Folking Around

Witty onstage and cheerful in life, folk singer Cheryl Wheeler can offer both a song and an opinion with a smile

Interview by Randy Shulman
Published on January 19, 2012, 4:19am | Comments

For the record, Cheryl Wheeler is not an "angry dyke." No matter what the Westboro Baptist Church says.

"Well," she says, "I do get angry if I watch too much MSNBC or read too much Huffington Post. I get angry at the right."

Cheryl Wheeler

Cheryl Wheeler

(Photo by Gwendolyn Cates)

The prolific folk singer, known for her husky, dulcet voice and witty, winsome way with lyrics and catchy, lovely melodies, drew the ire of the Westboro Baptist Church in October after she wrote "Lady Gaga's Singing Program," a novelty song that took the church's point of view, albeit in a playful, poking way.

"I was reading an article in Huffington Post about the Westboro Baptist Church being at a Lady Gaga concert," she explains. "They were there to protest. I didn't read the whole article, why bother? But there was a quote in it from one of the Westboro people saying something about 'Lady Gaga's less-than-beautiful singing program.' I was so struck by that language, I thought, 'What a great title.' So I wrote a song with that title from the viewpoint of the Westboro Baptist Church. I wrote it as a hymn."

When Wheeler performed the song on NPR's Mountain Stage radio broadcast in October, it caught the attention of the Westboro crowd, who proceeded to send out a barrage of hateful tweets.

"It was so funny," laughs Wheeler. "They called me a 'God hating mocker.' And one of them called me an 'angry dyke.' I'm not angry. [My manager] Tony [Gottlieb] wanted to respond to them. I was like, 'Tony, if you really want to see an angry dyke, you respond to them, because I will kill you.'"

Wheeler's wry, almost gentle sense of humor comes through even in casual conversation.

"I've never made any attempt to communicate with the Westboro Church in any way," she says, "any more than I would try to teach algebra to a caterpillar."

The 60-year-old singer-songwriter, whose pop-infused numbers have been covered by the likes of Dan Seals ("Addicted"), Kathy Mattea ("Love Travels") and Suzy Boggus ("Aces"), straddles the line of folk and country pop with graceful ease. Wheeler can produce a song of wrenching heartache ("Sylvia Hotel") just as easily as she can whip out a witty ditty ("My Cat's Birthday"). And though she purports to be a non-political person, Wheeler is a spigot of strong opinions. Just ask. She'll tell.

METRO WEEKLY: Let's start with a brief musical history. What drew you to a musical career?

CHERYL WHEELER: The first instrument I ever played was a ukulele. I was helping my friend clean out her attic, and into her trash pile she put this plastic ukulele with three strings. I said, ''Can I have that?'' She said, ''Yes,'' and I picked it up. I had never played a stringed instrument. So I started playing it, which seems a little weird in hindsight, but it's not really that weird if you're a reasonably musical person. I played that for a year and then I got a real ukulele, a baritone. I begged my father for it -- it was $20. I played that for a year and then got a guitar at 12. So that's how I started playing.

Anyway, the career. I am an incredibly lazy person and never thought in terms of a career. I thought in terms of how not to get a job. At some point, I realized that music had turned into my job. And sometimes it does feel like a job. It feels like a job when you have to get into an airplane, but it doesn't feel like a job when you're onstage.

MW: Did you play the D.C. area early on?

WHEELER: Not too much. The folk music scene in the early '70s was pretty much dead in D.C. -- everything was disco. I moved up to New England in '76 because I had realized that I was gay, and my mother had passed away, my father had remarried, and I didn't know how to incorporate this into my father's family. So I just decided to leave. My best friend, Michael, a gay guy who is no longer with us, lived in Providence [R.I.] and I went up there and was going to stay there for two weeks and then go on to Nashville, but I just fell in love with Providence. For a long time I did bar gigs where I hauled my own sound system and set it up and stuff. It seems so long ago. When Dan Seals had a No. 1 country hit with a song of mine called ''Addicted,'' that was a huge boost for me. Soon after that, Susie Boggus had a big hit with a cover of my song, ''Aces."

MW: Would you say songwriting comes naturally to you?

WHEELER: When I was in fifth grade we had an assignment to write a poem. I wrote one, and was like, ''Oh, I love this.'' And then I wrote another one, and then another one. When I was 10 years old, my second favorite book was The Golden Book of Poetry. I would sit on the floor in front of it and make up melodies to my favorite poems. I'm just kinda thinking about this now that you're asking it so I guess it was natural to me. I was 10 years old and was singing my favorite poems. I still like to write lyrics, poems. I love words.

MW: You are known in your stage shows for your extreme casualness as well as your engaging rapport with the audience.

WHEELER: I am definitely very casual. I wear sweatpants to my gigs. If I'm dressed up, I feel insincere. I hate being dressed up. I look like Klinger when I'm dressed up. I just don't do it. I try to be presentable – and I'm always clean – but I just wear T-shirts.

