Cheryl Wheeler appeared at Cellar Stage™ Timonium on October 26, 2018.
It has always seemed as if there were two Cheryl Wheelers, with fans of the New England songwriter relishing watching the two tussle for control of the mic. There is poet-Cheryl, writer of some of the prettiest, most alluring and intelligent ballads on the modern folk scene. And there is her evil twin, comic-Cheryl, a militant trend defier and savagely funny social critic. The result is a delightful contrast between poet and comic. Poet-Cheryl writes achingly honest songs of love and loss. Contrasting the prosaic landscapes of her native small-town America with the hopelessly rootless life of the traveling performer, she touches the common chords with any who feel the tug between our busy, clamorous times and the timeless longing for simplicity and silence. Her deceptively plain-spun songs have been hits for such main-stream stars as Suzy Bogguss (Aces) and Dan Seals (Addicted), and have been recorded by everyone from Bette Midler, Maura O’Connell, and Peter Paul and Mary; to Juice Newton and Garth Brooks. Comic-Cheryl comes on like Groucho-in-a-housecoat; a fiercely everyday woman with a barbed-wire tongue. Shredding the mores of our gossipy, greedy, trend-obsessed culture, Wheeler always aims enough darts at herself to never seem sanctimonious.
Wheeler was born in the small town of Timonium, Maryland. The wistful rural vistas she glimpses so poignantly through her fleeting windshield really do represent the deep pull of place she feels in her wandering life. With the possible exception of Greg Brown, no modern songwriter comes to mind who can write as convincingly about the sheer, simple-hearted joy of a nice day; whether a warm spring one spent driving down southern back roads, or a chilly gray one spent thinking properly dark thoughts at a bayside hotel. Where others seek the startling image, the ‘Big Event,’ Wheeler wraps her songs around the familiar image, the shared event. When it’s comic-Cheryl’s turn, the poet simply turns over the mic and allows the comic to be displayed in her native habitat: the stage. Wheeler can comically lampoon modern culture while thoughtfully teasing herself and the audience. As the two forces smooth their conflict, taking their separate turns and melding into the same artistic vision, Wheeler emerges as a gifted and openhearted songwriter approaching the sure summit of her craft. Audience members’ abilities to find their own lives reflected in the sweet spaces of her songs reveals an artist comfortably wearing the austere genius that defines folk music’s best traditions. More confidently and beautifully than ever before, she proves that the poet and the comic are one and the same.