Posted May, 2015
Jeff Daniels. At the mention of his name, fans and film buffs will immediately think of one of his roles in something like sixty-one movies (and four more either in process or scheduled to be filmed). Or, perhaps, it’s because of his role as Will McAvoy in HBO’s, The Newsroom (who can ever forget his famous “Why America Isn’t the Greatest Country Anymore” speech from that show?). The more high brow of you may instantly think of his magnificent work on the stage.
Regardless of the realm of performance, I’d wager a dollar to a donut that you’ve seen Jeff act in one role or another at some point in the past thirty-five years. What you might not know about the legendary actor is that he is also quite an accomplished, performing guitarist.
I first became aware of Daniels’ guitar work a few years ago thanks to a cover story in Guitar Aficionado magazine. That article prompted me to keep tabs on his work in that arena. Precise. Prolific. Fun. All of this and more describes Mr. Daniels’ mastery of the six string.
Jeff called me from his home in Chelsea, Michigan, to discuss his musical career and his upcoming tour. I asked him how the preparations for that tour were coming along.
“We’re kind of doing something that we did before. We just get to do it again. We went out initially in August. I said, ‘I’ve got some songs. I want to go out with just a band. Let’s get some old guys and do a Viagra band, like the commercial’. Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute! I’ve got these twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings right here, and they’re great musicians. The whole father/son thing… Let’s see if it can work’. And it did! It worked great. Not just with the audience, but with the material and what they did with it. We were really able to put together a show over that tour. We went out again in January, and we sold out everywhere on the East coast at all these great venues. So I said, ‘Let’s go out again in May’, and that’s kinda what we’re doing. We’re there to entertain them. You know, you’re giving us tonight, and we’re going to make sure you leave entertained. If you don’t, then we failed.”
Before taking his guitar playing on the road, Jeff recorded a couple of solo albums and still records great music for appreciative fans. About that body of work, he said:
“Yeah, I do a lot of solo stuff. ‘Keep It Right Here’ was an upright bass, a banjo occasionally, and a lot of fiddle and mandolin. It was like a trio with some other added instruments. ‘Days Like These’ was fuller with more musicians. I let Brad Phillips who played on ‘Keep It Right Here’ produce it. I said, ‘Just tell me what you hear’. I gave him all these songs, and he would put together these great musicians. Ninety percent of what ‘Days Like These’ ended up being was what Brad heard. I said, ‘It sounds good to me and sounds better than what I thought it would be’. ‘Holy Hotel’ is a good example of Brad going, ‘I think it’s this’. And I’m going, ‘It’s definitely that. Good going’.”
For fans Jeff Daniels fans who know him from his incredible acting career but don’t know that he’s quite an accomplished guitarist, I asked him what can fans can expect
from one of his shows during the upcoming tour.
“This comes from being in the theatre. If the audience is lost, or it’s so vague that they don’t get it, there’s no connection. The trap is that you’re too on-the-nose with what you’re writing. If you can write it in a way that you’re telling a story, and they want to hear what happens next.
“A lot of the way I write comes right out of that school of the ‘unpredictable turn’. Whether that’s in the next chorus or the way the song ends, I just enjoy the mechanics of story and applying that to songwriting and performing. I want them to not know what’s going to happen next. It’s part of the fun of not having any greatest hits. You walk out there, they’ve never heard this next one, and we’re going to perform it for you. They have to listen. That’s one thing that audiences usually do with me. They have to listen, because most of them have never heard these songs before. They follow along, it tells a story, and with any luck, they get taken away.
“I make sure they have a good time. I make sure they’re entertained. I talk to them. They will do stuff at this show that they’ve never done at any other show which may include getting up and doing a drunken dance that was made famous in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Any number of things can happen along with a song that stops the show and makes you cry. I love mixing it up like that. It’s a replica of my acting career from ‘Dumb and Dumber’ to ‘The Newsroom’.”
