As a performer, most folks know Jeff Daniels as the mild-mannered actor in Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Pleasantville, among many others over the last 30 years. In addition to his screen and stage acting duties, Daniels manages to sing, strum, and perform concerts as well.
Who knew the blond guy from Dumb & Dumber was actually a raspy-voiced singer/songwriter with decent chops?
“Having played for 30 years, and having worked really hard at it, I think if they give me 15 minutes, I might have ’em,” Daniels says of the audiences he meets in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich. and out on the road.
Daniels performed an acoustic concert at the Charleston Music Hall in 2006 as part of Piccolo Spoleto. This week, he was sheduled to perform in support of his latest, Live @ The Purple Rose, but the show was cancelled on Tues. Oct. 26.
Daniels recorded the lively unplugged set in Aug. 2009 at the Purple Rose Theater, the nonprofit equity he founded in Chelsea in 1991 as a greenhouse for actors, writers, and directors. The venue is named after Woody Allen’s film.
“In 2000, they put me on stage with a guitar and sold tickets, just to raise money over a Christmas,” Daniels says of his first gig at the theater. “I found that I kind of liked it.
“I’ve had a lot of material in my back pocket for a long time,” he adds. “Some of these songs I wrote back in the ’70s, but I never intended to bring them out. There are far too many actor-turned-singer-songwriters out there and have been for years — the Shatners of the world [laughs].”
If he was a bit reluctant to perform his songs on stage during his first concerts, he’s thrilled to gig out these days.
“This is the biggest leg of the trip,” he says of the swing through the Southeast this month. “I was on Broadway over the last two years — and that was eight shows a week, so it really doesn’t seem like too much.”
Daniels, 55, grew up listening to all sorts of music, participating in local choirs, and working in high school musicals. He didn’t dive into songwriting and guitar playing until he moved to New York City in 1976 to pursue acting professionally.
“I bought a guitar and kept it with me,” he remembers. “I figured, rightly so, that I’d be sitting around in my one-room apartment, waiting for the phone to ring for months at a time. It kept the creative life going.”
Early in his career, Daniels learned more about blues and folk music, listening to New York strummers Christine Lavin and Stefan Grossman, Western songwriter Utah Phillips, and Chicago folkster Stevie Goodman.
“Lavin was so funny when I saw her at clubs,” Daniels says. “Her performance gave me permission to tap into the comedic side.
“I was really taken by the guys who told stories — and also by the people who were funny,” he adds. “Arlo Guthrie was the first concert I ever saw, and I understood everything he was singing about. There was this point of view to the writing that was unique and inspiring, and I latched onto that.”
The traditional storyteller role is consistent across most of Daniels’ albums, including his 2005 debut Live and Unplugged, 2006’s Grandfather’s Hat, and 2007’s Together Again.
As a veteran actor, being on stage is like a second home to Daniels. He actually prefers performing at the clubs and the smaller, intimate venues instead of the bigger music halls. It’s the intimacy between him and an audience that he values the most.
“It’s all about entertaining an audience and giving them a good night out,” he says. “If I can do that, I’m happy.”