Although Chris Daniels will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his group, Chris Daniels and the Kings, next year, he started out playing acoustic folk in the '70s, first with the Rosewood Canyon and then with Magic Music, an outfit hailed as Colorado's first jam band. We spoke to Daniels about being inducted into Colorado Music Hall of Fame this Friday and much more.
Daniels, an estimable elder statesmen of the Denver music scene, chatted us up about everything, from his time playing with Magic Music and teaching at CU Denver to how his sister, Jane Moffett, first showed him three chords on guitar when he was ten years old and then later underwent a bone marrow transplant via stem cells for him after Daniels was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010.
Westword: How did you feel when you found out you were going to be inducted?
Chris Daniels: I think I sort of had to figure out a little bit of why they chose me. I think it's because -- if you look at the group that I'm going in with -- I'm sort of third generation of people who started out in folk music. There's that first generation -- the Woody Guthries, the Pete Seegers, the Reverend Gary Davises -- that we all discovered later. And that second generation is sort of Judy Collins and the Serendipity Singers and Bob Lind, who are all part of what people call the Great Folk Scare of the '60s.
I came along in the '70s and what people like Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones and everybody had made possible was the singer-songwriter. That's kind of where I came along. The first part of that was Magic Music, and everything was just built around the songwriting and this sort of Colorado jam band kind of sound with mandolins and banjos and all that kind of stuff.
Then a couple people said, "Well, what about the Kings?" and I said, "Hey man, Boz Scaggs did disco. You know, he was a songwriter." So you know, I think it's sort of that third wave. Now we've got people like Keb' Mo', and the next whole wave, and Dave Matthews and all these amazing people in the new generation, like the Lumineers. So, I think those early characters made it possible to for us to really actually have singer-songwriters be the person that was performing the music instead of writing songs that some star would perform.
Going back before Magic Music, there was Rosewood Canyon, which apparently was Jello Biafra's favorite band.
Yeah. There's a quote with Jello Biafra saying, "Yeah, there's this band in Colorado called Rosewood Canyon. I just love those guys." So, that was the first one.
And Magic Music was considered the first Colorado jam band.
We were sort of the first jam band in Colorado. We played at the second and third Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and I played it again from 1982 to 1991 -- another nine years. We were the Friday night closing band, and then there was one year where I actually got to close Friday and Sunday night.
I closed Friday night with New Grass Revival as my back-up band, which was just laughable because those guys... I was just hanging on for dear life. I was doing a banjo duet with Bela Fleck and going, "Oh my god!" It was pretty crazy.
And then that Sunday night, I was working for Russell Smith and the Amazing Rhythm Aces, so it was kind of fun. There was a lot of playing that year. I got a lot of the folk music and bluegrass jobs in my background.
Magic Music reunited, and you guys are doing a record, right? Your first record?
Yeah, finally. It's our first record. We did a lot of two-track in some good studios but never a full, sit-down, produced record. So we did a reunion at Swallow Hill about two years ago, and I dragged everybody in the studio, and said, "Lets see what's there." And that was the start of it.
One of the guys who was part of Magic Music, named Tim Goodman, came along and said, "Yeah, I want to produce this." He's been just amazing. So we've got people like Jimmy Haslip from the Yellowjackets playing bass and Sam Bush playing fiddle and mandolin. It's a real live record, and I think it's got fifteen tunes, and it will probably come out sometime next spring.
Are you guys going to be any touring at all?
Yeah. I know we'll play in Colorado, and I know we'll play a bunch back on the East Coast, but I think goal one is getting the record done. Once we've got that in our hot little hands we'll figure out where the touring is going to be.
With your album last year, Better Days, you got back into your folk roots?
Better Days definitely went right back into the folk roots. That did really really well. I'm really proud of how well that record did. We got a bunch of chart stuff on the Americana charts, and that great, and it sold really well. I get to go out and do shows with the Better Days band. It's me and Ernie Martinez and Gordon Burt and the rhythm section from the Kings. We played at the New West Fest up in Fort Collins right before Leon Russell. Man, that just a blast. That was so much fun. People really loved it.
You've been teaching for while, right? For about the last decade or so?
