What should I be doing instead of this?
Home · Articles · Music · Music · Jeff Daniels: Strum & Strummer

Jeff Daniels: Strum & Strummer

A-list actor uses musical talents to raise funds for his small-town theater

By Steven Rosen · August 23rd, 2010 · Music
An elephant will be in the room Thursday when Jeff Daniels, the singer, songwriter and guitarist, performs at the Southgate House. That elephant is the simultaneous presence of Jeff Daniels, the acclaimed actor in such movies as Terms of Endearment, The Squid and the Whale, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Dumb & Dumber.

Daniels, the musician, doesn’t try to pretend that his “other” career doesn’t exist.

“I’m not interested in singing serious love ballads for 90 minutes,” he explains during a phone interview from his home state of Michigan. “Nor does the audience want that. They want the guy they really loved in whatever movie — they want to love him in this setting. So instead of ignoring this huge elephant in the room — the movie career — I use it.”

That works well for him because his set predominately consists of comic riffs, delivered talking-blues-style with monologue-like introductions, about his career and family life. It’s an observational stand-up act in a Folk-music-oriented format, like Loudon Wainwright III or (in Daniels’ sillier moments) Steve Martin. Those comic tunes then set up the occasional serious ballad like “The Michigan in Me” or “Grandfather’s Hat.”

Daniels’ inherently self-effacing nature — “I’ve never paid any attention to image; that’s something put upon you,” he explains — leads to him poking fun at his own career as a fine actor who’s never been regarded as a movie star. In other words, people he meets sometimes can take him for granted — they don’t feel the need to be awed or overly deferential.

As he relates in the talking-blues song “Here’s a Little Somethin’,” from his 2009 Live at the Purple Rose album: “I was in New York City not too long ago, in a taxicab. The cab driver looked into the rearview mirror, looked back at me and said, ‘You’re him.’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ He said, ‘What’s the name of that movie you were in I hated?’ ”

The movie business, too, can sometimes take Daniels for granted.

The Live at the Purple Rose album also contains the song “Allen Parkway Inn,” about how — for the premiere of 1983’s Terms of Endearment — he was booked by the studio into the kind of lodging that, in his words, is “where bosses take their secretaries for an hour.”

If you’re wondering what the Purple Rose in the album title refers to, it’s the reason Daniels is embarking on his current musical tour in the first place. He owns the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich., which stresses theatrical productions by living playwrights and offers younger actors a chance to hone their talents.

And he occasionally has performed concerts there to raise money for theatrical operations. After several years of that (and several albums), he is taking it on the road for this extensive tour.

Daniels, now 55, studied guitar while he was in New York struggling to become an actor, and wrote songs he didn’t originally intend to share. (He’s also a playwright.) After marrying and having a son (and wanting more children), he and his wife moved back to their native Michigan in 1986. By then, he was in demand as an actor. But in between movie roles, he found life could be a little slow.

“Creatively, between movie gigs, I was going to sleep,” he explains. “So I bought a building and thought I’d turn it into what I remembered to be the best of Circle Repertory, the New York theater where I began my career in 1976. And I knew a professional theater company would help the economy of the community — we now drag almost 40,000 people a year through that little town.”

After Purple Rose was open for 10 years and in need of funds, Daniels proposed staging some type of inexpensive event for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when the theater was dark. He asked others for input.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you go out with your little guitar and some of your songs and sing,’ ” Daniels says. “I said, ‘I just do that on my back porch.’ They said, ‘We don’t care, you’ll raise a lot of money.’ So out I went. And during the first two-three years of doing that, I learned.

“Now I enjoy the challenge of going out with no band, of it just being me, and hanging onto an audience for 100 minutes,” Daniels says. “There’s an art to doing that. I’ve developed my own style of storytelling with a musical bent that’s funny, engages the audience, has a back-and-forth and makes it kind of ‘An Evening With...’ that’s like sitting in my living room.’ ”

Not all of the career-related stories he tells from the stage are funny. On the Live At the Purple Rose album, he introduces a straightforward version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” with a wistful reminisce about the time Harrison showed up on the set of one of his films. It was 1988’s black comedy Checking Out, starring Daniels produced by Harrison’s company, Handmade Films.

On one day of filming at Los Angeles’ Union Station, Harrison turned up to wish the cast and crew well. Daniels had his guitar with him and asked Harrison to sign it. The ex-Beatle did, and then — in a small room with just Daniels and two other people present — did something else.

“He started playing the first notes of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ looking right at me,” Daniels recalls. “He played that, a Hoagy Carmichael tune, ‘All Along the Watchtower' — he gave us a little concert. It was a gift I’ll never forget.”

JEFF DANIELS performs Thursday at the Southgate House.  Go here for venue details and tickets.








comments powered by Disqus