Thoughts on Danny Hutchens by Patterson Hood

Bloodkin.  Photo by Jayne Clamp
Photo by Jayne Clamp

I got the dreaded phone call last Friday informing me that my old friend Danny Hutchens had a massive stroke (his second) and was on life support. He passed away Sunday evening, surrounded by close family and friends at the age of 57.

I first heard Danny’s music from Dave Schools and the Widespread Panic guys when they recorded an album at my dad’s studio, Muscle Shoals Sound. A couple of years later when I moved to Athens, Dave introduced us in person when we met for some drinks at the Nowhere Bar in April of 1994. A year or so later I got a job as a sound-man at a local bar called The High Hat Music Club. Bloodkin used to play there regularly and I loved doing sound when they played.

As a sound-man, some nights you have good bands and some nights not, but Bloodkin was always great and Danny wrote some of the best songs of anyone I had ever met. All these years later, I still consider Danny to be one of the best songwriters I’ve ever known. He was also a fantastic singer. A natural. Good looking and charismatic, Danny had a God-given voice and he knew how to use it to the maximum.

“Birth and death and love and hatred, collard greens and buttered cornbread
Every time I swallow its a new religion”

Danny met Eric Carter when he was eight and they began playing music together when they were teenagers in West Virginia. They named their band Bloodkin and relocated from Huntington to Athens, Georgia somewhere around 1986. I moved to Athens a few years later from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Both of us felt like we had found Paris in the 1920’s upon landing in that wonderful, creative and artsy little town from the more rough and tumble locales we had relocated from.

When I met them, they had recently released their debut album Good Luck Charm which had been recorded in Decatur Alabama. It was produced by Johnny Sandlin and several prominent musicians from my hometown played on it, including my dad (session bassist David Hood). By the time I got to know them better, they had released their exceptionally good second album Creeperweed. It was a much more organic and stripped-down affair that really showed off their gifts for song-craft and playing.

During that era, they asked me if I wanted to ride down to Savannah with them and open solo for a couple of shows down there. I was a pretty hard partier in those days. I rode down with them in their van and attempted to keep up with their proclivities for the weekend. It took me about two weeks to recover.

“Just like something out of Tennessee Williams”

Danny Hutchens and I were the same age. One thing that people exactly our age tend to have in common is Elton John. It’s impossibly hard for anyone nowadays to fathom how big a star he was and what a ubiquitous presence he was in the pop-culture from 1973-1975, about the exact time that Danny and I begun our obsessions with rock and roll.

Bloodkin’s music had a wide host of influences but the easiest description tended to be “Stonesy” as The Rolling Stones were an obvious influence that carried over from their music to their general demeanors and stage presence. I always found that to be a lazy shorthand in describing them as I never felt it actually did them justice. One night, possibly on that trip to Savannah, I asked Danny if he had listened to a lot of Elton when he was a kid. He laughed and told me that no one had ever asked him that. He said of course he did. “Everyone our age listened to Elton. I learned to sing trying to sing like Elton.” I think I did too, but Danny was way better at it than I will ever be. You could hear that influence in his delivery, in how he bent certain notes. It was a beautiful thing to hear, especially in the context of songs that seem so stylistically different from that.

Danny’s influences also included a full dose of Tom Waits, who like Danny has a gift for cinematic sweep in his storytelling and lyrical delivery, and Lou Reed, who has always been able to cut through the clutter and get to the nitty gritty in tales from the darkest sides of the human existence. Upon his arrival in Athens, Danny befriended Maureen (Moe) Tucker from the Velvet Underground, backing her up from time to time. He even guitar-teched for Sterling Morrison when the Velvet Underground reunited to open for U2 on their massive European Zooropa Tour in 1993. Moe Tucker sings backup on the excellent Bloodkin song Lifer.

“Show me the ugliest part of yourself, I want to love you from the inside”

Danny’s songwriting could be dark and powerful but he always had a pop sensibility as well as a poetic flair that set it apart in ways basic yet profound. He wrote songs steeped in southern literary traditions but they also often sounded like hit records that somehow forgot to sell the millions of copies that they honestly deserved.

