Emmy-winner Jeff Daniels brings music to MonroeWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Every story, every personality profile, every description seems the same. When a writer is trying to sum up Jeff Daniels — the acclaimed, Emmy-award winning actor, star of stage and screen — they always seem to find the same words. “Grassroots.” “Homespun.” “Down to Earth.”
Does it ever get wearying for Daniels to be so readily typecast as … well, normal?
“Well, it beats the alternative — abnormal,” Daniels quipped in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
“It probably comes from, certainly the upbringing and having been raised in the Midwest, and Michigan specifically. You know, I never bought the Hollywood fast lane. … When you get whatever degree of fame you attain, it really is fleeting. And I always was very aware of that. So I tried to keep an even keel on that — when it was going good, when it was not going well at all. And that kind of helped that whole ‘normalcy’ kind of thing. You don’t get too wrapped up in yourself when you kind of approach it that way.”
It’s natural to feel at ease talking to Daniels. He brings such a kind bearing to the conversation, it’s easy to forget that you’re talking to an actor who has been in films for more than 30 years. He brings a range of ability to such a wide variety of roles that he’s just as at home in heavy drama as he is in the most lightweight of comedies. He wrapped filming the long-awaited “Dumb and Dumber To” with Jim Carrey this past fall, and will soon return for the third — and final — season of the acclaimed HBO series “The Newsroom.”
What to do in the interim? Take to the stage, of course. But not in a play. No, Daniels has another muse that he will be indulging during his hiatus — music. Folk music, to be exact.
Daniels will appear at the La-Z-Boy Center’s Meyer Theater on the campus of Monroe County Community College on Jan. 29, for an evening of singing, guitar-playing and storytelling. The event will be part of a celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the college, and the 10th anniversary of the theater in which he will be performing.
For Daniels, the chance to perform in Michigan — where he grew up —will offer him a few special opportunities during the show.
“Well, specifically, I’ll haul out some of the Michigan songs, that’s for sure. I’ve written a few about my home state. But I just enjoy playing. And it’s a chance for me to kind of get out and play some gigs before I head back to LA to do ‘Newsroom.’”
Music has been a quiet passion for Daniels ever since his early days growing up in Chelsea, Mich. — population just a hair under 5,000. “It’s always been there. In high school, I was in the choir, I was in musicals. And I took piano in high school, but didn’t really take to it. And when I moved to New York in 1976, I just bought a guitar at Herb David Guitar [Studio] in Ann Arbor and just took it with me, figuring that I’d be sitting there, waiting for the phone to ring for weeks at a time. So I might want to be doing something creative. And I kind of taught myself there, for a while, and then, later on, got some help.
“I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed that kind of creative outlet that the acoustic guitar can give me. And I was writing songs — I mean, bad songs — but I was writing as far back as the ’70s. And so I was always interested in writing, even before I knew I was a writer.”
Daniels spent years composing pieces in his spare time. As his fame in Hollywood grew, his love for music only deepened — but mostly in private.
Though working on Broadway had certainly given him confidence onstage, he’d never actually performed his songs in front of an audience. That chance didn’t come until early last decade, inspired by a desire to help the Purple Rose Theatre Company — a nonprofit performance group Daniels founded in his hometown.
“The guitar and the writing songs was a hobby. It’s what I did on my back porch to relax, and to stay creative,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t until 2001 at the Purple Rose, where we realized that our fall show was done, middle of December, and our winter show didn’t start until Jan. 15, and we’ve got the holidays. Boy, if we could figure out some way to raise some money over Christmas/New Year’s, that would really help the theater.
“And they said, ‘You know, we saw you pick up your guitar in a bar recently and play two songs. Do you have others?’ ‘Yeah, I guess.’ ‘Why don’t we sell tickets to see you play your songs?’ And I’m going, ‘Yeah, OK!’ And we were able to raise money just rolling me out there with a guitar.
“And it was terrifying. Terrifying. I had sweat stains, pit stains all the way down to my belt. I was just a mess, because you’re so naked out there, creatively.”
It took a few years of performing at these kind of fundraisers for Daniels to really feel comfortable playing music in front of a crowd. He developed a unique kind of give-and-take interplay with his audience — telling stories, charming them with his wit and surprising them with his adept guitar playing. He’s grown steadily more confident over the past decade, recording five full-length albums of his work — all the proceeds of which go right back to the Purple Rose Theatre Company.
Songs about Hollywood
“I talk to the audience, it’s a little bit of a back-and-forth. I get the audience involved sometimes in some songs. There’s a song I do called ‘The Big Bay Shuffle,’ which is the story of a drunken dance that they do in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and it’s an actual dance. And a lot of the songs are about Hollywood. It depends on what the set list is, but I’ll roll out things like what it’s like to get shot by Clint Eastwood, you know. That’s called ‘Dirty Harry Blues.’ But I tell the story leading up to it.
“So it becomes this kind of, I’m coming into your living room and I’m entertaining you for a couple hours.”
Daniels continues to mature as a songwriter, as well. Many of his songs seem inspired by specific moments in his life, capturing the emotion of a time in the notes. But he insisted that is just part of the creative process any writer goes through — no matter what his medium.
“Sometimes I’m trying to say something, other times I’m just going, ‘What’s next?’ And the radar is always out, any writer will tell you that — I mean, suddenly there’s this phrase, and you just grab it, ’cuz you know it’s a song, or you know it’s an idea for a play. You just know. You don’t know where it’s going, what it is, but you know that that stands out versus the other six that you’ve got in your notebook that just continue to lie there.
“So you’re constantly on the lookout for that thing that crystallizes a moment, if it’s a song, or tells a great story that you haven’t heard. And you just chase it at that point.”
Daniels said he hopes to bring a suitcase full of those kind of moments to his Monroe audience
“I hope they laugh harder than they have in a long time. And then walk away — some will walk away absolutely stunned that I can even play. Some will walk away going, ‘I didn’t know he could sing.’ Some will walk away going, ‘Why didn’t he dress up?’ Some will walk away going, ‘Where the hell’s the band?’ Some will walk in going, ‘I expected dancing girls.’ None of that’s going to happen! But they will have a great time, I guarantee them that.”
“An Evening with Jeff Daniels” will take place at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Monroe County Community College La-Z-Boy Center, Meyer Theater. Reserved seating is $45. For information, visit www.monroeccc.edu/theater/events.htm#january.
Tags: Dumb and Dumber To, Emmy-award, Herb David Guitar [Studio] in Ann Arbor, Hollywood, Jeff Daniels, Jim Carrey, La-Z-Boy Center’s Meyer Theater, Michigan, Monroe County Community College, Purple Rose Theatre Company