Guitarist, singer and songwriter Cheryl Wheeler’s new album, "Defying Gravity," reflects the nature of her live shows. She takes her audiences on an emotional roller coaster ride, with some very sad, poignant songs, and some rib-ticklingly funny songs as well. She opensher new CD with an ode to her late father, who died in 2003 at the age of 88, "Since You’ve Been Gone," but predictably, closes on a higher note with two humorous songs about cell phones and air travel, "It’s The Phone," and "On The Plane."
Wheeler, the second daughter of a school administrator and a school nurse, was raised in Timonium, Maryland, just outside Baltimore. Speaking about her father, Wheeler says: "My dad was happy for me and my success. My whole family was musical and we all loved singing. My father didn’t really play any instrument but he could go over to the piano and pick out chords to hymns and stuff."
Wheeler, 54, now finds herself one of the old veterans of the new folk singer-songwriter scene that began to take off in the early 1980s. "The last few years, I’ve been taking it easier during the summers," she says in a phone interview from her home base near Swansea, Massachusetts, not far from Providence, Rhode Island. Instead of doing too many summer festivals, Wheeler prefers to perform at a select few and relegate most of her time on the road to the spring and fall, playing coffee houses and small theaters around the United States and Canada.
Wheeler has built her following the grassroots way, by talking to her audiences before, during, and after her shows, and signing CDs until the last patron has left the venue.
"Normally, summer is my least busy season. Because of the nature of my show – I like to talk to the audience a lot – outdoor gigs are certainly more challenging," she admits. Wheeler has performed at the Philadelphia Folk Festival several times and at Concerts Under the Stars in King of Prussia, but she doesn’t actively seek out festival bookings the way some folk performers do.
At Wheeler’s live shows, the between-song patter with the audience is just as important as her insight-filled songs. She tells hilarious stories about life on the road, life at home with her two dogs, two cats and roommate, and she offers up keen observations on societal trends.
"Wit and humor was a huge part of my growing up," Wheeler says, "my father was always very, very funny and we had great times at the dinner table, cracking each other up. My sister and mother and myself were all into noticing what was funny."
Wheeler began paying attention to folk music when she was 10 and began writing her own songs at 17. A neighbor introduced her to the world of folk music, but her parents had albums by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and other folk musicians. After attending Catonsville Community College for two years – and then dropping out of a four-year college in South Carolina – she found herself back home in Timonium, playing a place called the Steak & Ale. Her decision to quit college hurt her father at first. Eventually, he recognized her determination, and of course, lived to see her success.
Asked when she had a revelation of wanting to become a musician, Wheeler says it never happened. "It didn’t dawn on me so much that I wanted to do it for a living as I was already doing it for a living," she explains.
"After I quit college, the only thing I knew how to do was music, and I thought, if I can get paid to do what I want, wouldn’t that be nice."
She moved up to New England in 1976, where there were many more coffee houses than there were in suburban Baltimore. She still plays bars and festivals, "but coffee houses were always better than bar gigs, because the audience is naturally more attentive."
Since she got started in the early 1970s, Wheeler has since earned the respect and admiration of her peers, including veterans of the folk, folk rock and acoustic blues scene, like Chris Smither, Bill Morrissey, Patty Larkin and John Gorka. Wheeler’s songs have been recorded by Bette Middler, Melanie, and Suzzy Boggus, among others.
When it’s pointed out that "Defying Gravity" is a good mirror of the range of emotions her songs elicit from audience members at her live shows, Wheeler says, "Life is like that, isn’t it? There are two reasons you find yourself moved to tears: one is because something so hideous has happened that you can’t believe it and then there are those times in between that are a non-stop parade of hilarity, when you realize how absurd life can be."
Because she strives for perfection in every song, Wheeler says song writing is a difficult process for her. That’s one reason she doesn’t release a new album every year. "Defying Gravity" was released in the spring of this year on the Philo/ Rounder Records label. Her earlier releases include "Mrs. Pinocci’s Guitar" in 1995, "Sylvia Hotel," in 1999 and "No Previous Record" and "Different Stripe" in 2002 and 2003.
"It takes me a long time to write enough songs I like enough to want to record," she says, "with the album, ‘Mrs. Pinocci’s Guitar,’ I sometimes felt like I should have taken a little more time. It’s nice to send a producer more songs than you will possibly need on a record, so you end up recording more than you will use. But I want all 15 songs to be songs that I would be happy to have on a record."
While "Defying Gravity" gives the listener a good representation of one of her live shows, Wheeler is a musician you have to see live to fully appreciate. She is quick to point out that she appreciates the network of coffee houses, bars, and small theaters that she frequents, sometimes with other folk artists on the bill.
"This is the only thing I know how to do, and I’m fortunate to be able to do it for a living," she says.
"As far as my audience goes, I just hope they come out and decide they like it. I do my best to see that they do."
Cheryl Wheeler, Saturday, August 13, 7:30 p.m., Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton. $23 non-members; $18 members. 609-586-0616, ext. 20. Dinner available prior to the concert; call 609-890-6015 for reservations.