He ain’t goin’ nowhere
February 11, 2004
Here’s a curious thing: In the press materials provided by big record labels about their big acts and their latest CDs, often conspicuously absent is a mention of where the band or individual hails from. It would seem like essential information. Maybe the idea is that enormously popular musicians don’t really live anywhere, but on a tour bus that rolls endlessly from city to city.
I’ve always thought, though, that the missing info is a deliberate attempt to make the act transcend locale. As commercial pop music has come more unglued from any regional sound, bands seem to not want to be pegged as belonging to, or coming out of, any particular scene. Too provincial. They want to be seen as “national” acts. And the music tends to reflect this: What gets played on commercial radio tends toward an overall American sound, as likely to come from Omaha or Minneapolis as New York or Los Angeles.
Dan Sheridan is the opposite of all that. Everything about the singer-songwriter pegs him as an Aspenite. Over the course of five solo albums, Sheridan has almost exclusively used local musicians to back him. The majority of his songs have been recorded in Aspen. Those songs have been about local places, local sentiments, local politics – even local dogs. It is no accident that the first music my 4-year-old daughter has taken to heart is Sheridan’s.
Even his performing career doesn’t stray far from Aspen. While he is the current winner of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival’s Songwriter Showcase, and past winner of the Swallow Hill Folks Festival Competition, and of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s Troubadour Contest – all titles that could easily launch a national career – Sheridan has stayed close to home. He travels to Lyons for an Aug. 16 set on the Folks Festival main stage – part of the reward for winning the Songwriters Showcase – but most of his gigs are of the local variety. He plays apres-ski gigs, local benefits, all manner of special events from the Saturday Farmer’s Market to the Hotel Jerome’s Fourth of July bash – most anything to be a performing musician without having to lead the life of a road musician.
As Sheridan muses on the title track to his 2001 album “Small Town Love”: “I probably missed my big break/But I couldn’t live outside this place/Where the most amazing things are going down.”
“With the nature of folk music, it tends to be more provincial. You’re writing about where you are. I’ve lived in Aspen 15 years, pretty much longer than I’ve lived anywhere else,” said the 38-year-old Sheridan, a product of Batavia, in upstate New York, some 30 miles east of Buffalo. “And I love it here.
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“I don’t have a desire, at least at this point, to be touring all over, to be gone,” continued Sheridan who, with his wife of four years, Lani Shaw, is a new parent. “I’d rather just be a local guy and spend time with Baby Jack.”
On his new album “Recycle,” Sheridan further stakes his claim as a local guy, and Aspen’s most relevant musician. The album is a collection of updated versions of old songs, tracks lifted from his past solo CDs and three new songs. In addition to “Small Town Love,” there is “Here in the World,” an exquisite ballad whose lines – “Before the meadow museum/And the witness tree” – never fail to put a vivid image of the Aspen Art Museum and its surrounding grounds in my head.
Among the new songs on “Recycle” is “Big Money,” which becomes an instant Aspen classic. The song decries the transformation that Aspen has endured with the influx of urban second-home owners. But “Big Money” is more than the standard locals’ complaint. Sheridan weaves in humor (“I recently found a letter I wrote to myself/’If you get old and bitter you better move someplace else'”), history (“Down in their graves, you can hear the miners sing/’Big money ruins everything'”), and self-deprecation (“They don’t listen to my words, the words I’ve been singing/I’m here to fill the void between cell phones ringing”). The song ends on a note both defiant and upbeat: “We’ll build our own fences, we’ll yell and scream real loud/We’ll hang a sign on the door that says ‘No billionaires allowed.'” The few times Sheridan has played the song, including at the Wheeler Opera House, opening for the Nashville Bluegrass Band, he has been greeted with shouts of support.
Apart from the stance in favor of regular folks, “Big Money” is a departure in most every way. It’s three simple strummed chords, from a musician who regularly finger-picks complex structures in odd tunings. The words are direct as an arrow, in contrast to the image-rich lyrics Sheridan generally employs. The song is almost all rhythm rather than melody.
