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Cheryl Wheeler: Itinerant Folksinger and Naturalist

by Maureen Brennan

Cheryl Wheeler

(Click on photo to visit artist's website.) Photo by Gwendolyn Cates

Cheryl Wheeler started her lengthy career as a singer/songwriter “because it was that or get a job,” she quipped. “In one practical sense, it is true that I kept avoiding getting a job. It is also true that this has become a job.” Her promotional material suggests that she began her career much earlier with an impromptu serenading—accompanying herself on ukulele—of her mother in the bathtub, the ultimate captive audience.

When asked in person, she said, “When I was a kid, a little folk club called 15 Below opened near where I lived in Timonium, Maryland. There was a local folk duo involved, and they were called Patches and Liz. They were very popular with the folk music crowd, and they opened this little coffeehouse that had little candlelit tables with checkered tablecloths and the whole deal. I went there with this family that lived up the street, the man from whom I finally learned to play guitar. They booked itinerant folksingers, and I remember thinking that would be the coolest thing to be.

“I don’t know if I actively wished I could do that or not,” she continued. “I didn’t ever think that far ahead as a kid. But I realized recently that I did become exactly that—an itinerant folksinger. Mostly, what I wanted to do all the time was play the guitar. And the time came when I couldn’t keep living with my parents. I had to be able to make a living, so when I realized I could make money doing that, there was no question that that was what I was going to do.” And in her typical, modest manner, she added, “Otherwise I didn’t know how to do anything, anyway.” For all her fans in and out of the folk music community, it’s lucky she made that choice.

Cheryl Wheeler started writing poems and songs at the age of 10. “My favorite books when I was little,” she said, “were A Child’s Garden of Verses and The Golden Book of Poetry. They would stay open on the floor of my room, and I would sing my favorite poems. I still remember some of them, like ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.’”

Wheeler often tours with fellow singer/songwriter and master pianist Kenny White. Her connection with White goes back some 30 years. “I met Kenny,” she said, “in the mid-70s when I opened a show for Jonathan Edwards, and Kenny was his piano player. After that, Kenny White called me and asked if I wanted to go out on the road as a bass player with him and Jon. I said, ‘I don’t play bass,’ and he said, ‘Okay.’ Then I said, ‘Wait a minute, when’s your first gig?’ He said, ‘In a month,’ and I said, ‘Well, can I try out?’”

Wheeler immediately got busy buying a bass and amp and playing her way through the bass parts of Jonathan Edwards’ records, which she already owned, as she was a big fan. When she tried out, she got the gig, only to find out that “all the parts had changed, so I had to learn all new parts.” On tour, White would coach Wheeler from the piano. She explained, “I’d look over, and he’d make a little motion with his hand to remind me I’d started playing the bass like a guitar. I’d have curled up my fingers and I’d have my hand way up here, and he’d remind me to bring my hand down farther to the right and keep my fingers straight. It was wild.”

Edwards, White, and Wheeler toured as a trio, and the three-part harmonies made her rethink her ideas about herself as a singer. “I loved Jonathan’s singing, and I never thought of myself as a singer; I knew he didn’t hire me for my bass playing, so I thought, ‘It’s the singing, and we do sound great together.’ I was playing the low part and singing the high part and I loved it.” With her voice—sometimes sweet and soaring, sometimes low and mellow, but always perfectly tuned—it’s hard to believe Wheeler never saw herself as a singer. “Well, I love singing, and I know what you mean, too,” she admitted. “It’s just that my favorite singer [Edwards] hired me for singing, and that blew me away. It made me think to myself, ‘I guess I must be a pretty good singer.’” Wheeler’s very modest about her talents, and an admission to being a “pretty good singer” is about the best we’re going to get out of her.

When White tours with Wheeler, they still harmonize beautifully. He has produced her recordings, as well. On the road, he performs an opening set of about five or six songs, then he accompanies Wheeler on piano during her extra-long set, adding wonderful harmonies to her vocals. At times, he seems to almost know Wheeler’s repertoire better than she does. After many years of playing together, he can be as spontaneous as she likes to be onstage. At a recent concert in Berkeley, she turned to White to ask him how one of her songs went. Neither hesitates to take on a shouted request from the audience, even if it means changing tunings on the guitar.

White is also responsible for Wheeler re-recording her song “Summer Fly” for her most recent CD, Pointing Toward the Sun. “We were sitting in a dressing room in Denver,” she explained, “and he was goofing around, playing a little reggae, using minor chords, and I said, ‘That’s cool.’” White responded, to her surprise, “These are the chords to ‘Summer Fly.’ ” They played with the song a bit more, and White suggested she re-record the song with this new flavor.

