There is no musician’s “ode to joy.” But if there were, it might go a little something like this – with apologies to Ludwig Von Beethoven and uh, Julie Andrews – “Records all golden and Grammies uncounted / Tours full of sell outs and Hard Rock wall-mounted / Fallon and Leno and Rock Hall of Fame / These are a few of my favorite things.”
Yes, unseasoned artists – and their even more unseasoned fans – may suffer from the misguided notion that a career in music is all about inevitable fame and fortune. That is until reality smacks them upside the head with a crisis or two…hundred.
All it takes to be able to appreciate the important things in life is to be faced with not having one. And no one understands that better than talented singer/songwriter Chris Daniels.
After being diagnosed two years ago with a virulent form of leukemia, Daniels was treated at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for eight months, undergoing a successful bone marrow transplant via stem cells from his sister.
The resilient artist survived to continue his remarkable story of musical promise, returning to recording and performing in 2011. The inspirational result was the 2012 release of his second solo album, the aptly titled “Better Days.” The intuitive artist was kind enough to chat with me recently about his career and the hard earned life lessons integral to the new album.
Over close to 30 years of performing, Daniels shared the stage with B.B. King, The Neville Brothers, Delbert McClinton, Robert Cray, Sheryl Crow, and Micky Hart among many others. He has performed thousands of shows since hitting the music scene in the ‘70s as a 17-year-old playing with David Johansen (pre-New York Dolls).
But it was his battle with a potentially fatal disease that changed him from a talented singer/songwriter into an insightful songwriter/singer. A battle made all the more personal given the fact that Daniels lost his first wife to cancer.
The album started off as something for Daniels’ son, who liked it just fine when it was simply his father and an acoustic guitar. That is until an extraordinary group of musicians volunteered to be a part of the record, and the songs began to take on a whole new life.
Daniels assembled an amazing cast of musicians for the record, including Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco), Sam Bush (New Grass Revival, AMA & IBMA stalwart), Kenny Passarelli (Elton John, Joe Walsh, Hall & Oates), John Magnie (The Subdudes), Mollie O'Brien (Prairie Home Companion), Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon & Punch Brothers), members of the Queen City Jazz Band and many more, each providing their special touch to the exquisitely rootsy 15-song collection.
To call the record “career defining” would be too imperfect – for it was more “life defining.” “The album was therapeutic,” professed Daniels. “When I started it, I wasn’t feeling very strong. So I just started it with going into a friend of mine’s studio that was across the street and recording acoustic guitar and vocal when I was having a good day. And that’s how it started.”
“The amazing thing is that all of that held up. One friend started coming in and sitting in. And a lot of times you’d find yourself re-cutting those original tracks. But there was so much personality in those original tracks and it’s fairly heartfelt that the producer John McVey said, ‘Man, I can't believe that these tracks, the vocals and the guitars are holding up.’ So it was a labor of love.”
“The basic perspective is you get grateful for every day. There were a couple of tunes that I wrote that sort of said that and those were just way too preachy. They never made the album. But the ones that did make it, like ‘Sister Delores’ and ‘Medical Marijuana’, those really did kind of mean something.”
Daniels’ honest – and entertaining – song about “pharmaceutical ganja” may have also meant something to residents of The Centennial State, as Colorado recently voted to legalize the green substance. The artist couldn’t have been more pleased.
“They just did a study – I think it came out of Norway. But it had to do with medical marijuana’s specific properties for easing pain for leukemia, people who’ve got what I have. And it really eases the pain that is associated with it. I was in a lot of pain. I was on morphine for a while. They know that medical marijuana really does relieve the pain. So I think it’s really good, especially on the medical side of things.”
“When it comes down to the new law in Colorado, I agree with (John) Hickenlooper, our governor, who said basically, ‘Before you grab the Cheetos and the Entenmann's here, we’ve got a lot of stuff to figure out.’”
“Medical Marijuana” is one of many, ahem, highlights from Daniels’ most recent release. Although the acclaimed “Better Days” is his second solo album, Daniels confessed that in many ways it felt like the first. “Yes, it did. I was 27 or 28 years old when I did the first one. And now 35 years later, it is.”
“The other thing about it, there were so many songs that I never had a place for with my band The Kings – stuff I had written with Sam Bush back in the Telluride Bluegrass (Festival). I wrote a song to do a banjo duet with Bela Fleck, there’s just no place for that in an eight-piece horn band (laughing).”
“So it’s really nice to have the new songs like ‘Rose Colored Glasses’ where you adopt the personality of this old ‘fuddy duddy’, who’s just really, totally, glad to be loved by anybody. Also, to have some of these older tunes that I never had a place for.”
