Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Wisdom and Wit of Cheryl Wheeler

If you have musical talent and fortune draws you to the life of a folksinger, you are destined to live quietly. Outside of the early 1960s when Greenwich Village spawned the "folk boom", this style of music has never sold well. The general listener finds it too mellow and uninspiring, and the need to focus on the lyric too burdensome.

I have always loved folk music. Long ago I identified with Woody Guthrie: the image of someone riding the rails and traveling the country with a guitar slung across his back was so romantic to me. Add to that the social consciousness of a Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs, and this nephew of mill-working uncles is totally in.

Folk is played in coffeehouses and churches. Its practitioners are schooled in stagecraft because of the demands of this intimacy. Many folk singers are warm and funny. They're good storytellers. Which leads me to this entry's subject: Cheryl Wheeler.

Cheryl Wheeler has achieved success in the hermetic world of folk music, yet few people know of her. Its partly due to the fact that her music is better known in recordings by luminaries like Garth Brooks, Bette Midler, Kathy Mattea, and Peter, Paul and Mary. It's also due to her undoubtedly meticulous standard of songwriting and the attendant long gap between releases: like Paul Simon or Randy Newman in their heyday, Cheryl Wheeler seems to be on a four-year cycle between albums.

Some of her music demands careful listening but, once you're engaged, you are awestruck at both her poetry and creative musical design. Cheryl Wheeler writes songs that bring succor when you're down. If you're inclined to be morally outraged, she'll produce a politically charged number that will appeal to you. If you just want to laugh, you'll have ample opportunity.

Wheeler's sheer talent makes her stand out from the crowd and her latest release, Pointing at the Sun, provides a glittering example of it.

It begins with the quiet, contemplative "Holding On". Over a rhythmic bass line whose regularity reminds you of a clock or a heartbeat, Cheryl asks her listener to keep the faith.

I won't let you fall. Hear me loud and clear.
I will not let go. I will be right here, holding on.

Later she weaves in some nature imagery.

And when some lonesome wind has hemmed you in
Don't you believe that sound
You will surely rise above these tides
To higher ground

It's a hypnotic number. Her voice is warm and embracing.

Wheeler then switches gears and delivers an orchestrated update of "Summer Fly", a song she first recorded in 1987. Looking back at that record, I noticed that her musical collaborator throughout her career has been keyboardist Kenny White. I also became aware that Jonathan Edwards (remember the song "Sunshine"?) gave Wheeler her start in the music business. On her first album he offered these words about her. Speaking of having her on his tour Edwards said:

..(it) was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding coast-to-coast tours I've ever done featuring, yes, Cheryl playing the bass and singing those high, rich, clear vocals....then came (her) songs. Songs of the here and now: intense, precise, skillfully drawn pictures of the life we all know but rarely appreciate until an artist like Cheryl wakes us up. A fascinating blend of melody and chords and rhythms and phrasing that actually compel the listener to get inside and become part of the stories and vignettes she sings about. Honest, sincere songs written from the heart and sung straight from the soul.

High praise, and richly deserved. My attention to liner notes have also yielded this additional fact: from the start, Cheryl has been hooked into Mary Chapin Carpenter and her players, namely John Jennings and Duke Levine. I love everything they do too!

Anyway, to return to 2009's Pointing at the Sun: this CD doesn't feature any overtly political songs (such as 1993's "Don't Forget the Guns" or 1999's "If It Were Up to Me") and its humor is not in the same vein as her immortal ode to a spud "Potato". Instead, Cheryl ends the CD with a suite of songs dedicated to a passionate interest of hers; the cat.

These songs really end the CD on a high note. It begins with a Calypso-flavored number called "White Cat". Shortly after the start of this piece, Cheryl drops into a rap. Here's a taste of it.

I was in the garden, taking the sun
Checking out the bugs, musta rolled on one
So I got this slug bug stuck to my fur real good
But I didn't really mind, just a little bit o'slime
I'll find it later, you know, scratching my back
Be glad I saved it, make a nice little snack

I simply adore Billy Novick's clarinet playing on this one, as well as Sonny Barbato's accordion.

Next follows a number with a Django Reinhardt flavor to it, "Cat Accountant" and finally we conga out to "My Cat's Birthday". What fun! Here's to Cheryl Wheeler, and to top-quality songwriters everywhere!

Click here for Cheryl's TV appearance with fiddler Mark O'Connor and fellow songwriter Michael Johnson:

"Is It Peace or Is It Prozac" provides an example of Cheryl's wit, stage presence, and rapid wordplay.

"Estate Sale" from 1990's Circles & Arrows (on Capitol Records!) is a favorite Wheeler tune of mine.

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