“I still really liked that song,” she added. “So I thought about it, and I thought the song needs a bridge, because the original song didn’t have one. It was really interesting to me to work on the song, because I had to hearken back to what I was feeling all those years ago. I was 29 years old when I was fiddling with that song, and I was trying to remember what I felt like when I was writing it, because I don’t feel any of those things now.” Wheeler wrote a bridge for the song and wound up recording it with some extra studio time White had. “We convened the same gang that was doing Kenny’s record, and it was a bunch of guys, fantastic musicians, I hadn’t worked with before; and we just recorded the one song.” It may be hard to hear the reggae influence in the newly recorded song, but it definitely has a new flavor.

Wheeler is a gifted songwriter; and it is not too difficult to get her to talk about her writing process and how it’s evolved over the years. When asked if it’s more inspiration or perspiration, she replied, “It’s more the ‘I’ word than the ‘P’ word, because I’m lazy. If something’s not coming to me, then I’m not thinking about it—which is not to say that I don’t go through deep despair at times when I’m not writing. I just think you’re writing or you’re not. I’ve never done it any other way.

“I know that some of the songs I really love were written as an exercise. I love ‘What If God Was One of Us?’ and that Dan Fogelberg song, ‘I met my old lover at the grocery store’ [“Same Old Lang Syne”]. He was just fooling around with ‘The 1812 Overture’ and he ended up writing that song. I think that stuff’s interesting, but also as I get older, time goes so much faster. I need time to just stare out the window, look at the birds, time to read. I used to play the guitar, and I had a pen with me all the time, and it was like that was the only thing I ever wanted to do, and that’s not so true anymore. I’m happy to get away from it; but it’s also still true that my favorite thing to do in the whole world is to write a song.

“Now, I started when I was 10, and I’ve been doing this for 48 years, and it is still true that there is nothing more completely satisfying than sitting down and playing guitar. Not every time, not if I’m thinking in terms of, ‘Oh, I should be writing a song.’ That will ruin it. But I’ve wised up to that now, and I don’t try to think about it when I’m playing guitar, and then it never ceases to completely engross me.”

Wheeler’s songs never have a sameness about them. While she writes of themes as old as time, as the saying goes—life, love lost and found, nature—her lyrics are always fresh and unique. Her melodies not only fit her words and the moods of those words completely, but they stand apart from each other. When asked which comes first, she replied, “Generally speaking, but not always, if it’s going to be a decent song, they come up together. I just find myself singing along.”

Not many singer/songwriters perform nature-themed songs. Wheeler has the gift of a lyric poet when it comes to songs describing the natural world around her. She writes and sings about seasonal changes and the flora and fauna she’s sees around her while touring the country. She even brings the natural world into her love and/or break-up songs. It must just be the way she thinks. In fact, when asked how long she’s been playing with White, she refers to the time, not by year or date, but as “the winter of the huge blizzard. That was the biggest snowstorm I’d ever seen. There was a blizzard, and I took up the bass.”

On her 1993 Driving Home album, she sings two anthems to the seasons, “Spring” and “When Fall Comes to New England.” In the latter, she describes the falling leaves as “Irish setter red” while she captures the springtime with “thaw beneath the fallen snow” and “soft green underneath the briar.” She even captures the changing light that indicates a new season is on its way, e.g., “There’s enchantment in this soft and muted scene/When all the leaves appear so lush and clear/In a thousand shades of green” (“Grey and Green”). It’s not unusual to find multiple references to geese, squirrels, and red-tailed hawks among the many songs of Cheryl Wheeler. She’s really a hardcore observer of the natural world, and it’s positively Wordsworthian (in a good way) in the way that she evokes the clouds, the weather, the moon, and the sun as metaphors for her musical feelings.

And, of course, there are the cat songs. Peppered throughout her albums are homages to Cheryl’s pets, particularly her cats. On her most recent CD, Pointing at the Sun, she performs a cat trilogy (“White Cat,” “My Cat Accountant,” and “My Cat’s Birthday”). The last song—which has a kind of non-creepy “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” feel about it—actually features her recently departed cat Penrod on percussion. Check the liner notes, and you’ll see that the drummer also plays “catash.” And yes, that’s exactly as it sounds. Lest you think this a great irreverence to her pet, she explains, “You have to know Penrod. He would have wanted to be a member of the band.”

