Jeff Daniels had a lull in his acting career about 15 years ago, when he just wasn’t getting the scripts he wanted. He was contemplating Act 3 of his life, and it didn’t involve the movies, but the ticket was sitting nearby — six strings and the truth.
“The guitar never lets you down. It’s like the dog. It’s always there. Unconditional,” he said in an interview last week with the Stowe Reporter. “You pick it up and you say, ‘Are we gonna play what we know, or are we gonna get better?’ That’s what the guitar says. Pick it up. Pick it up. It’s got a sign on it that says, ‘Play me.’”
If he was going to step away from acting, he was going to have to woodshed and hone his guitar skills, which were strong, but not strong enough. Luckily, the instrument had been a companion for 30 years, at that point.
Daniels was 21 years old in 1976, when he bought a Guild D-40 from Herb David’s Guitar Studio in Ann Arbor, Mich. That was five years before he landed his first movie role, a small part in Milos Forman’s “Ragtime,” and seven years before he hit it big in “Terms of Endearment.”
It was three years before he married his wife, Kathleen, a fellow Michigander and his college sweetheart.
His guitar “was like a friend, something I needed,” he said. “It was a creative place I could go that was safe in Hollywood — where you’re doing great. Now, you’re not. You’re wanted. Now, you’re not.”
Style of his own
Daniels starts his new “Acoustically Speakin’” tour this weekend, and his road heads up the mountain to Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Aug. 1.
He’s touring with the Ben Daniels Band, a six-piece fronted by the actor’s son — his daughter adds backing vocals on the tour and his other son is the tour manager.
Jeff Daniel’s guitar technique is nimble and clear, a technique honed in the early years from reading tablature by Stefan Grossman and Doc Watson. His style has been described as something like John Prine, but there’s a definite Steve Earle growl in there once in a while.
What’s mostly there is a voice that sounds like the ghosts of all those characters he’s played — Will McAvoy, Harry Dunne, Col. Joshua Chamberlain, Flap Horton — filtered through fine gravel. So, really, the comparisons are with himself and all the other selves he’s been.
He finds his funnybone in many of his songs. There’s “50 Shades of Grey,” a bawdy tale of what to expect when your wife finishes that book. And there’s “How ’Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax?” a song that was inspired by something Ryan Reynolds said to him on the set of 2009’s “Paper Man.”
He’s constantly writing when he’s acting. The song “Back When You Were Into Me” came to him when he heard a crew member on the set of “The Newsroom” say her husband used to be nicer, back when he was into her.
Clearly, the “Dumb and Dumber” star is no dummy, and his ears and eyes are constantly open, looking for something to put in the big, black notebook that will go with him to his grave when he dies.
“You’re gonna hear things, see things that you will know instinctively is a play, or song, or poem, or whatever. Short story. That’s what writers do,” he said. “The radar is always on.”
He doesn’t wear his politics directly on his sleeve, but he doesn’t avoid the current state of affairs in the world. “Hard to Hear the Angels Sing” is a plaintive call for resisting the bell toll of jingoism and nationalism. It was inspired by a line in a Kathleen Parker piece in The Washington Post shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated.
Daniels recalled a time shortly after 9/11, when Bruce Springsteen was driving along, and a man pulled up beside him, rolled down the window, and said, “We need you now.” Shortly after, Springsteen released “The Rising.”
So, while Daniels is mixing folksy humor and biographical feel-goods, he’s likely to drop “Angels,” just to remind people what world they live in now.
“We’re not going to ignore it,” he said. “There’s an elephant in the room. A big elephant in the room right now and it’s got a Russian accent.”
The Daniels’ tour will include some personally earnest songs, too, like “Good on the Bad Side of Town,” in which he plays the role of his late father dispensing advice to himself. Similarly, “I-94” is sung from his son Ben’s point of view. Even when he’s writing, he’s acting.
He’s proud to have Ben on stage playing with him, or playing over him, proud to just watch his kid continue the musical career he started when he was 19.
On his live 2018 release “Acoustic Sittin’,” he starts off “When My Fingers Touch Your Strings” by saying he “openly wept” when Ben asked him to teach him guitar.
“It’s a good ride, but it’s not permanent,” he said of acting, mindful of the fact that he thought 15 years ago he might be finishing that portion of his career. “What’s permanent is father, or husband, or family and where you live and what you do with your life. That’s permanent. The fame and all of that, it really is fleeting. It’s not something you can hang on to.”
Jeff in a good mood
Daniels is an artist without a whole lot of pretension, but with a whole lot of output. Besides his career on the big and little screen — the HBO series “The Newsroom” is what lured him back to Hollywood and made his star start to rise again — Daniels is an accomplished Broadway actor, twice nominated for a Tony Award, for 2009’s “God of Carnage” and 2016’s “Blackbird.”
He’s also a playwright, having written more than a dozen plays for The Purple Rose Theater, which he founded in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich., named after the 1985 Woody Allen movie in which Daniels had a starring role.
After 40 years of playing music, though, he has a pretty straightforward sense of self-confidence, knowing he won’t be able to match the musicians who have been dedicated just to music all the time — “I was busy doing other things,” he said — but he knows how to write, and write well.
“It doesn't mean you have to be overconfident and pretend that something mediocre is the greatest thing ever,” he said. “You gotta earn it and you gotta do the work. But you do not have to rely on other people for validation for what you just poured your heart and soul into.”
He had the choice decades ago what to do with his life, and he chose acting, even if his guitar has always been nearby, nearer even than his close-knit family. In doing so, he got really good at playing other people.
“You kind of get in there and put his clothes on and start thinking like him, and you forget yourself. And then they say cut, and you feel him float away,” he said. “The Jeff on stage, well, that took a while to learn.”
He said it was like when he started doing late-night shows like Letterman or Leno or Colbert, and didn’t know how to be because he didn’t have a character to play.
“I just said, ‘The character is Jeff in a good mood,” he said. “Just jumping off the cliffs of Mount Positive.”