By Noah Hubbell
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Some musicians consider the stage a bully pulpit for pounding ideas into people's minds. Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine are two groups who've often used their stage time to rail against the evils of capitalism and the corporate structure -- while reaping the benefits of both. But, while Cheryl Wheeler is a politically minded artist with plenty of her own opinions, the last thing she'll do is inflict her politics on an audience. When you're a performer on a stage, says the folk-leaning singer-songwriter, "It's your job to entertain. You're not there to give them a heavy dose of your political views. It's about them -- not you." That said, such rules don't apply during a phone interview from a Texas hotel room, where she's more than happy to share her political thoughts -- including those involving the new guy who will be holing up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"If we have gone so far as to elect 'that man' as president," she says, refusing to even speak George W. Bush's name, "we deserve whatever the hell we get. And I think we're going to regret it."
Such sentiments won't win her any fans at Bubbaya's new address, but they might endear her even more to her own audience -- an increasingly broad group that's been drawn by her wit, humor and talent. Over the past few years, Wheeler has become one of the nation's better singer-songwriters by crafting a catalogue of songs as impassioned and to-the-point as her commentaries. As a singer, Wheeler possesses a voice of lead-crystal clarity, a hard-but-fragile timbre that sparkles -- and cuts -- like shattered glass. It's a fitting instrument for her poignant, detail-rich tunes -- smart songs that deliver honest views on adult issues. Pair those assets with a stage banter as sharp as a new Ginsu knife and a funny bone as big as her heart, and Wheeler makes for a compelling solo act.
While Wheeler's name might not be familiar to much of America, many of her songs are. A veteran of the Washington, D.C., folk scene of the late '70s, she released her first recording, Newport Songs, in 1983, with the help of fellow songwriter Jonathan Edwards. In 1986 she released Cheryl Wheeler, and two songs from that collection, "Aces" and "Addicted," became hits for Suzy Bogus and Dan Seals, respectively. The Seals cut reached number one on the country charts in 1987. In 1990 she released Circles & Arrowson Capitol Records, but she was dropped shortly after the disc's release, following the departure of the label allies who had initially signed her. In 1993 Wheeler released Driving Home(on Philo Records, a Rounder imprint); Mrs. Pinocchi's Guitar followed in 1995. Both recordings offer ample evidence of Wheeler's impressive skill in the form of wistful love songs, sweet character sketches and bittersweet snapshots of life and culture gone awry in America. Along the way, more artists recognized her merits, and her songs appeared on discs from Bette Midler and Maura O'Connell. In 1999, Wheeler released her third collection of Philo material, Sylvia Hotel. The disc features the song "If It Were Up to Me," which became a popular cut in the United States -- and Colorado in particular -- for its subject: school shootings.
Initially written in response to the schoolyard killings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, "If It Were Up to Me" became an anthem of sorts in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings nearly two years ago. Wheeler performed the tune in Denver at a gun-control rally during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting shortly after the tragedy, and Rounder donated $5 to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence each time the tune was played on triple-A radio. The song put Wheeler's name on the minds of a much larger audience: both gun-control proponents and a small number of anti-gun-control people who saw the song as a call to ban guns entirely.
The song's lyrics consist of a list of speculations on the causes of society's ills, "Maybe it's the drugs/Maybe it's the parents...Maybe it's the music/Maybe it's the crack," that ended with a line NRA members found threatening: "If it were up to me/I'd take away all the guns." To those who discovered Wheeler through that song, it might have seemed that she was primarily concerned with protest music and addressing social issues with her art. But that's hardly the case. "My statement song is 'If It Were Up to Me,'" Wheeler says, "and I don't know if people want to hear it or not. But I think most of the folk-music audience is on the same page with me on it. We don't think children should be armed. Children should not have guns, and whatever it takes -- whatever it takes -- to make sure our children aren't shooting each other, that has to be done." Parts of the song later appeared in a medley by Garth Brooks (on his In the Life of Chris Gaines fake-greatest-hits CD) in which he combined the Youngbloods' "Let's Get Together" with lines from Wheeler's tune. He conveniently dropped the song's final line in his version, angering Wheeler fans who felt he'd watered down her original message. (A visitor to Wheeler's Web site, cherylwheeler. com, summed up the move nicely: "If it were up to Garth, he'd take away the point.")
