From Arlo Guthrie to Christine Lavin: Jeff Daniels' musical evolution - Reverb

Long and Winding Road: Jeff Daniels

Jeff Daniels has traded in the doggy car for a guitar.

Jeff Daniels has traded in the doggy car for a guitar.

Do you remember your first record? Your first concert? Your favorite artist from when you were that pizza face in sixth grade? Well this isn’t about that. This Long and Winding Road is about three artists/records that impacted/influenced you over the years –- you as a musician, Jeff Daniels, the actor/singer-songwriter best known for playing the lead opposite Jim Carey in “Dumb & Dumber” So let’s talk about your road.

“I wrote and wrote, and those songs are in notebooks that will never see the light of day because they’re terrible. I do play songs I wrote in ’78 or ’79, but the early ones, no –- they’re awful.”

16 years old
“I was doing a lot of musicals and choir in high school, and I took piano, but I didn’t really like it. I remember seeing Arlo Guthrie at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, and that’s when the guitar and the storytelling around songs hit me right in the face. He was so brilliant at it –- still is. And I don’t know that it was a conscious decision, but there was certainly an interest in that, and how to do that in my own way. And a couple years later when I moved to New York City to chase an acting career, I bought a guitar, and when I was sitting around my one-room apartment in New York, I learned how to play it. It kept me sane. For a kid to go to the New York City out of the Midwest, it was huge. I stayed in that room a lot. That guitar became a good friend … By 1980, I was working with some friends of mine, John Hogan, and around Lanford Wilson, who ended up making me better with words and story. The influence of theater and the craft of storytelling became a part of that education.”

25 years old
“I really took a turn when I discovered Stefan Grossman. Not only his work with John Renbourn as an acoustic guitar player, but that lead to his tablature books in the early ’80s, which really brought in the finger picking. He can play in any style, but that whole country/delta blues education –- he opened the door with those tab books. That became the next ten years of my world – studying that and listening to Robert Johnson and Skip James and Son House and Sonny Terry –- all those guys. I was listening to what they were playing and how they were playing it.”

50 years old
“I was always interested in those who could sit on a stage with a guitar and hold an audience, and over the years I saw Steve Goodman at the Bottom Line in New York and other people like Doc Watson and Christine Lavin. Just by watching Christine gave me permission to be funny. It’s O.K., you can write funny songs, nobody’s going to think less of you. I remember seeing Utah Phillips in a club, and he’s passed away now, but he was brilliant at walking out, sitting down with a guitar and entertaining an audience like they hadn’t been entertained in a long, long time. The storytelling was just magnificent, and he looked like he was making it up as he went along. I told my agent, ‘The guy can ad lib better than anybody I’ve ever seen.’ And he told me, ‘It’s all written –- it’s all written out.’ He did what actors do. He makes it look like it’s happening for the first time. I know how to do that –- and that opened another door for me.”

Jeff Daniels plays Swallow Hill on Saturday. Tickets, $27-$29, are available at swallowhillmusic.com.

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Ricardo Baca is the founder and co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning critic and journalist at The Denver Post.

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