By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
Back in the 1970s, when Jeff Daniels moved from Michigan to New York City to pursue acting, he brought along an acoustic guitar to keep himself busy between jobs. As Daniels gained notoriety — appearing in films like Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Dumb and Dumber, The Squid and the Whale and, most recently, HBO’s The Newsroom and Showtime’s The Comey Rule — he kept playing and writing songs.
On Friday, January 22, Daniels will perform a live-stream concert as part of Calliope’s Roots Cellar @Home series. He’ll be performing songs from his new record, Alive and Well Enough, and sharing stories from his long and varied career.
Daniels met up with the Current via zoom the day after the Capitol riots and discussed politics, protest music, George Harrison, and why he’s not worried about staying in his artistic lane. Also, watch the entire interview below.
Interesting week. How are you feeling?
How am I feeling? Hmmm…. Unsurprised. Unprecedented, historic. And dangerous. That’s how I feel.
I was listening to your new record … and I was thinking of your song, “Everybody’s Brave on the Internet,” and how it feels like that online aggression has leaped into the real world.
You know, I didn’t even cover that in the song, that kind of disinformation and manipulation of people through social media with conspiracy theories. I kept it more [about] the personal attacks in the song. Already the song’s outdated.
It’s tough to keep anything up-to-date in this era.
I was looking at that with “Trumpty Dumpty Blues,” too, which was written in the first month of the pandemic, right after he invited us to attend easter services with him. And I just lost it. So I poured it into the song. So that was kind of frozen in that moment. Certainly isn’t nearly what’s going on now. But then the song that I co-wrote with Thornetta [Davis], “I Am America,” I was just today working up a quieter solo version, cause I can’t get Thornetta [for shows]. That’ll hold up. That one’s the future, that one’s tomorrow.
Speaking of “Trumpty Dumpty Blues”: I’ve always been sort of interested in old folk songs, union songs, songs about specific moments. And, you know, there are so many punk songs about Regan and Thatcher. On the one hand, maybe this song is now a relic of a time that’s already past, but what do you feel is the value to writing songs that get specific about a time, or a moment?
Art can be a great weapon. What did Phil Ochs say … a good topical, political song with a message, it can beat a thousand rallies. Phil Ochs, Tom Paxon, Dylan. Springsteen has certainly stepped up and out like that. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, you know, “Ohio.”
I know the reason not to. The reason not to is, you want to hang on to that audience that you may be offending. Or you’re branding yourself as someone either far right or far left. And suddenly you’ve lost all those people in the middle and those people on the right, you can’t make any money, so don’t say anything. Just stay quiet. Don’t lose half your audience in a politically divided country. But it’s too important.
Frank Rich, a producer who used to be — still is — a really good writer: After 9/11 … I remember him writing an article saying ‘Where are the artists? Illuminate this for us, explain this to us, you’re the ones that are supposed to present a larger version of ourselves, and what’s going on.’ Art can do that. You know, Springsteen was driving around Jersey and a guy pulled up, after 9/11, and just rolled down his window and just said “we need you now,” and drove away. And he wrote The Rising.
And that is a big part of folk music’s lore, that kind of brutal honesty that goes back to Woody Guthrie. You gotta push back. And particularly those people in the middle that, you know, voted for him anyway. And we all lived through yesterday and today, and who knows tomorrow.
If a song makes them rethink something, I’m all for it. I’ve written my share of them.
I’m sure that writing a song about Trump, there’s probably some catharsis for you, and for your audience. Which is, I think, part of the value of something like that.
Yeah, and you gotta write what you believe in. Not just the political stuff. Like there’s a song, “Real People Not Actors” [about] that Chevrolet commercial. I just got tired of looking at it. And I just wrote a song … And now they’ve moved on to Real Chevrolet Families. So they don’t even say the Not Actors things. I saw on the internet that there was a lot of push back on that from people for various reasons. Mine was personal and professional.
Has music been a big part of your personal political development? I know Arlo Guthrie was an early influence.
Yeah, Arlo was stepping out when I came in, Alices Restaurant got me into him, and that led to Woody, and also led to Stevie Goodman, and then to John Prine. I was aware of people like Pete Seeger, and I got into the blues, and all acoustic blues guys, Sun House, Robert Johnson, and Skip James. It was a chase on the music more than any political bent, but as you go through those artists that influenced…and then I’m coming from off-broadway too, all the playwrights, Greenwich Village, New York City in the ’70s, not a place for a straight white Republican. And you learn a lot, you’re exposed to a lot.