If Eric was Danny’s musical life-partner, David Barbe was their George Martin, a gifted producer (and musician) who was able to help them translate their musical visions onto the tape and give their records a timeless sheen while never sanding away their tougher edges. David first met them at one of the High Hat shows that I mixed and he ended up producing their third album, Out Of State Plates and every album they made from then on.

We hired Barbe to mix our fourth album Southern Rock Opera (he ended up co-producing it also, and has produced every one of our albums since). The first night of mixing SRO, he mixed a song I had written about dying on the road called Plastic Flowers on the Highway. I was pretty proud of the song. Barbe mentioned that he had just started mixing Bloodkin’s new album (their fourth, The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab) and when we finished for the night he played me the track of theirs he had just mixed. It was called Crosses By The Highway and I was crestfallen to immediately realize that it was by far the better song. Twenty years later, I still like my song but still think that Danny’s song is by far the better on every level. I’m not one for false humility when it comes to writing, but Danny was the shit. Flat out.

Bloodkin made a bunch of albums. All of them are good, most are significantly better than good but their fourth album, The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab is a flat-out masterpiece. Truly one of the best albums to ever come out of Athens Georgia or anywhere else. Written and recorded in the wake of the untimely passing of their friend and manager as well as a reckoning of their own more self-destructive inclinations, the album has dark undercurrents that spring to the surface in sometimes surprising but always provocative and absorbing ways. It also has some of the most beautiful and poignant playing and singing of any of their albums. It is never overcome by its ever-present darkness and even two decades later it still rewards each new listen with some new twist.

“The American century is over, stick a fork in the fourth of July
Featuring nothing but fire and fuel and then our wells run dry”

Danny followed politics and was very politically astute. He was very well-read and articulate about such things. I loved having political discussions with him. He was particularly troubled by turns America was taking post 9/11 with our invasion of Iraq and endless war in Afghanistan. Watching The War on TV is one of the darkest, most brutal anti-war songs I have ever heard in my life, its protagonist melting down in his barracks bunk amongst the smoke and fire of his own toxic masculinity and the breakdown of the macho reality he created for himself. A stunning piece of song-craft, relentless in its horror and bravery.

By 2005 some lifestyle choices were taking a toll and Danny went off to Colorado on some kind of misbegotten adventure that many of his close friends were afraid was to take his misadventures to some next level. Somehow in all of that chaos (chaos being an almost constant in the Bloodkin universe) Danny wrote his darkest and also most politically inclined album. The band was in somewhat disarray so Barbe paired Danny and Eric with a handful of the best musicians in Athens and made Last Night Out. The album was so dark that many feared it was a suicide note or at least a goodbye, but instead it seemed to give Danny and Eric both some sort of re-birth. Soon after, Eric, who at that time was perhaps the hardest partying member of the band went to rehab and sobered up. It took, and well over a decade later he’s still sober.

Danny seemed to find peace also, for a time at least. He married a lovely girl and had two beautiful children. Danny was a loving dad.

“Nobody gets the blues in heaven unless they mess around with angels like you”

A few years had passed since Bloodkin had made a new album but in 2009 they bounced back with a vengeance with Baby, They told us we would rise again and it stands up amongst the finest works they ever made. Among the riches on that album is a song Danny wrote about his recently departed mother called Wild Rhododendrons.

“Her Daddy was a bus driver and her mama was a teacher
And they worked back-breaking hard to raise their children
With a touch of old testament iron and a whiff of wild rhododendrons”

I’ve told him before, but I wish I could tell him one more time that I think that is one of the most stunning songs anyone ever wrote.

