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It’s High Noon for Washington, D.C. Cowboy Singer Dennis Jay


There aren't many true cowboys in Washington, D.C. and there's almost certainly only one cowboy singer-songwriter-gravedigger. Carolyn Weaver spent some time with Dennis Jay, whose day job is with the dead --- but who lives for music.

“Time is just such a -- time's a fast-flowing river for me. I don't feel there's a lot of time left,” says Dennis Jay. In Mr. Jay’s life right now, it feels like “high noon,” a time of reckoning, when he must succeed soon or perhaps relinquish his dreams.

Mr. Jay earns his living maintaining an old cemetery in the center of a major city, shooing away drug dealers and other trespassers to the peaceful grounds. But in his off hours, Dennis Jay tends to his real calling, as a cowboy singer-songwriter.

Mr. Jay grew up in Germany, the son of an American employee of the Department of Defense. He fell in love with the country-western music he heard over Armed Forces Radio, and with the cowboy life he saw pictured in movies and magazines.

"I guess the core of it is the individualism and the ability to get yourself through a tough set of circumstances,” Mr. Jay says. “Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a cowboy, but I don't go out every day and work cattle. But I do know how to ride; I'm a pretty fair horseman."

Mr. Dennis proves that riding his favorite horse, Susie Q, at a Western-style riding range outside Washington where he spends at least one afternoon most weeks. “This is my baby,” he says of Susie Q. “This is what I live for, man. Trust me, if I could do this every day of my life, I would. I'd forsake all the riches in the world to be able to ride every day with a horse like this."

Some of the choices that Mr. Jay has made along the way, he says, made for a life that wasn’t always easy. As a young man, he got into fights and saw the inside of a jail cell once or twice -- and his devotion to his music meant rejecting some high-paying jobs.

"I prefer to stay as close as I can to the things that I look at and write about,” he says. “And I don't think I can do that making a six-figure salary sitting in a corporate office building. I'd be too far removed from the land and the people that I need to be close to."

The Washington Post describes Dennis Jay's music as "ghostly cowboy minimalism that's unlike anything else around." He sounds, critics say, like a cowboy singer from the 1950s, like some of Mr. Jay's heroes: Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, and Hank Williams.

Yodeling is a particular cowboy-music fillip on a tune, and Mr. Jay can yodel with the best. He compares the cowboy yodel to the “blues cry” – a mournful sounding cry from the heart that’s somewhere between joy and sorrow, he says.

Dennis Jay quit music for eight years, when he felt disillusioned. He picked it up again five years ago, at the age of 50. He and his band, Lonesome Town, play both the Western cowboy festival circuit and the Washington, D.C. club scene. His ambition is undimmed. But he knows that time's against him.

“This is a young man's game that I'm in,” he says. “And I'm starting over at age 55. I definitely have miles to go before I sleep, and I'm starting this journey pretty late in life."

Dennis Jay and Lonesome Town's first album, What You See, was released by Linkhorn Records. Their second album will be out next year.