It’s an artist’s life that I’ve lived. And the music is a part of that. And the music is a place that I get to be honest. You’re honest in the acting roles, but someone else wrote it. And that was one of the first things I found when I went out and played clubs was that there is no character, this is no script by someone else. It’s you, an acoustic guitar, and here’s what you think. You’re trying to connect. But you can’t leave yourself. But you gotta relate to the person listening to you, who by the way is a stranger.
And the way into that is to reveal some common thing that might be funny or moving to you, in hopes that it will be to someone else. It’s the same theory of a play, trying to connect with an audience. If there’s no connection you’ve got nothing. So by controlling all ends of the creativity, when I’m sitting there with an acoustic guitar, and I wrote it, that’s a little more naked. I tried to stay honest with the music side of my life.
There are some obvious parallels between, say, performing in a play and performing onstage as a musician in terms of, say, being in front of people. But are there ways that being an actor interacts with the way you write, or does writing songs interact with the way you approach a role?
The performing of them is the same. It’s that connection. The writing songs, it’s not really a comparison. I’ve written plays. Eighteen plays for Purple Rose Theater Company. And the songwriting is that same guy, he’s just writing to rhyme.
But writing of any kind has made me understand the script I’m doing as an actor. Because you know what the writer’s doing, you know how the engine works. It’s not just a pretty car that goes fast. You can see the setups and the call-backs, you can see the use of words, wordsmithing. I learned that back in the 70s from Lanford Wilson. You know that song “Roadsigns” is on there, he wrote the poem, and he was a god off-broadway. It was just, every year he’d write a great Lanford Wilson play. Lanford wrote that way, and that’s been a big lore for me.
I listened to an interview with you where you were talking about how, for you, the guitar was there when you moved to New York, and it was a way to always have a creative outlet even when you were waiting for a role. And I thought that was so interesting, because there are a lot of actors who are musicians, and there’s an attitude of “stay in your lane, you’re already a successful actor,” which kind of misunderstands what it means to be a creative person. And I’m wondering if you’ve come up against that at all.
Oh yeah, I had that from the get-go. The first song I ever performed live was “If William Shatner Can, I Can To.” As a way just to kind of take the knees out of that judgment. But I also get it, you know, that’s why I kind of just did it for myself. I didn’t play out until 2002, 3.
Landford kind of pushed me out there. And I kind of finally played “Roadsigns” at a bar, nine years after my theater company had started. Nobody knew I played. I played on my back porch. I was supposed to be an actor, so I get it, stay in your lane. So that was fine.
But it also allowed me to just do it. I got to write more honestly and not worry about it, it was just kind of for me. And then “Roadsigns,” and we could raise money on it for the theater, so I went out with a chair and an acoustic guitar. And I sweated, I flop-sweated, because there was no character. And the filter was gone. It was just my stuff.
As an actor, you’re told to go out and pull it out and let’em see it. And that was kind of what happened. So I had to figure out how to do that. But I’m always, when I get with people, like a Keb Mo, or a Stefan Grossman, I instantly become their student. I just try to go, look, I’m only going to get as good as I can get. And I’m going to push that, and please help me get to the next level, whatever that is.
Both those guys, from an acoustic guitar standpoint, really helped me with that, you know, sat with me, worked with me. And it’s just been engrained. And so that when I do get a phone call from David Bromberg to play with him at his 70th birthday bash at Town Hall in New York, you go…maybe that 35 years of practicing by myself was worth it. And that’s what happened. And then you have to deliver. Then you have to walk out there and score.
I’ve been gigging for 20 years now, playing the clubs, I’ve learned how to do this thing that I can do with just the acoustic guitar, very Utah Phillips, very Stevie Goodman, you’re the whole band, and it builds like a play from beginning to middle to end. I enjoy that part of it and frankly thought I’d be doing that exclusively. But Newsroom happened. And then that changed the next 10 years because I basically stayed being an actor.
So that was pretty unexpected for you, this new phase of your acting career?
Yeah … it’s not how they draw it up in Star School. Whatever age, maybe 55-56, that’s when I sat down with Aaron Sorkin. We did Newsroom and that’s bought me 10 years. And several projects, too. I certainly did Atticus Finch on Broadway with Sorkin writing the play of Harper’s book because of my three-year audition at Newsroom.
Well to go a little deeper in your acting career I just watched Checking Out.