“It surprises me to hear that song. It’s pretty out of character for me,” said Sheridan, who has been a deli clerk at Clark’s, a Hotel Jerome bellman, and a Little Ollie’s deliveryman outside of his music career. “I tend to go for the melodic, toneful, romantic songs that aren’t quite so specific. This is specific, three chords, and about one feeling I had – seeing Aspen turn into a place that’s more exclusive and caters only to the super-rich. I just don’t want to see it turn into a soul-less, second-home playground for billionaires. You have to fight certain changes. It’s not about money, it’s about elitism and a complete separation of people on economic terms.”
On “Recycle,” Sheridan’s view isn’t limited to the mountains he can see from his home in Smuggler Trailer Park. In fact, Sheridan’s take on the world is getting more expansive and mature. His first album, 1991’s “Old Familiar Place,” is professionally executed, but dripping with sentimentality and an inner focus. On “Recycle,” which spans a decade of writing, the songs range to all points of view. “Sheep” is a putdown of the herd mentality. “Noah” honors the biblical character Sheridan calls the world’s first environmentalist, and serves as a reminder to preserve internal wildness as well. On “Dog Food,” Sheridan takes a different perspective entirely – that of a dog thanking his master for being there every day with a bowl of dog food.
If the mark of great art is enduring relevance, Sheridan has nailed it with the album-opener, “American.” His best-known song, “American” won for Sheridan the Troubadour Contest at the 1993 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The song was written in the wake of the first Gulf War, and Sheridan updated it for Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution (“The speaker for you is not speaking for me”). “American” is even more relevant now, in a time of actual wars, and wars of words over what it means to be an American.
“That’s why I put it first” on the album, said Sheridan. “I don’t like the conservative end of the Republican party telling me what it means to be a patriot. That’s radical, and it’s that exclusiveness again. Don’t tell me what the American flag means. What it means to be an American is to discuss things, disagree, and solve problems to benefit the most people, not just the rich.”
Sheridan has been notoriously critical of his past works, but with “Recycle,” he has changed his tune. There is neither a song nor a performance on the album that he doesn’t embrace.
“This is my fifth [solo] record, and I feel for the first time in my life, I made a good record from start to finish,” said Sheridan, who will have a CD release concert on Wednesday, July 2, at Main Street Bakery, at 8 p.m. (The concert kicks off a series of weekly “listening room” performances at Main Street Bakery.) “I listened to my first record last night, and it just wasn’t happening; I hadn’t developed as an artist. The only way to develop is to do it and make mistakes, and figure out what you don’t like.”
So Sheridan kept writing and recording and finding out what he didn’t like. “Canyon,” from 1993, included “American” and certified Sheridan as a real talent. But Sheridan found the album unsatisfying. “There was something about ‘Canyon’ that was really thick,” he said. “It didn’t move along the way it should have. For the most part, that wasn’t in the songs, but how the record was made.”
From 1994 to 1999, Sheridan put his solo career on the shelf to co-found Treehouse, a quintet of local players. It gave Sheridan experience in being a road musician, in collaborating, in playing louder music for louder crowds. But mostly, the experience convinced Sheridan he is better off as a solo player.
“I became a better player, a better musician,” he said. “I learned I don’t like playing covers for a late-night crowd that’s getting drunk.
“There’s a lot of liberty when you get to make your own decisions. In Treehouse, I was just a small part of that band.”
On 2000’s “Maroon Creek,” Sheridan gave his songs relatively elaborate productions; as soon as the album was released, Sheridan felt the treatment didn’t represent him accurately. Last year’s “Small Town Love” came closest to his ideal, until he packaged his best songs for “Recycle.”
“It feels good after five to make an album I like, and like sharing with people. It’s not, ‘Here’s my record … but … .
“It’s small town, small budget, real people.”