Cheryl Wheeler's revealing songcraft
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 10, 2002) – Whether she is singing one of her sentimental ballads or her cheeky satirical songs, Cheryl Wheeler is always cutting to the heart of the matter. In so doing, she reveals a little part of herself for all who want to see.
For some, this might present a problem, but not for Wheeler.
“I’ve never experienced the feeling of wondering if it would be OK to express a feeling,” said Wheeler in a phone interview earlier this week from her home in eastern Massachusetts.
“I’m lucky I don’t have any feelings to hide,” said Wheeler, the country-flavored folk-pop singer-songwriter who performs on Friday night at 8 at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield as part of the “Originals in Song” series. For tickets call 443-7171, ext. 10.
“I don’t secretly want to suck on rabbit’s ears,” said Wheeler. “All the stuff I feel is kind of typical.”
Perhaps the everywoman quality of Wheeler’s songs explain their appeal, which goes far behind her own loyal following to include fans of such country-pop stars as Dan Seals, Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss. While their fans may not know or even care, several of their greatest hits – country songs like “Addicted” and “Aces” – were penned by Wheeler, who has also supplied songs to Bette Midler and Maura O’Connell.
Indeed, Wheeler credits their pop success to the fact that she writes about universal emotions.
“Most people are very similar in their feelings, and if I write a song that expresses a strong feeling I have, there’s a very good chance that lots of people who’ve had that feeling will relate to it.”
Wheeler grew up in Timonium, Md., where she first learned ukulele and guitar from a neighbor. She didn’t think about performing as a career until she quit college and was faced with the need to make a living.
At first she applied for a job as a waitress, but realized she wasn’t cut out for the job. But the same restaurant that almost hired her to serve food to customers was also looking for a singer/guitarist to entertain them. Wheeler auditioned and got the job, and so began her career as a performer.
From there Wheeler became a regular at folk venues around Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before relocating to Newport, R.I., in the early 1970s, when she appeared with musicians like Tom Rush, Gordon Lightfoot, and Jonathan Edwards, for whom she played bass and who became her producer and a mentor of sorts.
Her first full-length album came out in 1986. “Cheryl Wheeler” included the original versions of her most requested song, “Arrow,” as well as “Aces,” which became a top 10 hit for Suzy Bogguss, and “Addicted,” which went all the way to number one on the country charts for Dan Seals.
After a brief and ultimately unsuccessful flirtation with Nashville record labels, Wheeler settled into a comfortable, longstanding relationship with Cambridge-based Rounder Records, which over the past decade has released her albums on its Philo imprint, including Driving Home, Mrs. Pinocchi’s Guitar, and her latest, Sylvia Hotel.
Like her previous albums, Sylvia Hotel includes poignant portraits of loneliness bumping up against political protest tunes and satirical numbers featuring Wheeler’s trademark wit.
What ties serious songs like “His Hometown” and goofy numbers like “Potato” together is their emotional authenticity.
But for Wheeler, there’s no question about writing any other way.
“What should I write songs about, stuff that didn’t happen to me?” she said. “I just have to write what comes to me and put it out there. I have never felt uncomfortable about being the product of my emotional self.”
Wheeler says she gets great satisfaction when completing a song that captures an emotional truth.
“There’s no better feeling than adequately expressing something that you feel,” she said. “It’s a total rush. I’d imagine that when someone has finished a great sculpture or painting -- not that I’m saying I’m a great songwriter -- that anyone who succesfully expresses themselves through any of the arts -- or any of the senses, really, because the arts are all about the senses -- that’s a tremendously satisfying feeling.”
Wheeler has no systematic routine for writing songs. “They just come to me,” she said. “And lucky me when they do. It helps to play guitar. But I can just be walking around and they come.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 11, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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