One day in 2012, Cheryl Wheeler read an article about a Westboro Baptist Church member who had attended a Lady Gaga concert.
“And the head of church made a statement, something about ‘Lady Gaga’s singing program.’ And that language just killed me. I love the idea of taking what Lady Gaga does [and] calling it a ‘singing program.’ I wanted to make a song of it.”
The result: The lord sits and stares out over his knees/ Disgusted with nearly all that he sees/ With the wicked and low confounding our land/ and Lady Gaga’s singing program.
“I don’t often think, I want to write a song about X, and then go write it. It’s more like coming across an article or something and saying, ‘Oh my God, “Lady Gaga’s singing program?” Are you crazy? I have to write about this,’ ” Wheeler, 66, says with a laugh.
“I have another song, ‘Estate Sale,’ that I wrote because a person said to me, ‘Estates sales, all you’re really doing is going through dead people’s houses.’ How do you not write a song about that?”
With her glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, and typically dressed in a plain T-shirt, slacks, and Crocs for her shows, Wheeler is an unassuming folk star.
Over decades, she’s built a cult following through Boston radio and the New England folk circuit for her uncanny ability, not unlike Tom Rush, to have her audience laughing during one song and silently tearing up with the next.
We caught up with Wheeler recently by phone at her Swansea home, where she lives with her wife, Cathleen, and their three dogs, as she readies for a string of upcoming Massachusetts shows.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. In Timonium, Md. As I’ve heard it, it was named after a mythological character, Timonius, who was eternally sad. So I grew up in Eternally Sad, Maryland.
Q. Did you always want to be a musician?
A. It was that or get a job. I’d been playing since I was 10. The summer of fourth grade, my friend was cleaning out her attic. She put a broken plastic ukulele in the trash pile, and that was my start. I picked it up and started playing. After a year, I got a real ukulele, then a guitar. When I quit college, I realized I’d have to do something during the day.
Q. Did you quit college for music?
A. Not really. I went to 13th and 14th grade at a two-year school. For 15th grade I went to Coker College in South Carolina and studied English. I quit in the spring of ’72. But I didn’t quit thinking: Do I embark on a folk music career? I quit because I was in 15th grade, and enough was enough already.
‘I love what I do, but also love the idea that I’ll wake up one morning and not have to get on an airplane. I’m 66, so sayonara is coming whether I like it or not.’
Q. And what did you do?
A. I applied to be a waitress. Within a week, the owners and me, we realized we made a terrible mistake. I could never be a waitress. But they needed [a musician], and I thought maybe I could do that, and they were relieved to get me out of waitressing. That was ’74, ’75. Then I moved to Providence in ’76.
Q. Why Providence?
A. I was going to stay a few weeks and move to Nashville. My best friend Michael was in Providence. I was gay, and my father recently remarried, and I love my stepmother, but I hadn’t told my dad I was gay, and I said, “How do I introduce this to my dad now?” So I was going to come up for a while. But I just loved Providence. It’s my favorite city. It’s tiny, almost like a village. There’s a feeling in Providence — it always feels good, every time I go. So I stayed.
I had a big breakout at Salt in Newport; I started opening for Tom Rush, Jesse Winchester, Jonathan Edwards. Then I got a call from a guy who played [with Edwards], now my best friend, Kenny. He said, “Can you play bass for Jonathan Edwards?” I didn’t play bass, but now I was going to learn. And to my father, who was wondering, “What are you doing? When are you going back to college?,” now I could say, “I’m touring with Jonathan Edwards.”
Q. “Arrow” is an early song that really took off on Boston radio.
A. I didn’t like “Arrow” that much. I woke up and wrote it fast, and it came so easily that I didn’t think much of it. When I went to make my first album, my friend Patsy said, “Put that ‘Arrow’ song on there!” I said, “No, no, no.” But I put it on the cassette, and Jonathan Edwards [who produced the record] called and said, “Love that song ‘Arrow’!” [Laughs] I know now that the songs that come to you from out of nowhere, don’t ignore those. If something’s coming at you, get out of the way and let it come. Now, at 66, I don’t know if I will write any more songs. I used to write a lot of sad stuff; it’s harder to do that now. When you’re 20, it’s easy to write, “I’m so cold and alone.” When you’re older, you edit yourself: “Oh, shut up. A lot of people have problems. Turn the heat up.”
Q. So you don’t think you’ll write anymore?
A. I assume I’ll write another song, but I am, on a daily basis, looking at what the world will be like when I’m not a folk singer. I love what I do, but also love the idea that I’ll wake up one morning and not have to get on an airplane. I’m 66, so sayonara is coming whether I like it or not.
Q. You were married in Fall River right after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.
A. Ten days after it was legal. We’d never considered it before that. We heard one night on TV, and we were like “What?!” And I said, “We should do that.” And Cathleen said, “Absolutely.” A couple days afterward, I realized I had no idea how to go about getting married. I don’t know how to put on a jock strap, either. Like, why would I need to know those things? If you were gay and grew up in the time I did, you knew marriage wasn’t going to happen for you. So I called up to Provincetown, and they suggested Fall River City Hall. I was just so flipped that I had to have a blood test. I thought it was a ruse — they were trying to gather up all the queer people and kill them.
Q. Have you been inspired to write political songs, given the climate?
A. I wrote [“Giant Angry Baby”] before the election. The political climate now is certainly nothing to sing about. I’ve never felt as depressed about politics as I do now. I’m far from wanting to talk about it. People have actually thanked me after shows for not mentioning [politics].
Q. You have a way of making people either laugh or cry with songs. Which do you like performing better?
A. I have no preference. I just hope the audience feels. People need to feel sad sometimes. But there’s so much funny stuff in the world, it’s hard not to point it out.
At Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Jan. 12-13 at 7 p.m. At Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River, Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. At Club Passim, Cambridge, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. www.cherylwheeler.comInterview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.