The guitar is the thing for Cheryl Wheeler
WANT TO GO?
With Kenny White
WHERE: Clay Center
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
The 61-year-old, who headlines Saturday's Woody Hawley Series show, said, "I didn't want to ever have to get a job. My goal in life wasn't to have a folk music career; it was to not have to work, so I could play the guitar all the time if I wanted to -- and I did want to."
Wheeler began playing guitar early. She got a ukulele when she was 10, and by the time she turned 12, she had her first guitar. A short time later, she started playing coffee houses and wherever else she could find to play in her hometown of Timonium, Md.
"They were just little, tiny gigs," she said.
But eventually, she found herself performing in clubs in and around the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area. This lasted for several years, until she left Maryland for New England in the mid-1970s.
Still, for someone who set out not to work, she's managed to stay pretty busy. Over the years, Wheeler has recorded more than a dozen albums, appeared on dozens more, and her songs have been covered by lots of people: Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks and Suzy Boggess, just to name a few.
A few of these covers have been hits. The best known is probably Dan Seals' take on Wheeler's song, "Addicted," which became a No. 1 country hit in 1988. More recently, Blake Shelton covered it in 2011.
Wheeler has written a lot of songs, but she said the best songs really seem to come out of nowhere.
"One time, I was working on a song called 'North Girl,'" she said. "I just woke up, went to the sofa -- I didn't even go to the bathroom. I picked up the guitar and sang the song from beginning to end."
She added that the songs she spends all her time working on are the ones that aren't as good.
Songwriting can be kind of hard to explain, but guitars are a different matter. They're pure magic, as far as she's concerned, and Wheeler is very particular about hers.
She said, "It's funny I was talking to someone yesterday, and they asked me if I got to a show and somehow my guitar didn't make it, could I do the show?"
She wasn't entirely sure about that.
"I suppose I could use another person's guitar," she said, hesitantly. "If it wasn't too big. And I really need fingerpicks...
"I don't know. I just don't know anyone more fussy about their instruments than I am."
These days, Wheeler keeps a tight grip on her Collings C-10, which has a story attached to it.
"I bought it at McCabe's in Santa Monica, which is this great guitar shop that's also a gig," she said. "At the time, I bought it because I was flying with one of my Olson guitars, and I didn't want to fly with my Olson guitar because I love the guitar, right?"
(Some of the players who use Olsons are James Taylor, Leo Kotke, Lou Reed and Sting).
So Wheeler bought the Collings guitar, played with it, but wasn't entirely happy with it. On a trip to Austin, where Collings is based, she stopped in at its workshop and asked them to adjust the neck to make the guitar a little easier for her to work with.
"Then it became my absolutely favorite guitar," she said. "So I bought another Collings, so I wouldn't have to fly with that one."
Lately, however, she's been playing with an old Goya guitar, the same guitar she had when she was 13.
Wheeler said, "I picked it up because I was playing the ukulele again and playing nylon strings again instead of steel and remembering how delightful that is."
The strings are kinder to her hands, particularly in the winter when her skin gets very dry and the steel strings cut her fingers.
"Nylon strings are just so much easier to deal with," she said.
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.