While the new album provided Daniels with a welcome vehicle for some of his older songs, it could have created quite a dilemma – one that creatively prolific artists often find themselves faced with – namely, how to choose the best tunes for an album. But Daniels somehow managed to avoid the ordeal.
“‘Better Days’ really set the theme. The best way to do it is to describe the artwork. The guy who painted our cover is a guy named Willie Mathews and he did the last Vince Gill record. It’s an old truck that I’ve had for years. I had gotten it when I was 17.”
“I said, ‘We’ll put the truck in the field and mountains’ and all this stuff. And he just looked at me and said, ‘Man, are you over-thinking that.’ He said, ‘Just put the truck out there and let other people figure out how to interpret it. It’s either looking back at a bygone era or it’s all fixed up and it’s looking forward. It’s up to them, not up to you.’”
“So I really took that as a way to move forward and go, ‘Alright, I got it. It’s not my interpretation of this. The lead song is ‘Better Days,’ follow that with humor like ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘Therapy,’ write down the old gospel tunes – that’s an old Alan Lomax recording of the 'South Carolina' Sea Islands that I found. Go with that and then let other people determine what they think that’s about.’”
Even on the best days, balancing musical egos can be a daunting task. But somewhat surprisingly, Daniels declared that the entire luminous roster of artists that came together for “Better Days” seemed to check their egos at the door of the recording studio, making it easy to successfully meld the different musical perspectives.
“Parts of that were an outgrowth of being sick. These were friends who really cared about me. Richie Furay said, ‘Man, I'm so glad you’re back. I heard you’re working on a record. I’d love to sing on a track.’ And he was so humble. He came in and said, ‘Is that good enough?’ I said, ‘Richie, this is the voice of ‘Kind Woman.’ It’s the songs I listened to as a kid – Buffalo Springfield. God, Richie, good enough? Freaking fantastic!’”
“And a lot of folks basically said that, you know? Sam Bush was hilarious. He’d go – he calls me ‘Spoons,’ which is a nickname from the 1970s – ‘Spoons, is that what you wanted?’ And I said, ‘Sam, that’s four tracks of what I wanted.’ That was the hardest part for us, choosing the best take and going, ‘Well, A or B? They’re both fantastic.’”
And speaking of A’s and B’s, when he's not on stage Daniels is an Assistant Professor of music business and music history at the University of Colorado at Denver. As you might expect, he excels in the classroom as well, having received the 2011 Award for Excellence in Teaching from UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
The multi-talented artist’s health trials have proven to be a learning experience for his students as well as for Daniels. “Well, I think my students relate to it. My students relate to the fact that it’s not just somebody standing in front of them who is a teacher. It’s somebody who’s had life experiences that a lot of them can relate to.”
“I've become a little more valid in their eyes as someone whose experiences are not just academic. I've had a bunch of students who basically say, ‘You are an inspiration’ and I find that overwhelming. I don’t ever feel like an inspiration. I'm honored if they see anything in me.”
“I don’t mean to be preachy, but if they read anything into it, it’s that we’re all gonna have mountains to climb. We’re all gonna have stuff that just sucks. That’s kind of the theme of ‘Better Days,’ those are the ones you keep looking towards.”
“They also are funny. I was still in the hospital when the fall term started, so I was teaching via Skype. They’d have me up on this big, giant monitor at the front of the classroom teaching via Skype. And I got back to class and one of my kids said, ‘Dude, you’re much smaller in person.’ (laughing) The other thing is, they slap me with a little reality too. I really love my students.”
To his collegiate charges, Daniels may in fact be “smaller in person.” But there’s no denying that conquering a heap of challenges has transformed the Rocky Mountain resident into a mountain of a man. And the grateful Daniels is eager to scale new peaks.
“There was a moment that lasted about three seconds when I went, ‘Well sh**, now what do I do?’ And that turned around instantaneously because there’s projects that I would like to do and it’s really a question of narrowing it down.”
“I'm wanting to do a record with a guy from Arizona originally who moved up here and started a soul band called the Freddi Henchi Band and he’s got one of the best soul voices of all time. His name is Freddi Gowdy.”
“I’ve wanted to do a Kings record called ‘Waiting Out Back,’ which really goes back to that sound of Johnny Taylor and some of these great Steve Cropper guitar lines and these great Memphis horns and this great soul music that came out of Memphis. It’s such a great sound and I want to do it with Freddi. So that’s the next one kind of on the list.”
And just in case you’re wondering, the confident Daniels wasn’t talking about his bucket list…