Yeah, about the last decade. That's where I am now. I've got to tell you, man, teaching at the University of Colorado at Denver -- this program at the College of Arts and Media -- I'm knocked out by the talent of kids. I call them "kids" but they're young men and women. But I mean, I had a student named Olivia Rudeen, and she's in Nashville, she's got a publishing deal, she's placing songs. The wonderful woman who started Lyric House Publishing, she went through the program.
I mean, just these incredibly bright young kids. Some of the members of Air Dubai went through the program, and obviously the slightly older guys, like the Fray and the Flobots, they both came out of this program. So it's just an honor to teach here. To me, this is the Berklee College of Music of the West. I think, actually, in some ways, we're a whole lot better. The Music Business program here is just so good -- just these amazing teachers. I think ours is better than Berklee's.
What are some of the important lessons you've learned in music that you pass on to your students?
I think the main one -- and there's a lot of information, and this is true of students of any age -- is that what you might call grit, or that thing that just says, "I'm going to hang in there and keep doing it -- even though it's hard, and even though it sucks, or not getting paid today, I'm getting something out of it. I'm playing live in a coffee house or doing an open mike. I'm seeing how my songs are landing."
If you can hang in there through the tough stuff and really develop your craft, that's it. When the Kings started out thirty years ago, god man, we struggled like crazy until we finally got our first break in 1987. But the first three years, man, it was tough.
What's your take on how the music business has changed over three decades or so?
Well, there are some really obvious things. Right now, musicians make records because they love recording music not because it pays any money anymore. The value of a song, a recorded song, is pretty much zero. It's sad to say. So where you make your money is in publishing and trying to get your songs placed on TV or in online webisodes and stuff like that. Then playing live. Those are still places where you can make money.
Hopefully you can get enough recognition that to do things, especially if you can do it online -- create a presence online. YouTube is incredibly important. They just had the YouTube Awards the other night. All of the sudden a good cell phone makes some decent video, and it's got to sound good... the amazing thing is that we have access to marketplace. The problem is that means that everybody's got access to the marketplace, and so there's a lot of crap out there. There's also really good music.
Going back to the Kings, you're thirtieth anniversary is next year. Do you guys have any big plans for that?
Yeah. Right now, we're just putting it together, trying to figure out how to get some guest stars to come sit in. We've backed up all these people over the years -- Al Kooper and David Bromberg and Sam Bush. We were their back-up bands touring around. Bo Diddley. Obviously, Bo won't come. If he shows up, that will be quite something.
We're just starting to think about it now, starting to put together: "All right, what do we want to do for this?" The main thing we're going to do is do a new record with Freddi from the Freddi-Henchi Band. That's the thing we really want to get out there. Talking about recorded music, we might not make any money on it but Freddi's got my favorite voice in soul music. We've been doing a bunch of gigs together. That's just a natural.
How did you get on the record that got nominated for the Grammy?
I was a songwriter for a children's record. So I wrote one of the songs, and then I was a featured soloist. I sang one of those songs, and I also did a bunch of background parts on stuff. So I was a contributor to it. It was done by a guy named Mark Oblinger. It was called JumpinJazz Kids.
We got to perform it out at the Grammys -- I mean, not in the televised thing, but it was the day before in the Nokia Club -- with Al Jarreau. I got to sing with Al Jarreau. You know, Dee Dee Bridgewater. These guys are like Diane Reeves here in Colorado. They're at the pinnacle of the world of jazz. No wonder they have a hard time figuring out what I do. I sing with some of the best jazz people in the world, and I'm doing bluegrass.
Do you feel at home in one genre more than the other, or does that really matter at all?
That's a really good question. No, man, it's about the songs. Megan Burtt's got a brand new record out. I got to co-write a song with her for that record, and we sing together. She's such a great writer, and she sings so well. It's about the songs. It's about the music. That's it. And whether it's jazz or bluegrass it's all good to me.
That's about all the questions I had for you unless there's anything else you want to add.
I guess the two things that I'd add is that I'm lucky to be here. That's because of a bone marrow transplant I got from my sister. I also owe her for another thing. She's the one who taught me how to play three chords on guitar when I was about ten years old. I'm here because of her for a couple of reasons.
And then the other guy is Will Luckey, who's in Magic Music. Will was the guy who looked at me and said, "Hey, you're pretty good at this. You ought to do this for a living." I owe my sister because I'm standing here alive and Will Luckey for getting me into the business, and my son and his wife and my two amazing granddaughters, who are the light that keeps me going.