It’s kind of a rock ‘n’ roll movie, you have George Harrison involved, and David Byrne is in it. Plus it’s about mortality, which of course is the vibe right now, everyone is thinking about mortality a little more. So I was wondering about your experience as a musician, and if that was kind of an exciting thing to do from a music perspective. And if it impacted your own attitudes about life and death. As an actor, I don’t know how much taking on a role impacts your own life philosophy …
To be honest, no. I was 35 at the time, and it was a great script AFTER David Leland got done rewriting it. David Leland was the director, and he basically just took it and redid it. And David had worked with Monty Python. British. So he had this, it was a weird kind of Monty Python thing. I loved making that movie. It was just so out there, and I loved working with David.
The great story about that movie, we were six weeks into shooting and word came that George Harrison was going to come to the set. We were shooting in Union Station, the train station in LA. And George is one of the producers on this movie. … And here he comes. And now he’s on the set, and I’m the star of this little independent film and obligated to go over and say hello. I could barely speak. And he couldn’t have been nicer, he couldn’t have been more relaxed. Genuinely interested in how I was doing.
There’s a picture of me on my wall of me just staring at him, and him talking to me. And I remember him saying to me “Have you been to Disneyland?” … I had a Gibson J- 45 in my trailer. The guitar I’d take to the set. And I asked him if he’d sign it. And “I’d be happy to.” So … we broke for lunch, I went and got it and came to him, and we had about 100 extras and stuff, and I said “why don’t we go into this backroom …” And we went into this backroom: me and Ben Myron the producer, and Allan Havey, actor. The three of us and George.
And I handed him the Gibson, and there was a buzz on the A string, he fixed that with a little piece of paper, and then restrung the string. And then he signed it, “George Harrison,” and he put a little mystic symbol on it … I was too blown away to ask him what it meant, but you know, there it is. And then he sat down and he played for half an hour. He played “Here Comes the Sun,” “All Along the Watchtower,” a Hoagy Carmichael blues tune, “Rocking Chair,” something like that. Just … played. For the three of us. What a gift. Still have the guitar, obviously.
When I think of Checking Out, that’s what I think of. I had a great time, and then that happened.
Just how giving he was of the gift. It’s like, on a far lesser scale, Lanford whispered to me after he heard me play “Roadsigns” in that bar, Lanford had been hearing it for 30 years, off and on. And he said, ‘you need to share this with people.’ Which is what…ok, I’m known as an actor, if you don’t want to watch me then don’t buy a ticket. Don’t care. I’m still gonna do it.
Jim Carey said a similar thing too, we were promoting Dumb and Dumber To … I was going, “I could be done. I could be done with this. The ambition and the rat race, and I’ve done fine.” And he’s going, “You can’t stop. You can’t stop, man. We got a gift. All of us who are at this level, who are still doing it, and people still want us to do it. You can’t deny that. You have to continue. That’s what you’re here for.”
Going back to the idea of the guitar being a source of creativity when acting wasn’t necessarily happening, now we’re in the pandemic and not a lot of acting is happening. How has your relationship to playing changed or progressed in the last 11 months or so?
Now you get to go to grad school. And I didn’t go to grad school. But it’s like, now you want to get intense? Stop acting for about a year. Here’s the guitar. Get better at it. I would just work on it. Stefan Grossman has these videos, downloads that you finally get to…. now you have the time.
Just improving technique and tone and feel, and doing the live streams, we’ve done about 60 of them since the spring. You learn how to play into a close-up or into a medium close-up…which is different from playing a 200-seater … it’s a different performance and it requires better technique. So that’s been a focus. Just getting better on that thing.
And it’s turned out. “Trumpty Dumpty Blues,” I sent that to this one guy that I admire a lot. And he said, there’s some fingerpicking going on under there, and I’m going “Oh good, he noticed.” And that’s great, that’s just …sitting on the porch, working at repetition. Which is not unlike memorizing a script or a huge speech, a Newsroom speech, or the Atticus Finch closing argument. It’s the same as learning an intricate fingerpicking thing on the guitar. It’s repetition, it’s the same approach, it’s over and over and over again until you have it. And then you can dance on top of it. Which is how I look at it. And they’re both the same.
Is there anything you’ve been listening to in quarantine that has been inspiring you?
There’s a guy named Luke Brindley … I will always be a student of Luke Brindley. He’s just an incredible acoustic guitar player. I’m real interested in what Sturgill Simpson’s doing right now… There was a blues guy named Alastair Greene, Davy Knowles I’ve been listening to. It’s usually when I’m on the bike in the morning. Catfish Keith, he has a new album out. He’s a great player, slide, resonator. Guys like that right now.
Is there anything that gives you hope for the future right now?
[Long pause] Hm. Nothing that comes to mind. But … but … I think there’s a government in place, going into 2021 now, that can work with those on the other side of the aisle, that want to. That’s my hope. Because we cannot continue the way we are now. That I know.