Jeff Daniels has been playing guitar for 34 years, writing songs nearly as long, playing concerts since 2001 and putting out CDs since 2004.
But he’s never had a chance to take his music on a bona fide tour until this year — mostly because of a “day job” that keeps him just a little bit too busy for it.
Since debuting in “Ragtime” in 1981, the Chelsea-raised Daniels — who still lives nearby with his wife, Kathy, and their three children and operates the Purple Rose Theatre there — has appeared in some 55 films, garnering Golden Globe Award nominations for his performances in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Something Wild” and “The Squid and the Whale.” He was also up for a Tony Award this year for his run in the acclaimed Broadway drama “God of Carnage.”
And the movie posters and other on-set memorabilia that decorate his lakeside home indicate that the acting does interfere with his musical opportunities — though Daniels is quick to point out that he’s “not trying to be a rock star or anything like that.”
“The problem with (touring) is you have to book these dates six months out, and movies can happen with a phone call and in two weeks I’m on a set somewhere and you’re canceling 30 dates,” explains Daniels, 55, who hit the road in August and will be out until early December. “I had to do that once and I vowed I wouldn’t do it again.”
Doing “God of Carnage,” however, allowed him to finally “carve out three months of my year” to lock into a tour.
“It helped to do Broadway for a year and a half because you really check out of the movie business when you do that,” says a T-shirted Daniels, sitting on the wooden deck of his house as water skiers buzz by in the distance. “So I told the movie agents, who have been great about it, that I’m not available. I haven’t been able to do that for a long time, and now I’m just doing it because I’m gonna do it. I’m old enough to do what I want now.”
But Daniels is also smart enough to hedge his bets a little.
“I’ve always got it in the deal with the venues that if Spielberg calls and I’m starring in it with DeNiro, sorry. But that ain’t gonna happen.”
Though Daniels did a bit of musical theater and took piano lessons growing up, he didn’t really fall into music until he moved to New York City in 1976 and took a guitar along “because I knew I was going to need a friend” during down-time between jobs. He began studying instruction books, played with fellow actors who also had the music bug and even landed a few low-key gigs. He’s started songwriting as well; he penned “Kathy,” which appears on his first album, “Live and Unplugged,” after his first date with his future wife in August 1978.
Now Daniels has a body of about 50 songs,” including the perennial favorite “The Lifelong Tiger Fan Blues,” and no longer views his writing as a hobby. “Rarely will I just write something just to write something and put it in a notebook,” he says. “It’s got to have a chance to get on the big master set list.” And when he gets in front of a crowd, the goal is to show that he’s more than an actor indulging in a sideline or hobby.
“I’ve found out that (listeners) don’t want me to demand that they take me seriously as a musician or an artist and a rock ‘n’ roll star or something,” notes Daniels, who hosts an annual Thanksgiving weekend hootenanny at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theatre and a series of fundraising shows between Christmas and New Year’s at the Purple Rose. “They’re not going to let me do that.
“But if I quietly lure them in with some behind-the-scenes (acting) stories and ‘Here’s what it’s like’ and then drop the guitar-playing on them, then the songwriting ... By the end of it they’re on their feet or buying CDs or at least going, ‘He’s OK.’ ”
Some of his musical peers and mentors also feel that way. He’s appeared on stage with John Hiatt and taken lessons from virtuoso Stefan Grossman and singer-songwriter Keb’ Mo.’ One of his prize possessions is an acoustic guitar autographed by the late George Harrison after the former Beatle played a few songs on it on the set of Daniels’ 1989 film “Checking Out,” which Harrison’s Handmade Films produced.
And in June, Daniels trekked to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival near Chicago, where he the two guitarists of different reputations met and wound up comparing notes about a lesson Grossman gave Daniels earlier in the day.
“(Clapton) just turned to me and said, ‘Has (Grossman ) tried to teach you ‘Mississippi Blues’ yet?” Daniels relates. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m stumbling through it now,’ and Clapton said, ‘Isn’t the IV (chord) a bitch? For the life of me, I can’t get the IV.’
“And I’m going, ‘Yeah, and I can’t get I or the V, either — but the fact that Eric Clapton would be struggling with something gives hope to us all, doesn’t it?”
Jeff Daniels performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, 44575 Garfield Road, Clinton Township. Tickets are $25-50. Call 586-286-2141 or visit www.macombcenter.com.
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