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The image is stark and simple: a vintage truck painted a deep indigo, a battered brick wall behind, and the words "Better Days" spelled out in simple fonts above. For Chris Daniels, the cover art for his latest solo release is open to interpretation.
"That's my old truck. I got that when I was seventeen," notes Daniels, frontman of Chris Daniels and the Kings. "For some, I think that image means that better days were in the past. For others, because the truck is fixed up and looks brand-new, better days are in the future.... That's what the theme is. You get to identify where your better days are."
Daniels's own spin on the cover art for his first solo effort in three decades, a work he calls an album of "hope and redemption," has a lot to do with the diagnosis he received in 2010. After feeling heart flutters on a drive back from Evergreen, Daniels reported to the hospital, only to learn that he had an aggressive form of leukemia, news that left him feeling as if he were "falling through a hole in the sky."
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Months of intensive chemotherapy in Houston followed, as did a risky bone-marrow transplant. During treatment, Daniels was in isolation at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where friends, families and musical peers from back home, like Rob Drabkin, paid visits. He was on morphine after an outbreak of mycosis and fell into vivid and frightening "chemo dreams," nighttime visions sharpened and intensified by his treatment. But he was able to teach his University of Colorado Denver music business and administration classes via Skype from the hospital. The risky medical procedures ultimately paid off, and Daniels came back to Colorado in remission. Now, sitting down for a meal at the Breakfast King on Santa Fe a week before he's slated to return to Houston for follow-up tests, he offers his own take on the cover art for Better Days.
"It's today," he declares. "My doc is really great. He said, 'You get this kind of thing, you become a Buddhist.' For me, it's really about today. I get tricked into going, 'Okay, next year, I'm going to do this.' I have to bring it right back to, 'This is a really good breakfast.' This moment is the one that counts."
That perspective, leavened with a good amount of sardonic humor and unused gems from his decades-long career, colors every track on the new record. The most direct reference to his fight against cancer is "Sister Delores," a meditative ballad that recalls a caretaker who offered prayers during his treatment. Daniels's vocals feel more earnest and his playing sounds more stark as he pays tribute to a woman who refused to shy away from her faith.
"At one point, I was pretty low," he recalls, "and she put a hand on my shoulder and said, 'Can I pray for you?' I said, 'Sure.' I'm not a very religious person, but it was a remarkable experience. I don't know if it changed me. She said, 'I'm standing in the gap. I can see what you believe, and I know what I learned, I know what I know. I'm going to stand in that gap between what you believe and what I know. I'm going to bridge the gap for you.' It was an amazing experience, and I suppose it made me a believer in my own way."
Apart from "Sister Delores," the references on Better Days to Daniels's battle with illness are oblique. "Good Ol' Beast" details the restoration of a hand-me-down truck, "Wildcat" revels in a live-for-the-moment zeal, with exhortations to "jump up in the pickup truck" and, with a little luck, "find an open sky." Though Daniels has been a teetotaler for decades, "Medical Marijuana" pokes fun at the rising industry in Colorado; he penned the tune in a Texas hospital while a shocked corps of nurses looked on from the halls.
"I had this thing called mycosis, where you lose your skin," he explains. "I was on morphine, because it's really painful. I got off of it, and I was reading about back here, how everybody was talking about medical marijuana. I've been clean and sober for 28 years. I have no interest in going out and smoking pot, but all of a sudden, I was laughing and realizing that I can smoke pot legally. I thought, 'I don't want to, I'm not going to, but I'm going to write a song about it.'"
Depending on how you look at it, the inspiration struck either in the most likely or the most unlikely of places. Daniels picked up his acoustic guitar in his hospital room and started putting together a jaunty tune that was equal parts ragtime pomp and bluegrass satire. "I'm sitting there on the bed, singing this song — 'Medical Marijuana!'" Daniels relates, singing the tune's chorus between chuckles, "and the nurses are going, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'In Colorado, it's legal now.' They said, 'That's probably not going to be good for us.' I said, 'Don't worry, I'm not doing it. It's just hilarious.'"
The newer tunes share space with songs like "Eldorado Canyon," "I Still Think of You" and "South Carolina," tunes penned in the 1970s and '80s that have finally been realized, with input from acoustic musicians like Ernie Martinez, eTown's Christian Teele, Freddi Gowdy from the Freddi Henchi Band, Hazel Miller, Sam Bush from Bela Fleck's band, and a wide array of other local luminaries. Those contributions came gradually, as Daniels moved on from treatment and returned to Colorado to rebuild a normal routine.
"I appreciate people's bluntness," declares Daniels. "My son said to me after I got out of the hospital, 'Dad, before you croak, I want you to do an acoustic album.' That's how the record started.
"I'd recorded tunes with acoustic guitar and voice, and that was it," Daniels goes on. "The first guy was Ernie Martinez — one of the best bluegrass players I've ever met. He said, 'Chris, how about if I put a mandolin part on it?' Next was Sam Bush. Then I saw Richie Furay at the ceremony for the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, and Richie said, 'I'd love to be on the album.'"
Artist by artist, collaborator by collaborator, the album grew into a work that was more than the solitary musings of a single songwriter. It grew into a communal patchwork, a piece that drew from a decades-long career full of associations. In addition to the new tunes and the songs recovered from Daniels's past, the release also includes a bonus disc, a collection of vintage performances from old Telluride Bluegrass Festivals and rare B-sides from thirty years.
At its heart, however, Daniels insists, Better Days veers away from overly ambitious statements or orchestration. While he garnered plenty of input from his musical peers, the core of the record remains his own process as a songwriter, a creative endeavor that's stayed constant through European tours, stints as an administrator and teacher, and his battle with illness.
"I would say that this is a songwriter record," he points out. "In the hospital, I listened to a lot of the Americana way of writing and doing records. It's a lot more about performance than polished, perfect parts."
This approach is deeply rooted in the moment, a philosophy that says our better days are immediate, tactile and only a silent prayer away.