On the folk circuit, actor Jeff Daniels aims to be fingerpickin’ good

Jeff Daniels
Luke Pline
Jeff Daniels

When you hear that an actor is venturing into music, you don’t expect to be wowed. Actually, you might roll your eyes.

“I completely get it,” Jeff Daniels, the actor-playwright-musician, says in a recent phone interview.

As he sings on his Hollywood-musician sendup “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too”: “Russell Crowe was on the Leno show/ Singing some song that nobody knows/ He’s got an Oscar, now he’s got a guitar/ Just like that, he’s a rock-and-roll star.”


So it’s meant as a compliment to say that you’d likely never guess it was Daniels playing if you heard one of his folk tunes on the radio.

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People tend to get a “a bit of shock,” when they hear him for the first time, says Daniels, an able fingerpicker who has a Martin guitar named after him (the Martin OM Jeff Daniels Custom Signature Edition), nine albums on Spotify, and a penchant for mixing witty wordplay with serious heartache.

His jukebox heartbreaker “She Don’t Love Me,” for example, is straight from the John Prine school of songwriting (“It’s not that she don’t love me, she just don’t like me anymore.”)

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning, Tony-nominated actor is known to fans, depending on the fan, as the guy from “Something Wild” or “Dumb and Dumber” or “The Squid and the Whale” or “Terms of Endearment” or HBO’s “The Newsroom” . . . The genre-blurring list goes on.

Daniels recently earned two more Emmy nods — supporting actor in a limited series in the Netflix western “Godless,” and lead actor in a limited series in Hulu’s “The Looming Tower.”


Yet bonafide musicians, it would seem, have welcomed Daniels into their tribe: He’s shared the stage with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Keb Mo’, and Bruce Hornsby. He performed at David Bromberg’s Bucket List Birthday Bash at New York City’s Town Hall in 2015 with Tom Rush and Jerry Jeff Walker, among others.

Just last month, he played that holy grail of folk-Americana stages, public radio’s “Mountain Stage.”

In the meantime, the founder of the Purple Rose Theatre Company in his native Michigan is writing a new play, studying for his role as Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and touring with his son’s band.

Jeff Daniels & Ben Daniels Band makes a string of Massachusetts stops this week. The Globe called him up recently to talk shop(s).

Q. So are people surprised by how good you are as a musician?


A. I get some stunned reactions. The expectations when an actor does something [else] are always low. But if they give me 10 minutes, if [I] can make them laugh about it, they’re there.

‘You have to entertain them first. You can’t say: “Take me seriously as a songwriter right now.” ’

Q. Who are your musical influences? I hear a John Prine, Arlo Guthrie influence.

A. Oh, yeah. Early on, Arlo Guthrie, right out of the gate. Steve Goodman. Christine Lavin was big. I saw her in Ann Arbor in the ’80s. Watching her, I saw you have permission to be funny. The last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up two masks. Loudon Wainwright was another one. I made sure [comedy] was part of what I was doing. With someone like me, you have to entertain them first. You can’t say: “Take me seriously as a songwriter right now.”

Q. Have you always wanted to be a musician? What was your original goal?

A. An actor was what I was supposed to be. I did what I was told by people who supposedly knew. I started out doing high school musicals; in college, dramas. I threw a guitar in [my car] when I moved to New York [to act] in ’76, thinking I’d be sitting in an apartment waiting for the phone to ring. And it became a creative outlet. I fell in love with the writing process from hanging out with playwrights.

Q. When did you feel you were good enough to play in front of people?

A. About the third year of doing shows opening at my theater company. I’ll never be Stefan Grossman, but if you’re fingerpicking, you’re already ahead of 50 percent of the guitarists who just strum. I work at it every single day. I’ll play on-set sitting around. “RV” was a movie I made [costarring Robin Williams in 2006] and [director] Barry [Sonnenfeld] asked if I could play banjo, and he wrote it in. In “Newsroom,” Aaron [Sorkin] knew I played, so he made sure my character had a guitar.

Q. Between film, TV, live theater, and music, which is your biggest passion?

A. I move ’em around. I think that’s part of what keeps me interested in all of them. When a tour is coming up, that’s what I’m doing. When the tour is over, then it’s “Mockingbird” on Broadway. Then when I’m done with that, it’s back into a [TV] series. It’s one thing at a time. It’s a lot of compartmentalization. I enjoy acting in really complex material, whether in “Godless,” “The Newsroom,” or “Mockingbird” on Broadway. Touring in front of people, playing [concerts], that’s it own unique thing.

Q. Do you find people go to your concerts because they’re fans of your movies or shows? Do you get a lot of “Dumb and Dumber” fans?

A. The “Dumb and Dumber” [fans] are out there, but [whether] they like “Gettysburg,” or “Newsroom,” or “Dumb and Dumber,” they’re there because they like that. So there’s a we-already-like-you-factor going on. The “Dumb and Dumber” fans — and there are many — they’re already smiling. And then you gotta deliver. And they then go, “Oh my God.”


At Wequassett Resort & Golf Club, East Harwich, Aug. 7 at 8:30 p.m. At Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. At the Cabot, Beverly, Aug. 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets:

Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at