Jeff Daniels keeping his music career on track

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ctor and musician Jeff Daniels performs on stage during the press preview before his upcoming performance of original music earlier this month in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Freelance writer Selena Fragassi talked to actor/musician Jeff Daniels ahead of his concert tonight in Chicago.

By Selena Fragassi

For Sun-Times Media

You probably remember him as Harry Dunne, the lovable goof in “Dumb and Dumber” or maybe as Will McAvoy on the gripping HBO drama “The Newsroom,” but one role you might not expect from Jeff Daniels: musician.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I just didn’t tell anybody,” he divulges of his back porch songwriting sessions. That was until The Purple Rose Theatre—the repertory company he opened in 1991 in his home of Chelsea, Michigan and named for the “career changing” film he did with Woody Allen in 1985—needed a new method of fundraising to stay active.

Soon, Daniels was opening up his songbook on a new stage, performing his largely autobiographical folk tunes for benefit gigs, which led to a more concerted effort, including a catalog of five recordings and expanded tours across the States like the one that brings him to City Winery tonight.

“[Songwriting has] been a wonderful creative friend for me between all the movies and theater and television,” Daniels says of the collection of nearly 400 songs he’s amassed, dismissing 300 of them as “mere crap.” The venture has been personally rewarding for him, though, to the point that he foreshadows one day saying ‘scene’ for the final time to head out for a life on the road. To prepare, he and his wife, Kathleen, just bought their first RV.

By this point, Daniels’ music career has turned into a growing family project, with trusted friends from Michigan rounding out his band and his son (also a musician in the Ben Daniels Band) at the helm of the recordings, helping to produce his father’s latest record Keep It Right Here. “Ben went to school for sound engineering, which is great for me,” Daniels laughs, reflecting on their at-home studio sessions where together they hone in on the singer-songwriter style Daniels admires from artists like Steve Goodman, Arlo Guthrie and John Prine.

There’s also the content of the songs that reflect on Daniel’s familial relationships, both serious (“My Grandfather’s Hat”) and more lighthearted such as the track “You Still Got It Going On,” which is “for my wife to remind her when she has to go on red carpets and stand next to 20-something actresses,” such as the time Daniels won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series last year for his “Newsroom” role that may have inspired another song, “What Would Jesus Do.” “It’s about too much Fox News,” says Daniels, again proving his versatility as an entertainer who can tow the line so perfectly between comedy and drama, which by now has become his forte.

“The last time I checked, the Greeks were holding up two masks,” he says, pondering why some artists scoff at the idea that you can be both. “That’s the creative challenge I’ve always loved. If you find anybody who has a sense of humor, even in a serious situation, the humor is going to find its way through the cracks. And to me, that’s how life seems to be sometimes; it’s not one or the other, it’s both.

AN EVENING WITH JEFF DANIELS

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 30

Where: City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph

Tickets: $25-45

Info: (773) 733.9463; citywinery.com/chicago

Follow @SelenaFragassi

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