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BellyUp Aspen Welcome's Jeff Daniels the Musician, With or Without the Moped

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Jeff Daniels the MusicianJeff Daniels the Musician Aspen, CO -"You know, my dad taught me to drive a stick when I was around 16, too. We went out in his silver Scirocco and drove around and around this empty parking lot, after dark, for what seemed like months," I told actor, playwright turned singer-songwriter Jeff Daniels, recalling what must have been a very painful process for both my dad, and his nice car.

"Oh, I can still smell that clutch burning!" said Daniels, with a chuckle, taking a break from driving to chat in a good cell zone. He’s on the road with his wife Kathleen, their two Australian Shepherds and their 42-foot recreational vehicle, on nation-wide tour and making their way to Aspen for this Friday’s show at the BellyUp.

We were talking about his own daughter and that magical time, when she first learned to drive. He penned a song in her honor. Now in college, she frequently joins him onstage for “Daddy’s Little Daughter,” dedicated to Ms. Daniels and her earlier stints behind the wheel. On his latest release, “Live at the Purple Rose,” Daddy Daniels opens the song with a few questions: “How many of you have kids? How many of you have kids who drive? How many of you have kids who drive and they’re on their learner’s permit right now?” The audience snickers in the background.

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He strums the opening chords, then starts to sing. “She starts the car when it’s already running! Inside the garage she’s got that engine gunnin’…mean daddy’s daughter going out for a ride - good god in heaven, please bring me back alive!” The audience hoots and hollers in appreciation.

“I didn’t tell her about the song and when I first performed it, I brought out a chair and asked her to come up on-stage,” recalls Daniels. “She whispered in my ear, ‘I’m gonna kill you’ and kind of looked out at the crowd. There were 1500 people looking back and really, it could’ve gone any way. I’d brought a steering wheel out, too, asked her to grab it while I sang. The audience just went wild. She’s in college now and she’ll call me the day before a show and say, ‘Hey dad, I’m comin’ tomorrow...' Then she’ll come up onstage and just work the crowd. She’s added her own bits where she’s texting, talking on the phone, waving out the window at imaginary passersby…she’s totally upstaged me,” says Daniels, with an appreciative laugh. “She’s scary funny.”

No surprise, when your dad’s known for destroying a toilet in Dumb and Dumber. Daniels’ two sons were in elementary school when the movie came out and weren’t sure what to expect when they went to class that first day. “The other kids came to school wearing Dumb and Dumber baseball hats and almost cheered when they saw the boys. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea,” recalls Daniels, with a laugh.

Actor-turned-musician, however, isn’t quite as popular a career move. “Great, another actor trying to sing and play guitar…all the world needs is another one of those, right?” asks Daniels. He uses the stigma to his advantage, however, fully acknowledging that most first-time concert-goers are only there to see “that guy from the movies.”
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“I put my arm around the elephant in the room; you can’t distance yourself from it,” says Daniels. “The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore the reason they bought the tickets. But just give me ten minutes, and I’ll have you for the whole night. I don’t have a band, I don’t do covers; it’s just me and my guitar. And I use the movie to have fun with the audience and lead into funny things.”

Those funny things are his original songs: clever, playful and full of personal anecdotes on universal themes like breaking up, getting older and remembering where you’re from. With titles like “Baby, Take Your Tongue Outta My Mouth, I’m Kissin You G’Bye” and ‘How “Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax?” his signature sense of humor is never far from the next verse.

To each and every song, there’s a bit of back-story because, for Daniels, the passion behind the music starts with the art of storytelling. “I’ve been writing songs for 30 years, it’s just something I did…I was a songwriter before I knew it. I was brought up in the theater, surrounded by playwrights and like writing a play, writing a song is about connecting with the audience, and sustaining that connection. When I write plays, I stop every 10 pages and in my head, I turn to the audience and say, ‘OK, what happens now?’ They’ll raise their hands and I make sure they’re all wrong. I write myself into a corner, then I write myself out of it. You gotta sneak up on them – if you’re predictable, you’re boring. Writing a song is about being human. You need to get in their heads and hold up a mirror, without them seeing it.”
Before a Converted AudienceBefore a Converted Audience
Once onstage, the art of live performance begins, being practiced but rolling with the punches that an ever-changing audience, including your daughter, throw your way. “The thing is, not every movie you do is interesting – I’ve done maybe a dozen movies that will outlive me – the Squid and the Whale, Purple Rose of Cairo, Dumb and Dumber. But everyone wants you to repeat what you’ve already done. I wanted to do something creatively challenging and for me, now, that’s walking out on stage with my new material, no band, bantering back and forth with the audience and making it look totally in the moment. When you shoot a movie with Clint Eastwood, you do only one take – he’s famous for it. But really, there’s a method to the madness. Stevie Goodman, Utah Phillips…they were masters of making a room full of 200 people feel like they were seeing something for the first time.”
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What started as a distraction has become a true passion and a whole new creative outlet. “Playing guitar used to be my back porch hobby, something to take me away from showbiz for awhile. Then it became my best friend. To be honest, the guitar kept me sane,” he shares. And now, he’s out on the road and behind a guitar, as opposed to a camera, for as long as he’s ever been. “This is the first time I’ve ever said to the acting business, ‘Don’t call me, I’m unavailable until January.’”

When the tour rolls back home, proceeds from his new endeavor, including CD sales and downloads, will go to Daniels’ brainchild and not-for-profit baby, the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan. The Purple Rose features New American plays, six to seven times a week, about 44 weeks out of the year. “The theater’s dedicated to Michigan playwrights and after 20 years, it runs like a creative machine. I’m the unpaid executive director but all the people are in place – it’s designed so I can leave; it’s their thing, their home. The Purple Rose nurtures the artists in Southeastern Michigan and focuses on working playwrights, those who are consistently writing. We actually produce the plays as well, which can be risky, what with the time and cost, but we love the challenge of it.”

In the meantime, the man plays on. The change of scenery, the mastering of new craft and the challenge of being “another actor turned singer/songwriter” fuels the creative fire. “I’ve always let movies lead the way. But now, I’m enjoying this so much.”

Jeff Daniels at BellyUp Aspen Friday, November 5th. Tickets and details, www.bellyupaspen.com.