And yeah, I hope that I have a good rapport with the audience. I want them to think that I'm no different than them. I don't want to be other than the audience. We're all the same. I mean I'm up here playing guitar and singing, but I don't feel that I'm somehow exceptional and different from the audience. It's uncomfortable to feel apart. I literally always make them turn the stage lights down. I hate bright lights in my eyes, and if I'm in a club and they can't turn them down, I make them turn them off and just turn the house lights up, so we're all in the same light.

MW: Are you finding that Internet music services like Pandora and Spotify are ultimately good for artists?

WHEELER: I'm going to assume that they are good, yes, but I've never given it any thought. I've had a lot of discussions recently about kids today, how they're always locked to their devices and everything. I think that these devices will ultimately affect our evolution, but I think it's just a change, just the next step. You can't call it bad. I'm sure people were flipping out when Guttenberg invented the printing press because, Oh, my God, now people are going to have their noses buried in books! These kids today are the first generation ever in the history of the world who are almost never really alone. They can communicate with one another all the time. That's never happened before.

MW: You're married.

WHEELER: Yeah. We got married 10 days after it was legal in Massachusetts. It became legal on May 17, 2004, and we got married on the 27th.

MW: How long had you been together prior to that?

WHEELER: On and off we'd known each other a long time, but we cohabitated in '97.

MW: So, did it change anything for you for the relationship, symbolically or otherwise?

WHEELER: If it did, it was a positive change. Even when I was a little kid, I knew I wasn't going to get married, though I didn't know why. It's not just one of the things that's gonna be in your life's passing. You don't ever give it another thought. I've always loved that Joni Mitchell line, ''We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall,'' and that's kinda the way I felt about it. What difference does it make? Well, it made a big difference. Not in the relationship, but in the way that each of us felt as we faced the world, that, ''Wow, it's so cool. We are official.'' I love it.

MW: What does your wife do?

WHEELER: Cathleen is a multitalented person. She's a contractor and she is now doing all kinds of forestry stuff. She has completely remodeled our house and it's absolutely beautiful. She's an unbelievable cook. She put a new roof on the house and would literally get down and bake a cake and then get back up on the roof. And I just sit around playing the guitar the whole time. She's just a wonderful person.

MW: Sounds like a marriage made in heaven.

WHEELER: It is. Most days. [Laughs.]

MW: Do you have any fears that politically some of these laws will be repealed? Or do you think we're on a forward path?

WHEELER: I think we're on a forward path. I often wonder what's going to become legal [nationally] first – pot or gay marriage? I am in favor of both, obviously, but I think that there are arguments against pot – even though I don't buy the arguments, I think there are arguments. I don't think there are any arguments against gay marriage. The only argument there is somebody's idea of what God wants. We can all pronounce all night long what we think God wants, but we can't expect other people to live by our ideas. So there is no good argument against gay marriage.

MW: Let's say Mitt Romney becomes our next president. As a Massachusetts resident, do you think that he may actually be reasonable based on the way he ran that state as governor?

WHEELER: Compared to the other candidates, Romney is like Ghandi. Rick Santorum is just unbelievably creepy. I guess I believe that Romney would be a reasonable person, though I wouldn't like all his policies. But I think he'd be better than "W" was. That's not hard to do, though.

But I can't go there. I can't believe that the Republicans will win the election. I hope that Obama can get the young people back. He's done some things – allowing the military to detain people forever without a reason or a lawyer is unspeakable to me. I can't believe that happened.

We're hideously divided and I'm just a part of that divide. I don't like the right -- I think they're hateful. I feel like the right is all about telling everybody else what to do all the time and I just want them to fuck off. There is nothing behind them but hatred. And find me an example where hatred turned out to be a good idea.

MW: You're preaching to the choir. So I'll just add an "Amen, sister."

WHEELER: [Laughs.] I know. Actually, I really don't believe the majority of people in the country are overly invested in what strangers do. I perform in distant places, so I know very well that there are like-minded people everywhere in the country and some farmer in Kansas is not always inclined to be some hateful creep. He doesn't care if two gay guys in New York are married. I think that Fox News has amplified the hatred and tried to suggest that it's typical, but I don't believe it is. I don't believe it is the natural position to be hateful. Well, it is, in a way: When there's no education, people tend to distrust what they don't know. But as soon as education comes in, then that stops.

I think that the religious right has done really horrible things to this country. They've made it so that as soon as you hear somebody's religious, you're automatically like, ''Okay, then get away from me.'' And that's terrible. I grew up in a churchgoing family, but we never got so religious that we started hating people. Religion isn't about hatred. And the religious right are making most people distrust religion, and that is a sad, sad thing.

Cheryl Wheeler appears this Saturday, Jan. 21, at 7:30 p.m., at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. Tickets are $29.50. Call 703-549-7500 or visit birchmere.com. On Sunday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m., she appears at the Rams Head On Stage, 33 West St., Annapolis. Tickets are $31. Call 410-268-4545 or visit ramsheadonstage.com.

Download these: "Aces," "Arrow," "Driving Home." Visit cherylwheeler.com.


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