Wheeler says her stance on gun control is as steadfast as ever, and "If It Were Up to Me" remains a staple of her live shows. But these days she's zeroing in on some less-controversial subjects with a more lighthearted stance. Sylvia Hotel includes "The Bank," an unlisted cut that closes the disc with side-splitting humor. Inspired by her efforts to re-mortgage her home, the song slices the friendly-neighborhood-bank image to pieces. (The song includes such lines as, "We're the bank with walls of stone and heads of steel.") It also caused a bit of a stir at a recent festival she played in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that was sponsored by a New England bank, Compass. Following her performance of the song, the bank's boardmembers chose to withdraw funds for next year's festival.
"It's hilarious," Wheeler says about the uproar. "The bank is seeing itself as a supporter of the arts, but the minute somebody sings a song that says bankers are a bunch of assholes, they go 'Wait, you can't say that about us.'" Wheeler admits that some of the hassles with her lender involved putting "folk singer" in the employment blank on the application. ("I'm sure that's as low as it gets," she says.) For now, she's found another target at which to aim her criticism: the airlines. "I hate everything about them," she says. "The friendly skies? Nobody over ten is happy to be in that airplane, unless it's some family fleeing some hideous regime. Everybody that's there is horrified, worried that the person sitting in front of them is going to recline the seat in front of them. If their ads were a true reflection of what it's like to fly, nobody would fly." And what might a more accurate airline ad slogan be? "Maybe 'We Hate It, Too,'" she says.
If Wheeler's sense of humor comes across in print as a shade strident, it does not in concert. (This fact is evident in Wheeler's impressive live concert video, What Do I Care, I Don't Have Any Kids, Construction Company, Inc.) Musically, her jabs are far more apt to induce laughter than rage, in songs such as the Carly-Simon-meets-Joyce-Brothers anthem "Is It Peace or Is It Prozac." But for her next project, she'll be leaving the laugh tracks out. Her upcoming Philo disc, due this June, is a collection of previously released Wheeler ballads, along with a few new, softer songs. But, she warns, one shouldn't consider this project proof that her witty ditties are falling out of favor. "If it makes a statement," she says, "it's a statement that this is what my manager and the record company wanted to do next with my next record -- and that I assume they know what they're doing."
"Here's what I've noticed," she adds. "Every time I've put out a record, some people come up and say there should be more funny stuff on it. Other people come up and say 'Why did you put so much funny stuff on there?' So no matter what you do, you can't win. My feeling is that the funny stuff is much more effective in a live setting, and funny stuff is only funny so many times." Wheeler says the disc contains a unified batch of her more aching, pensive songs that will give her fans a chance to settle into musical reflection without any of her wisecracks.
Meanwhile, Wheeler will be giving thought to the political landscape. She says she's angry about a presidency earned with what she considers to be fraudulent practices, though she's taking solace in her belief that the commander-in-chief can only do so much in America's democratic system. She's also pleased to see that the country is going to survive the morass of the past election. But if George "I'm a uniter, not a divider" Bush is counting on allegiance from Wheeler, he's in trouble.
"The thing that makes me most angry," she says, "is hearing all of this stuff about how we all have to support 'our' new president. Well, I want to ask something: Would an example of that kind of support be the way the Republicans have supported Clinton the past eight years? Because there's been absolutely no support of Clinton by the Republicans; they've done nothing but zero in on the blow job. Blow job, blow job, blow job. For Christ's sake, look at some of the shit Reagan did. So I want to know, is that the kind of support they want? Because if it is, I'm sure I won't have any trouble coming up with that kind of help. If my job is to hate the Republican president and make his life miserable, I'm in."