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Wheeler really knows how to write and perform a love song, as well as its alter-ego, the breaking-up or lost-love song. She’s created many over the years, including “Silver Lining,” “Almost,” “Arrow,” “So Far to Fall,” “One Love,” and, on the new recording, “Holding On” and “You Know You Will.” Possibly her best, and certainly her most unique, love song, “Gandhi/Buddha,” is one she wrote for her partner Kathleen. The chorus goes:

I must’ve been Gandhi or Buddha
Or someone like that
I must’ve saved lives by the hundreds
Everywhere I went.
I must’ve brought rest to the restless
And fed the hungry too
I must’ve done something great
To get to have you.

In concert, she follows this song with a bit of what she calls Kathleen’s response, in which she has her partner imagining the horrible things she must have done in a previous life to “have to love” Wheeler. It goes something like, “I must have been Hitler or Satan…” The followup cracks audiences up, but it is the memory of the poignant and potent “Gandhi/Buddha” that stays in their minds long after the concert is over.

For a long time, Wheeler did not include her funny songs on her recordings, but after years of fan requests, she started to include them. The main reason performers don’t like to include their funny songs on CDs is that after a few listens, the jokes become stale. Whether she’s singing about the variety of potatoes to the tune of the Mexican hat dance (“Potato”), the misfortune of pioneers who lived before the invention of television (“TV”), or the comical ringtones and behavior of cell phones and their users (“It’s the Phone”), Wheeler’s funny—yet oh-so-intelligent—songs stay funny. They do tend to stick in your head, however. It takes a lot of practice to get the syllables of “po-ta-to” to fall on the right beats so you can sing along!

The many singers who have chosen to record Wheeler’s songs attest to her brilliance as a songwriter. The long list includes Maura O’Connell; Holly Near; Garth Brooks; Kathy Mattea; and Peter, Paul and Mary. Dan Seals had a #1 hit with Wheeler’s “Addicted,” while Suzy Boggus’ version of “Aces” made it to the top five in the country music charts.

Has Wheeler ever written a song for somebody else to sing? “Never at all,” she replied. She got close one time, when Bette Midler wanted to sing one of her songs, but she wanted an extra verse at the end. Initially, Wheeler declined, thinking the song was complete and in the past. After hanging up the phone from her music publisher’s request, however, she had a little talk with herself. “It is Bette Midler, Cheryl, maybe you could find it in yourself to do it. So I thought about it and thought about it, and I wrote a verse that’s not in my version, but it’s in the song she recorded.” Midler liked the new verse, and the song (“I Know This Town”) appears as the first cut on her 1995 Bette of Roses recording.

During the period just prior to Pointing at the Sun, Wheeler had not been writing a lot of songs. “I really didn’t write anything to speak of during the Bush administration, and I know a lot of people who did that. I read somewhere that Nanci Griffith didn’t write anything. I was just so mad all of the time. Then one day, I guess it was about two winters ago, I woke up and I was really depressed and I didn’t know why, and I ended up writing this song, ‘Praise the Lord and Life is Grand.’ The first line goes, ‘Praise the lord and life is grand, and why do I feel so crazy.’ That song just poured out of me, and I cried like a baby. And that opened the gates and I wrote a whole lot of stuff for my most recent record, Pointing at the Sun. And I did put ‘Praise the Lord and Life is Grand’ on there, because I felt like I had to. That was the one that opened the dam, and whether at 58 you’re less inclined to burden the world with your own boo-hoo or not, if that’s what you get from the song gods, just shut up and take it.”

Wheeler was reluctant to sing the song in concert, however. She explained, “For the first time in my life, I felt disinclined to sing one of my songs for people. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed, though; it was because at 58 you’re more inclined to feel there’s something not right about burdening people with that [type of song]. You start to feel like your parents; there’s something not polite about saying, ‘Hi, you all bought tickets, and now I’d like to sing you a song about how depressed I felt one day.’”

Luckily, she got over her sense of courtesy, and she is singing the song in recent concerts. Sad songs can often be as cathartic for the listener as they are for the singer. Many of us can name songs that we think of and listen to when we’re sad. Wheeler added, “I’ve had people say that’s their favorite song on the record; and I’ve had other people who have depression issues come up to me and say ‘I can’t tell you how wonderful it has made me feel to hear that song, and to know that I’m not alone.’ Now that’s a humbling experience, and in hindsight, I’m thinking, ‘You can’t get any ideas about what you should and shouldn’t be writing, Cheryl. It isn’t really you, and whatever it is, some magic element or whatever, you should just stay out of the way. If you’re fortunate enough to have a song god pick you, then you should pay attention.’”

