, which is to write,” he says. He no longer considers music something he does on the side.

The farm also figures into Leise’s new life. He set up a stage in a shack on his property, and he plans to invite musicians for livestreamed events. He’s also considering throwing a music festival on his land. A shrewd digital marketer, Leise has reached audiences far outside the midwest via Spotify—he can drive listeners to his music by making sure it’s in the recommendations that the service generates based on user playlists.

Besides eggs and apples, the farm is also producing songs. The breezy “Multiflora Rose” cheekily documents the charms of going rural: “Well, I thought I knew my oats / So I got myself some goats / Hoping that they’ll chop the vines down to the earth,” Leise sings. “Well they nibbled while they roam / And ate me out of house and home / Yes, I spent more on those goats than they are worth.”

On a recent Saturday morning, Leise eases back into a lawn chair while dozens of strutting fowl add to the conversation. A few feet away, a baby goat gazes at him like a child at a father. Last September, Leise’s own father died, and because his mother had passed five years before, the family homestead is now being prepared for sale. “I have no interest in going back,” he says.

On Leise’s farm, sustainability means more than repurposing hay for garden fertilizer or taking leftovers home to give them to the goats. The land is sustaining Leise’s soul too, and he says he’s finally getting what he needs. He just wants to connect with people somehow—if not through his music, then maybe with some eggs.

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