I first met Dennis Palmer in the mid-1980s soon after he and Bob Stagner began playing together as the Shaking Ray Levis. “Who or what is Shaking Ray Levi?” many people have wondered over the past 30 years. Dennis delighted in the confusion and widely divergent interpretations.
“We created the band’s name after a folk hero we made up that was along the lines of Johnny Appleseed,” Stagner offered in an effort to explain the inexplicable in The Pulse last year. “Shaking Ray was a guy who spread music and told stories about heat lightning and hoop snakes ... The British thought we were a Hasidic Jewish society, and the Japanese thought we were rockabilly!” In a sense both were right.
Bob and Dennis shared the kind of bond born not only from long association, but as a bulwark against an uncomprehending and sometimes hostile populace. In that they have something in common with the Hassidim. And anybody who witnessed any of Dennis’s performances when, afire with the exhortational zeal of a Pentecostal preacher, shaking as only Elvis could, would concur that Dennis embodied the essence of rockabilly. When asked about his early influences, Palmer told an interviewer his unique approach to performance was the result of, “Mama dragging us kickin’ and screaming to the Baptist Church when we were young-lings.”
The title of their first album, False Prophets or Dang Good Guessers, captures Dennis in a sentence. He was afraid that wry wit drawing on profound insights might reveal him for the prophet he was. Oh, he’d have hated that remark. He’d have chuckled and given me one of those over-his-glasses looks that suggested … well, to be honest there were many times when I was at a loss as to what exactly he was thinking. I suspect he was flattered by my often effusive enthusiasm for his work with Bob Stagner, his life-long partner and sidekick, but at the same time he was always deeply suspicious of anyone who was overly enthusiastic about his work.
But urged on by the redoubtable Stagner, one of the steadiest and most imaginative drummers I’ve ever witnessed, Dennis pushed their performances to the limit. Two men born to complement each other in making music unlike any other—non-idiomatic is the fancy term for it—they created their own idiom that was frequently jagged and challenging—aharmonic and amelodic, and yet as powerfully moving as the best rock ‘n’ roll.
Dennis was also a very accomplished painter. When we first met, he was painting gourds with the vibrant poster colors that characterized much of his work. His later paintings have a dark, angry undertone often featuring snarling creatures with teeth bared. Others I know have found them aggressive and disturbing, but those bared teeth might equally be seen as a smile. For me, his paintings are yet another expression of the whimsical weirdness that was always his hallmark.
But there was always an edge to his work. His humor had a barely concealed bite, but it was almost always delivered with a devilish wink. It was his way of testing newcomers much in the way the equally beleaguered Dylan bedeviled the press with his impenetrable aphorisms in the 1960s.
I‘ve spent much of my life celebrating and promoting the work of outsiders pushing at the boundaries, probing the edges looking for the crack that will give them access to unexplored territory. For those of us in the audience, the result is often as heady and exciting as it is for the performers. But while we can leave the room with our heads buzzing with the exhilarating possibilities, they’re often left behind to sweep up the shards of the barriers they’ve shattered.
When the online magazine The Improvisor asked for definitions of the art of improvisation, Palmer told them, “We believe that improvisation asks us as both audience members and as creators to participate in and celebrate risk, diversity and often unorthodox practices of communication. So, we found that an open sensibility or modality such as improvisation provides really lends itself to working with diverse populations—by that I mean populations that aren’t schooled.”
Dennis Palmer was unschooled in every sense. As a painter and as a musician he often broke the rules—or simply ignored them. He was my brother; I’ll miss him.
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.