In describing his CDs and music, Mr. Daniels laid it out this way:
“Most of them are live, and that was me going, ‘Look, I know I’m an actor. I know I’m supposed to fail at this miserably. So what I’m going to do is come out with a guitar, a chair, and a microphone and I’m going to hold the night’. There’s no band. It’s not me playing in front of a band where I’m turned way down so when I go to the wrong chord nobody hears it. There’s none of that.
“I remember seeing Doc Watson in the ‘70s, and he was playing with Merle (Haggard) and T. Michael Coleman. Doc, he’s lightening fast. He made a mistake, he hit a wrong note. I don’t think I even heard it, but when he got through the song, he said, ‘That’s the thing about playing acoustic, folks. When you hit a wrong note, everybody hears it. You can’t hide it with some special effect out of an amplifier.’ I love that. Give me musicians who can actually really play where it’s just the notes and the fingers. Bluegrass is a big part of that. I’ve always geared myself towards the challenge of that.’"
In my opinion, I would categorize Jeff’s music as a blend of Americana and Folk. When I asked if he would agree with that assessment, he said:
“I don’t know. I’m not good at that. I’m influenced from a lot of directions. There’s a bit of a jazzy feel, but I need some players around me who really know jazz to elevate that. But I can get there. I love the finger-picking. I love the blues which certainly is of America. The story-telling is very folk. We’ll pick up the tempo, then all of a sudden, it’s Springsteen with an acoustic. It’s fun. I mix it up, and they have fun. By the end of it, hopefully you’re going, ‘That only felt like half an hour’.”
In the aforementioned interview in Guitar Aficionado, Daniels is quoted as saying, “I’ve found out that listeners don’t want me to demand they take me seriously as a musician or an artist or a rock and roll star. They’re not going to let me do that. But if I quietly lure them in with some behind-the-scenes acting stories—the whole ‘Here’s what it’s like’ thing—and drop the guitar playing on them, and then the songwriting…by the end of it they’re on their feet, or buying CDs. Or at least going, ‘No, he’s not William Shatner. He’s okay.’ ”
I asked him if that all turned out as you had hoped and if there were surprises, musically, along the way.
“It’s gotten easier, because more and more people are aware that there’s this music side to me. I’ve played and played well. I like the challenge of standing in a room with an acoustic guitar, knowing there are any number of good guitar players sitting in the audience. If it’s anything like Hollywood, it’s ‘I just bought a ticket to see you fail’. The worst place to do a screening of a movie is Hollywood, because everyone is there waiting to say, ‘Oh, good. It sucks’.
“I’ve been working on the guitar since the late seventies. I’ve stuck to the acoustic guitar and continue to work with people like Stefan Grossman. Keb’ Mo’ has been a huge friend and has helped me a little bit. I’ll never be Kelly Joe Phelps. I’ll never be Keb’. I’ll never be Stefan, but I can try to get better every day. I’ve done that. I can lay that out there in front of not only the audience, but the guitar players in the audience. I want to tell them, ‘Look, I got this. You’re fine. Here’s a little somethin’. You didn’t think I could do that. I didn’t either, but I learned how’. Then you’re moving on to the next verse. It’s fun, and I enjoy that. But it’s certainly taken a lot of gigs and a lot of years to get to that place. I certainly was not there when I first walked out with a guitar. I remember walking out with a guitar and looking down at my fret hand. It looked like it was ten feet away. Just white hot fear.”
I was curious what kind of music Jeff has on his MP3 player these days. What he shared shows the depth and breadth of his musical interests.
“I like writers with a guitar- certainly, Lyle, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Christine Lavin, Darryl Wheeler. I take chances on people, and I’ve scored well with people like Noah Gundersen, The Milk Carton Kids, Jason Isbell. I’m interested in what Joy Williams is going to do now post-The Civil Wars. I like a kid named John Fullbright a lot. Sturgill Simpson, you know, I love where he’s going. Just writers who happen to have a guitar in their hand- I kinda gravitate towards those guys. Foy Vance, if I didn’t mention him, I think he’s out of the UK or Ireland. That guy’s a performer.”
Are you as curious as I am whether Jeff likes acting or music better? He answered that question for us.
