Jeff Daniels’ True Passion Uncovered; Playing Delta Blues Style Guitar and Song Writing

Thanks largely to some of his predecessors’ failed attempts at music careers (just listen to William Shatner’s disturbing version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”), there’s a stigma actors-turned-musicians must overcome to be taken seriously.

But Daniels had a weapon—a funny, clever, catchy, and skillfully performed song, “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too.” “That was a song I wrote before I played those first shows, and that was just to cut the critics’ knees out,” he explains. “‘Look—I’m ahead of you, I get it, there’s a big elephant in the room.’”

Daniels, however, is not the average celebrity moonlighting as a musician. His solo performances are backed up by 30 years of intense fingerstyle guitar study and song craftsmanship, a discipline he began to take seriously at the birth of his acting career. Like many young actors, he went from audition to audition, then waited in his apartment for the phone to ring. Being a compulsively creative artist, Daniels found this time to be a great opportunity to channel the stress of launching his fledgling career and engage in another passion: playing Delta blues style guitar and writing songs.

“I’m an actor, so that was my focus,” says Daniels. “That was where the effort was going, and the guitar was simply something I did in the apartment. Creatively, it kept me sane because, when you’re waiting in between phone calls for someone to decide when it’s appropriate for you to be creative again, you can go nuts. So, the guitar was this kind of consistent creative outlet for me.”

Daniels has always been fascinated with the writing process, ever since an early acting job in the ’70s at New York’s Circle Repertory Theater. “I was stunned,” he recalls. “I walked in there, and I saw all of these playwrights trying to rewrite their second acts. I love that. That was the writer in me asking, ‘What are you doing?’ The creation of art; it’s thrilling.” A few years later, he would experience the same fascination as he watched Woody Allen tweaking the script of The Purple Rose of Cairo, on set in the early ’80s.

“I became really interested in the writing process,” Daniels explains. “My outlet was songwriting, so I just pursued it that way.” He was always fascinated with the storytellers: Steve Goodman, Arlo Guthrie, John Prine, and Bonnie Rait, among many others. “I was fascinated by where they came from with their writing,” he says. His first attempts, he admits, were “God awful,” but, at least in those days, it was more about the process than the product. “I have the advantage of not having to write to make a living,” Daniels says. “I’m not trying to write something that’s going to make the charts, or trying to sell something to a country western artist, I’m just writing for me.”

Whether he’s writing a play, a screenplay, or a song, Daniels is guided by the same intuition. “There are things that just jump out, and you say, ‘That’s a song,’” he says. “It’s what writers do. I’m trying to think of things, and have the ear out for things that are different and unique. Then, when you put a song around it, it’s true and familiar.”

About 10 years ago, at the urging of some friends, Daniels, who had been a closet musician up until that point, decided to play publicly. Following in the footsteps of his singing/songwriting heroes, he sang with a guitar as his only accompaniment. “I go back to seeing Stevie Goodman at the Bottom Line in New York,” Daniels says. “To see this guy entertain that audience all by himself; to walk out with just a guitar and hold them, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do. That interests me.’”

He wasn’t, however, prepared for the shock that ensued. “When I went out with just my guitar, it was nothing but white hot fear,” he says. “I was sweating like a large man from the Midwest; it was just horrible. And I didn’t get that. This is not the way it is when I do a play in New York, or on a movie set.”

As an actor, Daniels is trained in a certain way to become the character he is portraying. His own fears become irrelevant, and the weeks and months of preparation for the role take over and pull him through the performance. There is no anxiety—only preparation and execution. With music, however, Daniels felt naked, with nothing but his voice and his guitar. That just goes to show that stage fright can affect anyone, even celebrities and seasoned actors.

Eventually, he was able to use his experience as an actor to get over his fear of performing. “What helped me was not only practicing and really going to the woodshed on my guitar, but also finding a character to walk out with that I was familiar with,” explains Daniels. “So it’s me in a good mood, that’s the character. And it is: I enjoy doing this. I love playing, I love the creative challenge of pulling off an evening all by myself, and making sure the audience has a great time, even for those who come in with a low expectation of how the evening is going to go.”

With 70-plus songs that he can perform in any given night, five records, and an ever-growing list of national tour dates, Daniels gets a certain satisfaction out of his blossoming music career that his acting and screenwriting activities don’t offer him. “I have complete control over it,” he explains. “I’m everything—I’m the writer, the performer, and the editor. I like that. That’s not the case in movies or television; you’re in the service of others. With music, I don’t have to wait for the phone to ring.”

His music career also serves as a way to raise additional money for The Purple Rose, a professional theater company that, using all Michigan actors and writers, “is designed to hold a mirror up to the people that live here.” All of the proceeds from concert tickets and album sales, including his latest release with mandolinist/fiddler Brad Phillips, Keep It Right Here, go directly to supporting the theater.

Whether he is acting, writing a play, or performing music, it all comes down to the same idea. “It all comes from the same place; it all comes from this blank page—filling the page, whether you’re creating a character from nothing, or writing a play, or picking up the guitar.” Music, however, offers something unique from his other disciplines—a sense of continuity and evolution. “[For me], the making of a movie is over on the last day of shooting,” Daniels explains. “We’re done, and a year later, it comes out. When you write a song, you can go out and perform it, and it stays alive somehow.”

Check out for his complete discography, upcoming concert dates, and even a documentary about life on the road in a 42-foot RV.

A longtime fan of Dumb and Dumber and The Squid and the Whale, Jason Borisoff was impressed by jeff Daniels’ dedication and skill as a guitarist and songwriter.

To read our full July-August 2011 issue click here!

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