Folk Singer Cheryl Wheeler Brings Her Saucy Stage Persona To Iron Horse

Owen McNally
Contact ReporterSpecial to The Courant

If you've never seen the celebrated New England troubadour Cheryl Wheeler in one of her famously freewheeling live concerts, you've missed out on the prolific singer and songwriter's multifaceted stage persona.

You can check out this thoughtful, amusing musician and storyteller (and irrepressible social critic) as she performs Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13 and 14, at one of her favorite venues, Northampton's Iron Horse Music Hall.

The seasoned road warrior, who has played countless clubs and halls throughout the United States and beyond, will be joined on-stage by her close friend and frequent collaborator, Kenny White, a noted singer, songwriter and instrumentalist. On both nights, White performs solo on the opening set at 7 and accompanies Wheeler in the second set.

Besides duo selections, with Wheeler tripling on vocals, guitar and ukulele, the second sets feature her patented solo performances, acclaimed for their spontaneity and easy-going, rapport with her audience.

Aside from her witty, warm, beautiful songs — including tunes covered by everybody from Peter, Paul and Mary to Garth Brooks — Wheeler's shows are graced with her wry observational humor and story-telling skills. Seasoned with saucy social commentary, her patter is a delicious, folk-flavored blend of Phyllis Diller and Mort Sahl, sometimes puckish, sometimes barbed.

"Well, who knows where humor comes from?" Wheeler says by phone when asked about her timely stage persona tick.

"I think I got it from my family. My father was really funny, as was my mother. I loved laughing as far back as I can remember. There's just so much funny stuff in the world — at least there used to be before the recent election," she says from her home in Swansea, Mass., where she lives with her wife Cathleen.

When Wheeler was growing up in Maryland, her father used to read her Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn," she recalls. Those readings, she says, nurtured her sense of humor, passion for words and burgeoning social consciousness.

Simultaneously, she was swept up by the then rising tide of folk music's sound and substance, enamored of everybody from The Kingston Trio to her major early influence, Joan Baez.

On her 11th birthday, her mother bought her a ukulele. On her 12th, she got a new guitar, and began playing songs off the radio, even making up tunes to accompany the words in her favorite childhood books, "The Golden Book of Poetry" and "A Child's Garden of Verses."

At 12, she made her debut at a coffee house. By 17, she had written her first song. Soon after, she enjoyed her first professional gig at a steak and ale place, earning the fabulous sum of $25 a night.

Now years and nearly 600 original songs later, the 65-year-old, agelessly defiant artist/entertainer, has toured extensively, made acclaimed recordings, performed with folk and country stars and, as always, marches to the beat of her own drum.

Her songs encompass everything from momentous subjects, like love and loyalty, to the quotidian, like pets, pet peeves, foibles and childhood memories. Most moving are her deeply-felt portraits of loved ones, including her late father and her beloved wife, Cathleen

Wheeler's well-crafted lyrics and satirical or self-deprecating patter can, like great poetry, make you laugh or cry as you sit in the audience absorbed by her entertaining, yet deeply serious wheelhouse/fun house of music and ideas that matter.

CHERYL WHEELER performs at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13 and 14, at Northampton's Iron Horse Music Hall with Kenny White. Tickets: $25, advance; $30, door. and 413-586-8686.

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