The return of Hugh DeNeal, southern Illinois storyteller

After his return from Leavenworth State Penitentiary in October, singer songwriter Hugh DeNeal is back on the southern Illinois music scene ready to reunite with his band, the Woodbox Gang, and pick up where the band left off nearly two-and-a-half years ago.

DeNeal’s most recent solo show at PK’s June 15 and his latest performance with the band Hobo Knife June 8 at Hangar 9, have shown even with the absence of the Woodbox Gang, DeNeal still possesses the “trash can Americana” sound that initially made him popular.

“I am very happy to be back home after a strange journey and I feel really happy to be back in the grind,” DeNeal said. “Rehearsing and playing with Hobo Knife, some solo shows here and there, recording and ultimately playing again with The Woodbox Gang is the positive stress I’ve craved for the last two and a half years.”

Through listening to DeNeal’s songs it’s also evident that he is a southern Illinoisan in-and-out. Born and raised near the village of Herod in rural Pope County, the fuel for many of his songs have been issues southern Illinoisans can relate to, such as ‘The Panther Song,” concerning panther sightings throughout the area over the years, and “I’ve Killed Men,” based on a quote from the infamous prohibition era gangster from Harrisburg, Charlie Birger.

DeNeal isn’t known for holding back when it comes to songwriting. Songs like “Two Dollar Ticket” and “Confidence Man” are a glimpse into his own self reflective song writing style.

“At a very early age it was understood that putting words together in any form, whether prose, poetry or song lyrics is worthwhile and worthy of being good,” DeNeal said. “I wrote a lot of songs between the age of 13 and 19 and was happy to play a lot of them for the family and they were happy to hear them.”

Dan Goett, local musician and former member of The Woodbox Gang, said DeNeal, his father Gary and brother Brian are in every way possible, true Southern Illinois storytellers.

“Hugh’s father Gary is the source for information on Charlie Birger and the prohibition era in Southern Illinois. He’s written several books and runs a publication called Springhouse Magazine,” Goett said. “Brian, his brother, is the editor of The Daily Register in Harrisburg and was also the original bass player of the Woodbox Gang until 2005.”

However, DeNeal said his biggest influence to write music came from Bob Dylan records his parents would play for him when he was young. Despite Dylan’s influence on him, DeNeal said he considered it “parents music” until the age of 12.

“I remember being half asleep on a Saturday morning and hearing Bob Dylan’s song “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” on the Springhouse Radio Program on WEBQ in Harrisburg,” he said. “It’s a pretty stark tune and is full of bleak and desperate imagery. I can pretty well say that I wanted to create songs for other folks that made me feel the way that one did for me.”

As far as upcoming shows are concerned, DeNeal said there are just a couple Hobo Knife gigs on the schedule for July 6 and July 20, both at PK’s. He said he hopes for more solo opportunities to arise, but in the mean time Goett’s future endeavors for the Woodbox Gang are already in the making.

“A few months ago we started working on the basic song ideas for a new Woodbox Gang album,” Goett said. “We just recently have gotten back into the studio to start laying down the tracks.  We hope to have a new album, and be performing together again as a band by Fall of 2012.”

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About Caleb Motsinger

Caleb Motsinger can be reached at cmotsinger@dailyegyptian.com or 536-3311 ext. 269.

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