Folksinger adds fun, poignancy to music

Cheryl Wheeler set to perform Friday

August 10, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Cheryl Wheeler likes to say that she held her first concert, and for her first captive audience, when she was 10. While her mother was taking a bath, young Cheryl stood outside the door and played a rousing rendition of "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore" on a plastic, three-string ukulele.

The budding singer-songwriter learned two important things that day: "I could make music," she says, "and I could make people laugh. It was a pretty special little magical afternoon for me."

Both attributes have come in handy as Wheeler, now 54, has fine-tuned her career on the folk music circuit. The Timonium native will perform Friday at Center Stage in a benefit concert for the Maryland Library Association.

"Her concerts are an emotional roller coaster," says Bill Pringle, a Pennsylvania computer programmer who founded and maintains Wheeler's "official unofficial" Web site (

"You'll be rolling in the aisles, and then the next moment, you'll be wiping away a tear. Often, she'll tell a funny story and then follow it up with a serious song on the same theme. I can't say I've met anyone who has been to one of her concerts who hasn't come away a fan."

And they include some pretty big names. Wheeler's work has been recorded by such well-known artists as Bette Midler, Garth Brooks and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In 1988, Dan Seals' rendition of Wheeler's "Addicted" made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts for country music singles - an achievement that landed Wheeler her first record contract. Seals later performed her song before a national television audience at the 1989 Grammy Awards.

The songs on Wheeler's eight albums alternate between vivid portraits ("Alice") to delicate tone poems about growing older ("Summer's Almost Over") to humorous rants against such indignities of modern life as cell phones with obnoxious ring tones.

"On the Plane" begins like this:

You will need to arrive at a quarter to five

If your plane is departing at ten.

When you called for a seat,

We advised you to meet

At the gate and we'll let you know then.

It's not that Wheeler tries to write comic material. She has one of those naturally quirky personalities, according to her sister, Lynn Wheeler.

For instance, when Cheryl Wheeler is asked what she remembers about growing up in Timonium, this is the first thing that comes to mind:

"All of us kids hung out in the bowling alley that was across from the state fairgrounds. I got most of my income by lying on the floor and reaching under the Coke machine for loose change. We'd buy penny candy, and if we had a good take, we'd buy cigars and smoke them in a nearby patch of woods.

"I started smoking when I was 10. We knew the cigars would make us sick, but we thought it would be worth it, to be that cool."

A Hallmark moment it was not. But vintage Wheeler it was. She's not afraid to confound expectations or to be politically incorrect, though she hastens to add that she gave up smoking long ago.

Wheeler's first regular gig came after she dropped out of college and heard that a new restaurant in town needed an entertainer.

"For the first month or so, I shared the public address system with the front desk," Wheeler recalls.

"So I'd be singing along, and then I'd be cut off, and you'd hear, `Miller, party of five.'"

In the 1970s, Wheeler visited her best friend for two weeks in his home near Providence, R.I. She never came back.

Folk music was just beginning to get big at that time, and Wheeler found an audience made for her in the greater Boston area, an audience that appreciated her off-kilter sensibility and, in some instances, shared her lifestyle.

In an August 2002 article in The New York Times, writer David Hajdu explored the connections between folk music and the lesbian community.

The article concluded that the elements of folk - usually just one performer with a guitar - mirror the values held by many gay women: simple, unembellished tunes, and an intimate performing style that emphasizes the verbal communication of feelings. Lyrics are even more important to folk than they are to other types of music, and it is a tradition known for its liberal, left-wing politics.

While Wheeler's audience includes an enthusiastic contingent of heterosexual men and women, she says: "I think it probably is true that gay women are attracted to simple, honest, unglittered, earthy stuff. I certainly was. Now it's almost gotten to be preferable, if you're a singer/songwriter, to be gay."

A resident of Massachusetts, Wheeler married her partner of seven years, Cathleen Joyce, on May 27, 2004.

"Initially, we were doing it to stand up and be counted, and also for the tax advantages," Wheeler says. "But once we did it, it really did feel very different and wonderful, to know that we have taken every step that we can. We are so delighted that we're married."

Some of Wheeler's new songs take on the religious right, and, in particular, she terms the opposition to gay marriage a "weapon of mass distraction" that diverts attention from more pressing concerns.

"I do believe that if you polled the entire country, they would say, `Let gay people get married,'" Wheeler says. "As a country, we certainly have bigger fish to fry."

It is perhaps fitting that Wheeler's most recent album, released in February, is called Defying Gravity.

She generally does, in more ways than one.

Cheryl Wheeler

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday

What: Benefit for the Maryland Library Association

Tickets: $35-$75

Call: 410-332-0033

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