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Oakdale musician Brett Dennen will get national exposure on tour with John Mayer

You may not have heard of Brett Dennen, yet.

But you've surely heard of John Mayer. And what he has heard of Brett Dennen, he really likes.

In September, Mayer told Rolling Stone magazine about the red-haired singer/songwriter from Oakdale who had caught his ear.

"He's timeless — he's probably 25, but he seems like he's 25 in 1972. He paints these gorgeous pictures, musically, where you think, 'I want to hear his voice, I want to hear that guitar, and I want to hear those melodies.' I put him on as a head-clearer."

In fact, the Grammy-winning singer enjoyed Dennen's music so much, he tapped him to play four of his West Coast shows with Sheryl Crow last fall, performing on a side stage. And this summer, Mayer again picked Dennen to tour with him, but this time on the main stage opening along with Ben Folds.

It was around this time last year that the 1997 Oakdale High School graduate and former Modesto Junior College student was playing a show at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe that Mayer happened to attend. Dennen, now 27, said the crowd was abuzz with his presence. "I was pretty nervous, I didn't really look at him," Dennen said at the time. "There was one whole side of the crowd I didn't look at."

Eye contact or not, Dennen made an impression and was soon out on the road supporting the superstar.

But even before Mayer discovered him, Dennen's career was on the move. He had played the Dave Matthews & Friends Cruise and Bonnaroo Music Festival.

Since then, his music has appeared on the ABC hits "Grey's Anatomy" and "Men in Trees" and the NBC shows "Scrubs" and "The Black Donnellys."

His music also will be featured in a national ad for Hilton Hotels. The "Travel Should Take You Places" campaign also features clips and information on Dennen on its Web site (www.hiltonjourneys.com).

Dennen's brand of introspective folk has hints of his childhood influences, from Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. He is signed to the independent label DualTone Music Group. He has two CDs out, his 2004 self-titled debut (which includes his own artwork on the cover) and 2006's "So Much More."

Dennen's musical journey began at, of all places, camp.

"Every summer starting at the age of 9, I would go up to Camp Jack Hazard (run by the YMCA of Stanislaus County in the Sierra)," Dennen said. "Every night, we had a big campfire, and all my favorite counselors were the ones who played guitar and sang songs. I idolized the counselors so much, I think that's what really made me want to be a guitar player and singer."

At age 12, he got his first guitar and started taking lessons at Skip's Music in Modesto. He was home-schooled by his parents until junior high. Art was an important part of their home lives and education. But after a few years, Dennen put down the guitar, instead favoring the brush and pencil to exercise his love of drawing and painting.

It wasn't until he went to college at the University of California at Santa Cruz that Dennen rekindled his passion for music. He started playing in an acoustic jam band on the mandolin, but not singing. And then one day, he wrote a song for the band.

He enjoyed writing and singing his own music so much, he began doing that exclusively.

A year after graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2002 with a degree in community studies, Dennen decided to pursue music full time. He moved to Southern California and now lives in Santa Monica.

He said his parents — mother Tana is a staff member at the Great Valley Museum of Natural History and father Brian is a woodworker — had the typical parental concerns when he told them he wanted to give the starving-artist life a shot.

"We've always encouraged (our children) to follow whatever dream they had for their lives," Tana Dennen said. "But I always hoped that they would get jobs with health care like most parents would want their kids to have."

Dennen has an older sister who teaches high school in Petaluma and a younger brother who teaches an after-school arts program in Watsonville. After the initial shock, Dennen's parents have been extremely supportive, not to mention extremely proud.

"He has always been very poetic and very deep and meaningful — all those incredible things that come through good music," Tana Dennen said. "I fell in love with his music from the beginning."

But, she said, she was surprised that Brett chose music. Growing up, he took after his mother and was the quiet kid who liked to draw.

"The things he does now are so different than me; I'm very introverted and shy," she said. "I've seen him on stage; he has incredible stage presence. It's like, 'Whoa, where did you come from?'"

With his busy schedule recently, Dennen hasn't been back to Oakdale to see his family in the past few months. He left for Paris this week and will play a festival in Switzerland with Suzanne Vega next week. In May, he will begin a tour with the Animal Liberation Orchestra. And then in June, he hits the road with Mayer and Ben Folds to play a dozen dates through July.

Dennen said touring with Mayer has exposed him to a whole new audience. Before they met, he had great respect for Mayer's music and guitar playing. Still, he worried his audience might just be "young girls who like him because he is a handsome pop star."

But Dennen said the crowds at shows, including last year's Shoreline Ampitheatre performance, have been diverse and welcoming.

"It was a neat situation because I was kind of like a surprise artist," he said of his side-stage act. "People were walking in to get their seats or get a beer and so to see an artist playing was a pleasant surprise. It's that kind of an introduction that makes a lifelong fan. The whole interaction was really special."

This summer, he will play to even bigger crowds on the main stage at major arenas in Chicago, Dallas, Milwaukee and other cities across the country.

With all the touring through the summer and fall, Dennen said he won't be able to record new material again until winter. He hopes to have another album out by next summer.

As his music gets exposed to larger and larger audiences, Dennen said he hopes one day to have the same opportunity to help an up-and-coming artist realize his or her dreams that Mayer gave him.

"Everybody is given an opportunity from somebody else and everyone has had a favor passed their way," he said. "It's important to continue that karma. Every artist is struggling to get that."

Bee entertainment writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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