FOR boyish 27-year-old singer-songwriter Brett Dennen, life is beautiful. He's sold only 40,000 copies of his sophomore studio effort, "So Much More," but the breezy, neo-hippie album recently hit the coveted No. 1 spot on the EMusic.com charts, a good barometer of the download-oriented youth market.
And Dennen's name recognition is way up after a successful summer tour opening for superstar John Mayer, whose praise for "So Much More" -- he called it "instantly likable" and "a beautiful and spirited record" -- forms the first quote on Dennen's bio.
Dennen's quick to return the favor, calling Mayer "a good guy" and quashing suggestions that Jessica Simpson's former flame might be a tad shallow, saying, "There's many layers to John. He's like a lasagna."
But don't expect to see Dennen's freckled face following his friend's onto any Gap billboards. Despite being cosseted in sprightly guitar work and upbeat delivery, his album's leadoff single "She's Mine" evidences a depth that would probably clash with such commercialism.
"I was thrown before the court of canes," he emotes in one memorable stanza, "tossed my soul to the furnace flames, where all my heroes had been slain, exiled, or put in prison."
It's pretty heavy stuff for a young man who, by his own admission, can't grow facial hair. But it's par for a lifelong course in social thought and activism.
Raised in Oakdale, Calif. -- a "cowboy" town of 18,000 just northeast of Modesto -- Dennen was home-schooled by hippie parents who wanted him to have a more cultured view of things than the local public schools could provide.
"Teachers used the word 'gay' as a derogatory term there when I was a kid," he says. "I don't want to talk trash, but let's just say it wasn't progressive."
Spending much of his childhood "gardening and growing vegetables" with his family, Dennen had plenty of time to listen to his parents' record collection, which was heavy on Neil Young, Willie Nelson and, most important, Paul Simon.
"[When] the late '80s came around, my parents were blasting 'Graceland' and 'Rhythm of the Saints,' " Dennen recalls. "That was my whole world. It was a huge influence."
Mesmerized by "Graceland's" South African arrangements, Dennen sought out more African music, eventually falling head over heels for West African guitarists Ali Farka Touré and Habib Koite, who, along with Bob Marley, formed crucial influences on his own guitar playing.
His interest in Afro-Caribbean music went hand in hand with the rather unique studies he chose for himself when he got to college at UC Santa Cruz.
"It's called community studies and social change," Dennen explains. "You basically study social movements and community organization and activism. But half of the program is based on getting out and doing community work." It's work he says he still continues in song.
Now prepping his socially conscious music for a headlining set at the Summer Strummer Festival in Santa Monica -- the city he now proudly calls home -- Dennen is ecstatic and hopeful. "L.A.'s a great city," he says. "We've got a lot of great artists here, a lot of powerful forms of media here, and it's a very diverse city. I think if we just got our stuff together a little bit more, L.A. could be the city to change the world."
The Summer Strummer
What: The second annual all-ages music, food and skate festival featuring Brett Dennen, Mat Kearney, Astra Heights, Dead Rock West, Augustana, the Tender Box, Dirty Harry, Zeke, Orange and Lonesome Spurs, among many others, and emceed by Carson Daly.
Where: Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica
When: 11 a.m. Sunday
Price: $30 advance; $40 at the door; $60 VIP
Info: www.myspace.com /thesummerstrummer