I’ve been writing this on a flight from Atlanta to where I now live in Portland Oregon. I downloaded several of my favorite Bloodkin albums to listen to on the cross-country flight. I spent the weekend in my hometown of Muscle Shoals where I played a benefit for my dad’s old studio. I got there Friday morning and was about a block from the studio for a rehearsal when a friend from Athens called to tell me that Danny had been found unresponsive in his home earlier that morning. He had had a massive stroke and was on life support. He wasn’t coming back. He had already had one stroke back in 2016 which he had somehow miraculously survived. If a cat has nine lives, Danny had about nine cat’s worth. Last fall he survived Covid 19. He seemed indestructible, despite his best intentions, but his number was up. I walked into rehearsal with tears in my eyes. As it so happens, two of the people I was playing with this weekend had played on Bloodkin’s first album (including my dad) and everyone was saddened to hear of Danny’s condition.

As I sit here, noise-cancelling headphones blasting in my ears, I’m hearing song after amazing song. One masterful piece of writing after another. Tears falling as I type.

“God got up and the river got down / You got high and I got grounded
We hid easter eggs all over town”

There’s so many cliches associated with our chosen profession. Live hard, die young, all that shit. I’m 57 and have buried way too many of my dear friends and loved ones. I’ve been blessed to have survived my own bad behaviors. I’ve also been blessed to have had some unbelievably talented friends. Danny was as great an artist as anyone I’ve ever known. As I listen to all these albums, the waterworks really started with the Baby, They told us we would rise again album. It was steeped in their darkness, but also had such rays of light. It had a phoenix on the cover and everything about it signified a rebirth and survival. You could hear his kids and family in the lyrics. A level of hope that I had never heard in Bloodkin songs before.

“We stay open from dusk til dawn, I’ll be here singing long after you’re gone”

Danny and Eric continued onward. They released One Long Hustle, a massive boxset of their earlier work that showed just how strong their music was from the very beginnings. They put together an Allstar show at The Georgia Theatre featuring legendary Stones sideman Bobby Keys. Danny made a third solo album a few years back, also full of excellent songs and performances. Last year, they finally reconvened with David Barbe to record Black Market Tango, a double album sized dose of the things they have always done best. It was released last month to excellent reviews and plans were underway to take it on the road.

Danny never lived to see the level of acclaim and commercial success that his talent seemed destined for, but he never seemed to let that slow him down or affect how he proceeded. He knew that he and Eric had the goods and knew that they were building a legacy of songs, performances and memories. They made albums that truly were as great as most of the people they grew up looking up to and when listened to a continuous whole adds up to a stunning catalog of music that rewards a deeper look and closer listen to really show its array of subtlety and craft that goes way beyond the meat and potatoes rock and roll that it seems on the surface.

Danny was well enough aware of the history of our beloved art form to know that the best often don’t get their due during their lifetimes. He and Eric proceeded to build a musical legacy that would stand tall long after all of us have faded away.

Patterson Hood - May 10-14, 2021 (Lyric quotes by Danny Hutchens).

Crosses on the Highway - a Bloodkin / Danny Hutchens Playlist

Black Jacket (from Creeperweed)
Rotgut (from Creeperweed)
Tennessee Williams (from Out of State Plates)
Lifer (from Out of State Plates)
Little Blinking Lights (from Out of State Plates)
The Ugliest Part (from The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab)
Love’s Getting Older (from The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab)
It’s Like Falling in Love (from The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab)
9. Up All Night in Heaven (from The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab)
10. Limb From Limb (from The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab)
11. Crosses By The Highway (from The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab)
12. Cute Little Gravedigger (from Last Night Out)
13. Watching the War on TV (from Last Night Out)
14. Another Lost Son of Gypsy Rose Lee (from Last Night Out)
15. The Blues in Heaven (from Last Night Out)
16. Last Night Out (from Last Night Out)
17. Jazz Funeral (from The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab)
18. Easter Eggs (from Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again)
19. Wild Rhododendrons (from Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again)
20. The Viper (from Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again)
21. Summer in Georgia (from Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again)
22. Mercy Train to Bogart (from Creeperweed)
23. End of the Show (from Good Luck Charm)