Best-known over the past four decades as one of Hollywood’s most durable and versatile leading men and character actors, Dennis Quaid has had a lesser-known but certainly just as committed second creative life — in music.
His commitment to his belief in music and in his Christian religion, which began in his Texas youth, comes to life quite emotionally and rousingly in his second album, “Fallen: A Gospel Record for Sinners.”
Produced in Nashville, where Quaid and his wife, businesswoman Laura Savoie, now live, Quaid says “Fallen” came about when executives from gospel music firm Gaither Music approached the actor to do a gospel record. “I had previously made one other record with my rock and roll band, The Sharks (“Out of the Box”), and it came out and laid there,” Quaid tells Variety with a laugh. “This one was really focused.”
Quaid credits the album’s two producers, leading gospel music figure Ben Isaacs and David “Fergie” Ferguson, whose country rock bona fides go back to legendary Sun Records producer-songwriter “Cowboy” Jack Clement.
“With two different producers,” explains Quaid, “it reflects me in the sound. Half-Baptist churcher, half country rock. Ben is part of the Isaacs, which is a Christian group. He knows bluegrass and he knows the Gaither Christian audience. These traditional Christian songs, which were part of my Baptist upbringing in Texas, are very important to me. I knew how I wanted it to sound.”
Quaid expresses admiration for both in helping him achieve that sound, as they “took me someplace I’ve never been. We went way beyond my expectations.”
Recounting the making of the album, Quaid digs into the roots of his collaboration with Fergie — and they’re deep. “Fergie is a protégé of ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement. He started engineering for Jack when he was 22, back in the ’60s. So, he knows that outlaw sound that I wanted for the other half of the record,” Quaid says.
One of Ferguson’s key creative credits is engineering the famed American Recordings sessions that Johnny Cash worked on near the end of his life, yielding a Country Music Assn. Single of the Year award in 2003 for Cash’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
Quaid wistfully and reverentially rolls off the list of significant music artists that the prototypical “outlaw” Clement helped foster: “Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Pride. And he made my favorite album of all time, Waylon Jennings’ ‘Dreaming My Dreams.’”
The appreciation for Clement’s work, it turns out, is more than merely professional. He considers Clement to be his music “mentor” as he first met the “Cowboy” back in 1978.
“I was shooting ‘The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia’ with Kristy McNichol in Chattanooga and Jack came up to me and said, ‘How would you like to be a country music star?’ I was staying in a two-bedroom suite at a local hotel, and he moved in and became my roommate for the next six weeks!”
In addition to Ferguson and Isaacs, Quaid also praises the album’s engineer, the Grammy-nominated Chris Lindsey, whose resumé includes work with Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Lindsey and his wife, hit songwriter Aimee Mayo, own Aimeeland Studios in Brentwood, Tenn., where Quaid primarily recorded the album.
Quaid’s move to Nashville is clearly about more than his music interests. As many longtime Angelenos have observed, the laid-back L.A. of decades ago is hard to find today.
“Maybe it’s because I’m older,” Quaid muses, “But there doesn’t seem to be the sense of community in Hollywood that I felt in the ‘70s, even into the ‘80s. It’s always been about people in their cars, but today it’s even more so. People stay in their trailers, they’re on their phones. There’s not the same kind of communication there once was. L.A. has been very good to me, and I have great friends. But it is hard to make friends. There is a lot of self-involvement. In Nashville, you know your neighbors.”
Quaid also astutely sizes up two very different creative drives that he sees as creating each entertainment town: “People come to Hollywood to reinvent themselves. Playing a role. People come to Nashville to create music where you have to be yourself. So, you become more of yourself. And that’s reflected in life here. Everybody wants to write and create and there’s a really nice atmosphere.“
For many years, Quaid has spoken openly about overcoming an addiction to cocaine, a life-changing breakthrough that happened decades ago. But “Fallen” demonstrates that sobriety remains an everyday challenge and one that his faith has led him to speak about with a new frankness, immediacy and emotional impact. In “Please Don’t Give Up On Me,” the most confessional song on the album, Quaid delivers a lament of spiritual hunger with a raw vocal millions of miles from most of the confectionary good-time country music that dominates the sales charts.
Asked if the Quaid of his younger, wilder days could appreciate the message of his current creative venture, Quaid reflects on the question before noting “that Dennis, I’m not sure I could tell him anything. I’m grateful I went through those things, and I got through those times. It’s what made me who I am today.”
Whatever his excesses and former escapades, Quaid’s current peace of mind is accompanied by a wry, rueful humor that is never far from his thought process. Speaking of how he overcame addiction over 30 years ago, Quaid notes, “I had a white light experience and I checked into rehab back before rehab centers had swimming pools and tennis courts. It was the basement of St John’s Hospital. I equated music with getting high, so for years, I didn’t play music.”
The life journey that led Quaid to releasing his past and translating his life experiences into “Please Don’t Give Up on Me” may surprise non-believers who equate Born Again Christianity with a simplistic fundamentalist worldview. Quaid notes he “originally identified as Christian, then I turned to Buddhism, and I read the Dhammapada and then I read the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita and I read the Bible four times, cover to cover. I discovered that what I didn’t like is what I call ‘churchianity.’”
Today, Quaid acknowledges that the faith-based path doesn’t always lead to open doors. “A lot of people are embarrassed to talk about their faith. They think it’s some kind of Boy Scout thing, where you’ve got to follow the rules. But I talk to God a lot, every day. I question everything I do. I believe it’s about keeping trying. It’s about self-examination and throwing your ego out the door.”
“Fallen” follows Quaid’s work in faith-based films such as “Soul Surfer” and “I Can Only Imagine,” though he disdains the limitations of religious labeling and prefers to call them “aspirational films.” With the recent blockbuster success of “The Sound of Freedom,” many are surprised to see films from the conservative religious sector breaking through so dramatically, but not Quaid. “The formula for success for these films is simple: It’s either a good movie or it’s not. In the past, what were called ‘faith-based films’ were generally very low-budget and most of them were not very good productions. ‘The Shack’ is the one that changed the world for those films.
“‘The Shack’ was predicted to make a few million dollars and it opened to $17 million and grossed about $100 million. Why? The production was good, the script was good, from a good story, and it had great actors. I find it strange that we’re in a moment in our culture when the things that should be uniting us become polarizing. It’s almost like the media makes sure of that!”
Quaid is also still busy with his day job, and you’ll see him, if you look closely, in a very funny quick cameo in the current raunchy canine comedy, “Strays.” He’ll soon be seen in the upcoming biopic, “Reagan,” starring as the former president of both the United States and the Screen Actors Guild.
He reports that his recent tour dates, which are usually just the man and his guitar, sans his longtime rock band, The Sharks, have included stops at Graceland in Memphis, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and the Gaither Homecoming in Tulsa, Okla. He regularly updates his Instagram account with information on new shows.
He’s also recorded a new version of the self-penned song, “On My Way to Heaven,” which he notes “is why Gaither came to me about the gospel album in the first place. I did that for the movie ‘I Can Only Imagine.’
“I did my take on Kris Kristofferson’s great gospel song, ‘Why Me, Lord,’ and now Kris is part of the new version of ‘Heaven,’ along with Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlisle.” Per Quaid, that single is due in early 2024.