“I really enjoy this tour with Ben’s band because of the whole father/son aspect. Creatively, we’re in complete control. There’s no studio, no marketing department, no editor, no director, no producers, nobody. We get all the blame and all the glory. I like that. I like the immediacy of that. I like playing opera houses, smaller theatres, and listening rooms. It’s harder to play in front of a smaller group of people than it is to play in front of a thousand seats. It’s just a sea of one. At the smaller venues, you can look them right in the eye. You’re in their living room, in their lap. You better have it. I like the pressure of that, and I enjoy that. It’s only happening tonight, just for you. That’s right off of Broadway. I like that feeling. You don’t get that in movies or television. There’s joy taken between action and cut when you and another actor get on the same page, and you’re in the zone together. It takes off, and there it goes. But the mechanics of film acting really destroys that pretty quickly. ‘Terrific take! Let’s move the cameras, and try again.’”
Having read that Jeff Daniels is an avid collector of quality acoustic guitars, I asked for his opinion as to what the Holy Grail of guitars would be.
“Well, I have GAS, which means Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, not the other. I’ve got that Martin guitar that they custom made, and they sold. I had an old 1934 Martin C2 archtop with the F holes. They made 500 of them. Martin even said they sounded bad. I saw one in good condition, and it was rated ‘D+’ on a collector’s rating sheet. It was just a bad Martin guitar. Fifteen years ago, I was in an Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan. The guy said, ‘Look, I know you bought some guitars here. Come on back’. He took me in the back room and said, ‘Here’s a 1934 C2 archtop. I took the top piece off, so the F holes go away. Now it’s just a round sound hole from a 2003 piece of spruce. It’s a bit of a hybrid, but it’s a hell of a finger-picking guitar.’ I traded a couple in and bought it. I played that for about ten years.
“I was doing a movie, and I was going to shoot a scene where I play a guitar. I called up Dick Boak at Martin. I said,
‘Look, I can play the Epiphone that’s in the prop truck. Or I can play my 1934 C2 Martin with the sound hole. What do you want me to do, Dick?’ He said, ‘Play the Martin.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s in it for me?’ He goes, ‘Nothin’! But you might come by the studio next time you’re in Nazareth’. A year later, Ben and I went. Hours- it was a huge day. He couldn’t have been nicer. They were kind of considering it, because they didn’t have a guitar with those specs. They certainly had some close to it, but not that. He asked me in the lobby of Martin Guitar Factory, ‘Where’d you learn to play?’ I said, ‘Well, a lot of Stefan Grossman tablature books in the early eighties’. He goes, ‘You ever met Stefan?’ I said, ‘Oh god, no’. And he said, ‘Well, he’s sitting right over there’. There’s Stefan Grossman in from New Jersey to have Martin repair one of his signature guitars. He couldn’t have been nicer to me. I told him, ‘Your tab books from the eighties are where I learned finger-picking. I’m a student of yours forever.’
“He ended up inviting me to his house, gave me a couple great lessons. Stefan turned to Dick Boak and said, ‘You don’t have this guitar. You should make this.’ Chris Martin and Dick Boak agreed, so they made it. Custom-made Jeff Daniels just like Eric Clapton, John Mayer, and Dave Matthews- I’m going, ‘It’s official. Not only can I die and go to heaven now, but I also don’t have to buy another guitar. This is it!’ That’s the one I’m going to play for the rest of my life.”
As for what’s on Jeff’s career radar over the next one to five years, he shared:
“I’m going to be busy as an actor. I thought it would slow down by this age, but it hasn’t. It’s only picked up. I just signed to do the Shailene Woodley Divergent trilogy. I’m in the third and fourth movies that we’re shooting in Atlanta this summer. There might be some Broadway. There are some other movies calling for 2016, so it’s good to be me right now.”
As our chat wound up, my final question to the great actor and musician to him was: When you step off the stage – either acting or playing guitar – for the last time and you go to that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy is?
“As a good storyteller. No matter which direction I take, that’s all we’re doing.”
Follow Jeff Daniels – both his music and acting career – at JeffDaniels.com.