BootLeg Betty

Cheryl Wheeler

Mister D: I happened to see this lady perform in the Cayman Islands while at a record convention. She wrote, “I Know This Town”, which I just loved. I loved her material and like this article says…she is funny as hell on the stage. If you ever get a chance to see her, please do….:

Cheryl Wheeler part of roots tribe Singer’s anti-gun song a rallying cry My friend John Bois – he played bass in my band in Australia many years ago, and has since found happiness teaching high school biology in Maryland – believes Swansea, Mass.-based singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler is the answer to most of the world’s problems.

Bois ought to know. He spent a couple of years on the road in America performing with Wheeler, running her band and even producing her 1991 album, Half A Book. But the Wheeler he knows is not the woman I got to know over this past summer while listening to a Bois-recommended selection of her CDs.

Cheryl Wheeler on record is a robust and unapologetic romantic with a rich and pleasing voice and a knack for lovely turns of phrase and artful melodic constructions. She’s no whiner, not a whispering folkie flower.

She has a wide streak of tenderness, but reveals herself as a mature artist unafraid to sing about what she thinks and feels – about everything from gun violence in America in “If It Was Up To Me,” the country- rap anti-firearms wake-up call for which she’s best known, to love for her dog in “Howl At The Moon,” as pretty and heartfelt an expression of devotion as ever graced an August night.

Cheryl Wheeler live – and Toronto audiences will get their first chance ever to see this 51-year-old roots star when she plays tomorrow night at Hugh’s Room – is someone else, Bois assures me. Well, not just Bois. If you mention her name to anyone who has seen Wheeler on stage – she has appeared at several Canadian festivals over the years – the response is always the same: “She’s so funny! You have to see her live.”

Wheeler, who started writing songs as a preteen and has earned a living as a composer and performer ever since, is used to this kind of advance word. “People who’ve never seen us play must think we’re a bunch of freaks,” she snorts over the phone. “Most of the stuff I talk about on stage is off the cuff. Stories about people I’ve known, places I’ve been. I spend about a third of my life on the road. I just love talking, I guess.”

A prolific writer whose songs have been covered by Suzy Boguss, Garth Brooks (in his Chris Gaines disguise), Melanie, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bette Midler and Maura O’Connell, Wheeler says she’s most comfortable at home in New England, the inspiration for many of her best songs, but only until she gets back in the performing loop.

“There’s always an anxious time before I leave in the fall, but once I’m out there, I love it. Things get better all the time.”

She records when she has enough material she’s happy with, and Wheeler’ s sessions attract some of the genre’s finest pickers. Occasionally a song will go farther than expected, as did “If It Was Up To Me.” The song – quite simply a list of things other than weapons that could be rationalized as causes for America’s appalling record of violence – was picked up by a number of other artists after multiple airings on National Public Radio. It had become a call-to-action for American liberals who saw the song as the ultimate anti-gun rallying cry. The last line is: “If it was up to me, I’d take away the guns.”

Wheeler plays the song as often as she can, but insists that both liberals and pro-gun lobbyists missed her point.

“I get a lot of nasty letters, and I go out of my way to tell people the song isn’t anti-guns per se. You can’t tell hunters they can’t have guns – that’s absurd. My concern is how easy it is for kids in America to get firearms. That’s the issue: Our children are shooting each other.”

Wheeler has never longed for more than has come her way, she says. Radio support for the kind of music she makes is otherwise nonexistent, but she has learned to live well below the mainstream radar.

“People keep talking about a new folk-music revival, but I don’t see it. I certainly don’t hear it on TV or radio. I hear a lot of kids singing hip hop songs borrowed from Stevie Wonder’s (chord) changes.

“And at my age,” she laughs, “I don’t get out much except when I play. I prefer life at home with the dogs and cats.

“If a genie offered me the choice between being a millionaire and the intense satisfaction I get out of writing a good song, there’d be no hesitation.

“‘See ya, genie … I’m staying with the songs.'”WHO: Cheryl Wheeler

WHEN: Tomorrow

WHERE: Hugh’s Room, 2261 Dundas St. W.

TICKETS: $16 in advance @ (416) 531-6604, $18 at the door

CAPTIONS: Folk-circuit regular Cheryl Wheeler, whose music has been covered by Garth Brooks and Bette Midler, plays Hugh’s Room.

Author not available, Artful singer unholsters wit onstage. , The Toronto Star, 12-05-2002.

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