Cheryl Wheeler has to be seen to be appreciated. Nothing you read and nothing you hear from her album prepares you for how good a performer she is.
From her albums you can tell that she is a gifted songwriter with a beautiful voice. From other people’s comments about her you can learn that she is a natural story teller with a fantastic sense of humor. But until you see her in person, you never really believe what you’ve been told about her. Besides, almost half of the songs she does during her shows haven’t been recorded!
If you have never seen her do a live concert, then by all means do so! I get e-mail from people all the time thanking me for spreading the word about Cheryl. They go to the concert knowing they will enjoy it, and often find it even better than they had thought it would be. If she doesn’t ever perform near you, then buy her video and see what you are missing. Then make arrangements to be where she is performing soon.
Cheryl’s first concert was to a captive audience. She found an old toy ukelele in a neighbor’s attic and serenaded her mother who was taking a bath at the time. A year later she got a real ukelele, then finally got her first guitar. She learned guitar from a neighbor, who also taught a group of boys. Each week they would get together and play just about any song they could think of for hours on end. Her first public performance was at a Hootenany type show when she was 12. She started writing songs when she was 17.
She has never had a “Day Job”. Her first professional gigs were at the Steak and Ale Restaurant in her home town of Timonium, Maryland. The place only had one PA system; in the middle of her songs you would hear: “Jones, party of four … Jones, party of four”. She finally convinced them to get a second PA system.
She performed at venues around Baltimore and Washington DC before moving to New England in 1976, where she now lives. She had a band for a while, but usually performs solo now, or with Kenny White, who often opens and then accompanies her and sings backup. She often appears in the On a Winter’s Night tour, and was part of the Philo 25th Anniversary tour.
In 1983, Cheryl released a self produced EP called Newport Songs. Her first two albums Cheryl Wheeler in 1986, and Half a Book in 1991 were on an independent label, North Star. That company also released a promo tape called Live and Otherwise in 1987. This was a bonus tape that was sent to anyone who filled out a survey form that was included in a number of the North Star albums.
Her third album, Circles & Arrows, was originally released on Capitol in 1991, but it was dropped almost immediately due to a political shakeup with the label company. (The people who had promoted her album were let go, and Capitol decided to heavily promote Garth Brooks)
Her fourth album Driving Home was on Philo in 1993, a division of Rounder, and produced three singles: Almost, Silver Lining, and 75 Septembers, a song written for her father, and covered by Peter, Paul & Mary on their album Life Lines.
Rounder later reissued Circles & Arrows in 1995, followed by Mrs. Pinocci’s Guitar in 1995, Sylvia Hotel in 1999, the compilation album Different Stripe, and finally Defying Gravity.
In 2003, Cheryl graciously allowed the creation of No Previous Record, a two-disc album of songs that were never released on a commercial label. This album consisted of audience, FM, and soundboard recordings, and is restricted to members of her email list.
In 1998 a video of a live concert was released, What Do I Care? I Don’t Have Any Kids Construction Company. The film had been shot a few years before, so that by the time it came out, Cheryl’s act had changed enough that people who saw the video would still see a different show when they went to see Cheryl perform.
Cheryl’s songs are often emotional portraits of people, leaving you with the impression that you know the characters. You find yourself being dragged into the song rather than standing outside and observing. Other songs by Cheryl are hilarious situation comedies.
From her songs you can get glimpses about her childhood: She was a Tom-Boy ( I Know This Town ) who loved music ( Music In My Room ).
You can also get glimpses of her adulthood: Her move to New England ( Northern Girl ), her neighbors ( Quarter Moon and His Home Town ), her surroundings ( When Fall Comes to New England, and The Storm ), and her time on the road ( Rainy Road Into Atlanta, Lighting Up the Mighty Mississippi, and Sylvia Hotel ).
But the songs that touch people the most are her songs about relationships, such as Arrow, Aces, and But the Days and Nights Are Long (formerly “Boulder Hotel Room”).
Cheryl’s funny songs are legendary. Unfortunately, they are almost never recorded. One notable exception is Estate Sale for which a video was made. Cheryl has always said that doing a funny song live is quite different than recording one. I guess enough of us have complained, because Mrs. Pinocci’s Guitar and Sylvia Hotel have several of my favorite funny ones. Good songs to request at concerts are: Cow Pattern Clothes (which is on her video, (I Can’t Watch) TV, and, of course, Is It Peace Or Is It Prozac?.
If your idea of a folk singer/songwriter concert is a bunch of people clapping politely after songs, and then sitting quietly while the performer says things like “This next song is about …”, well, you’ve never seen a Cheryl Wheeler concert before.
Cheryl’s concerts are more like what you would find at a comedy club than expect to find at a folk music concert. She will tell a story that has you rolling in the aisles, and then sing a song that leaves you wiping tears from your eyes. She will talk about some serious current event, and then sing a song that will have you howling with laughter. Her entire concert is a emotional roller coaster.
Her set list used to be a crumpled piece of paper with a bunch of song titles. She has improved on that. Now she has a picture of her border collie James in a plastic holder with the set list written on a piece of paper tucked behind the picture. After each song, she’ll look at the list and decide what to do next. If somebody calls out a request, and her guitar is in the right key, she might try it, even if she hasn’t done it in a while. If she has two sets back to back, she almost never does the same (or even similar) group of songs.
Her funny stories between songs show as much diversity. Each time she tells a story, it will be a little bit different, so even if you’ve heard it before, you still find yourself laughing.
To repeat, there is no way you can read about Cheryl and get a good picture of what she or her concerts are like. You have to see one. If she is performing in your area, do whatever it takes to get to her concert. You won’t be sorry. If she isn’t performing anywhere near you, buy her video.