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Cheryl Wheeler
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published September 1993 Boston Phoenix)

Cheryl Wheeler
A crowded, smoky bar in a blue-collar neighborhood is an unlikely venue for a female folk singer known for wistful, heart-wrenching ballads. It's 6:00 on a Sunday night and Cheryl Wheeler is understandably nervous, fielding questions from an inebriated man wearing a paratroopers baseball cap, chain-smoking Camels, asking her if she is the next Janice Joplin. Her quick humor helps her through the heckling sound check and she holds her own until she is satisfied with the mix. "Who booked me here?" she asks rhetorically and scratches her head, walking off the stage to a basement dressing room.

A familiar presence and an extremely popular artist in the New England coffeehouse circuit, Wheeler is one of a handful of artists who can charm listeners regardless of their entertainment expectations, political stance, or current state of mind. She engages people from many walks of life, reaching them with her crafted, melodic songs. Her music is simple and immediately appealing, carried by a falsetto hook in her voice that grabs listeners and musicians alike. She is known in folk circles as a songwriter's songwriter, equally adept at creating gems for glittering Nashville stars as she is at writing simple autobiographical folk tunes about frisky dogs or elderly neighbors.

She is an artist of contrasts. Her music is introspective and tender, yet her stage presence is often sarcastic, cynical and cutting to the point of hilarity. She punctuates her sets with comical diatribes ranging from gun control to the antics of television's Home Shopping Club. But Wheeler's talent is far-reaching. Her songs have been covered by a wide variety of folk and country artists including Maura O'Connell ("Summer Fly") Dan Seals ("Addicted") and Suzy Bogguss who recently scored a hit with her rendition of "Aces."

Despite an impressive resume, Cheryl Wheeler pulls no punches, is bluntly honest and genuinely grateful for her talent. "There is absolutely nothing I like more than song writing and there never will be," says Wheeler before the show at the aforementioned crowded, smoky bar. "Sometimes I don't like performing (raises her eyes, looking toward the stage) or I don't want to go on stage, but I always love to pull out my guitar and play and write new songs." She adds, " I am lucky in that I always knew what I wanted to do."

Song writing is a craft she developed growing up in suburban Maryland with an ear to the radio. "I like to tell people that my biggest musical influence is Art Linkletter, but I really love the Beatles, Beach Boys and all that '60s stuff," she laughs. "I am very drawn to melody. I suppose you can be accused of being too melodic, but so what. It's what I like and do best."

After a brief, but critically rewarding stint on Capitol Records' Nashville division, Cheryl has moved to the Cambridge-based and folk-friendly Rounder label. Her new album, titled Driving Home , released this week (Sept. 20) is classic Wheeler. Produced by old friend and one-time employer, Jonathan Edwards (Wheeler played bass in Edwards' band during his "Sunshine " heyday) the album is a literal and symbolic return to the familiar turf of New England.

Affectionate love songs, sentimental reflections and a hint of comedic political commentary round out the album. Her voice is in top form and the songs, texture, and production of the album find her willfully sitting in a comfortable folk setting. "I am a folk artist, although I've been told my music is found all over record stores," she adds. "I don't sing traditional folk, but I am a singer-songwriter, which is also called folk. This is where I belong."

The folk network, coffeehouse circuit and radio format of New England suit her music best. "They just did not know what to do with me down there in Nashville," says Wheeler referring to Capitol's marketing people and her debut album for them, Circles And Arrows. "They sent me down the same channels as Garth Brooks. The DJ's would listen to me and say, 'What are we supposed to do with this,' and I wasn't going to kiss their asses to get them to play the record. I have to be accepted on my terms and Rounder is right for that." Playing the game her way has its costs but none of that seems to bother Wheeler. Promotion is an aspect of the business that has never appealed to her. "I don't know shit about marketing and business stuff. I concentrate on what I do best— song writing."

And she does it well. Suzy Bogguss' version of her song "Aces" has received considerable airplay on mass market country radio and has a supporting video in regular rotation. Her version is a straight reading of Wheeler's own and that is fine with Cheryl. "Suzy has got the look and a sweet voice and she is willing to do what the label wants. She'll put a band together and perform the songs like the record and she is no doubt good at it. She is a marvelous performer," comments Wheeler. "I did real well by Suzy. She goes out and does the work and I get the check. Now that's the way to work," she says laughing. "Besides, I don't want a band. I did that once and everyone was fabulous and it was fun, but you have to practice and I couldn't ramble on the way I do if I had a band. No, I'm better by myself," she concludes.

The studio is another story. Driving Home finds her in the company of friends including, Patty Larkin, country diva Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and bluegrass prodigy, Alison Krauss. But one of the more interesting appearances on the new album is Janis Ian. Ian who is best known for her late '60s hit, "Society's Child," co-wrote one of the album's most original pieces, "Orbiting Jupiter," a lush romantic piece that features Kenny White on piano countered by banks of synthesized strings. It is a pleasing departure for Cheryl. Wheeler explains the collaboration, "Janis came up to me and asked if we could write together. I had this song that needed a good refrain. She came along and her chorus fit perfectly and brought it all together."

The opening title cut is a nostalgic account of taking the time to return home, enjoying a brief moment and floats on jazz-inspired chords. "75 Septembers" recounts her father's life and the changes he has witnessed. And "Almost," the album's closer, is the type of song that endears fans. It is a delicate song, ranking with her best ballads ("Arrow," or "Aces") that has her searching for answers in a relationship that almost works. "I cried my whole face off when I wrote that song," she says screwing her face up. " I get moved by my music to a point where sometimes I just bawl."

Cheryl eventually takes the stage at the crowded, smoky bar and the buzz of the room wanes. She opens the set with "Driving Home," and the audience is held rapt. Before the night is over she has won over the house, drawing ovations, whistles and laughter for her witty digressions. After the show she sits back, scratches her head and quips, "I guess these songs are brewing inside of me. I grew up not expressing my feelings. Now these feelings just come rolling out. I guess other people have the same feelings to."

Chris Flisher

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