Courteous is probably not a word you would normally use to describe Wheeler’s concerts. Much has been said by others about Wheeler, the entertainer/comedienne, and it’s all true. She is wickedly funny and completely self-deprecating onstage. At a recent concert in Berkeley, she walked out on the stage, and immediately began instructing the lighting technician to “bring the lights down, way down. If you came for the visuals,” she continued, “you’re bound to be disappointed.”

Wheeler talks a lot onstage. “It relaxes me,” she said. “I love to be as relaxed with the audience as I would be with somebody in my house. That’s really what matters to me. I don’t want to be ‘other’ than them. I’m not comfortable with that role. I’ve noticed that some performers, that’s exactly what they do. Prince, whom I adore, and is a total genius, but Prince is completely other than his audience. I’m certainly not comparing myself with Prince, but I am who I am. I don’t dress up. I don’t want to, I’m not going to, and I’m not going to be other than I am. I’m going to be the same way that I am to whatever degree I can pull that off. Of course, if a line works, I’m going to use it again and again and again. But as much as I can stay spontaneous and be genuine and be real with an audience, that’s what I’m striving for. I love it when it works, and it usually does to some degree.”

Indeed, it does, and that’s what listeners at home as well as live audiences love about Wheeler. She is completely real, completely at ease, and she sings about the things we all experience—love, loss, people shouting into their cell phones, and the way the clouds look on any given day.

Cheryl Wheeler has turned the things she loved doing—playing guitar, singing, and writing songs—into a profession. “I can’t even believe I get to call this a job,” she said. “I really can’t. There’s some drudgery—the travelling can be, especially the airplanes.” Yet she’s written a great song out of this annoying element of the job (“On the Plane”). “But it’s a great life,” she said, “and I would really have to be some kind of whining idiot to have complaints about this. It’s true.” [www.cherylwheeler.com]

Cheryl Wheeler's Pointing at the Sun

Cheryl Wheeler
Pointing at the Sun
[Dias Dias1001 (2009)]

Over the past 25 years, Cheryl Wheeler has been charming and delighting audiences with her rich, velvety alto, her simple and insightful songwriting, and her rolling-in-the-aisles musical comedic turns. Not a moment to soon, she has stepped up to take on hard times in a way that is helpfully vague on specifics. Busted relationship? Foreclosure? Job loss? Serious illness? Doesn’t matter; this one’s for you. And Wheeler doesn’t take the easy dodge of sunny optimism or silver linings. Without dwelling on details, she makes it clear that the process of life can get ugly and debilitating. Her answer to finding hope amid the crush of burden is an exercise of faith, finding inspiration in the patterns of nature, a universalist concept of God, the support of others, and that deep mine of personal resilience we all seem to find at rock bottom.

In the title song, Wheeler offers the humblest imagery that only a gardener would notice, “all the plants are pointing at the sun,” as an approach to the mysteries of the universe. Faith starts in simple observations, extending like roots through all aspects of our lives. The upbeat “One Step at a Time” is a personal mantra, easier to remember and more artistically satisfying than the ubiquitous 12-step recovery program. “Holding On” reinforces the “keep on keepin’ on” attitude that holds the core together until there’s a way out. “Praise the Lord and Life is Grand” acknowledges the state of being stuck in a funk (“I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I’m afraid I do”), rejecting pharmaceutical solutions while laying the groundwork for an exit strategy. “Underbrush” reaches out a hand of love and support in recognition that the simplest of shared tasks builds bonds that carry us through adversity. “You Know You Will” and “Summer Fly” examine repetitive patterns that go nowhere, stopping personal evolution. For a change of pace, “Gray and Green” is the summer version of Wheeler’s classic, comforting “Fall Comes to New England,” full of imagery and reflection.

If the previous eight tracks have left you unmoved, Wheeler offers a whimsical cat song trilogy to close the album. With music in the style of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Wheeler pays homage to a feline on a grooming boycott (“White Cat”), cats’ innate ability to accomplish total domination of their environment and people (“Cat Accountant”), and a surrealistic fantasy of an ideal feline birthday party (“My Cat’s Birthday”). A personal relationship with a cat, while enhancing appreciation of the songs, is probably not necessary. The set is an affirmation that the ability to laugh is an essential survival skill, and Wheeler is a muse of mirth who points the way for the rest of us. Pointing at the Sun is a heaping plate of comfort food for the soul—basic, nourishing, inspirational—and among Wheeler’s best work.

—Maureen Brennan (Oakland, CA)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

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