Jeff Daniels’ career on screen spans nearly four decades and an eclectic entourage of roles, and two of his most beloved performances couldn’t be more tonally divorced from each other. 1994’s Dumb and Dumber may have burned the vision of Daniels in a toothpaste blue tuxedo into the brains of audiences forever, but his time playing the brash, ornery news anchor Will McAvoy on HBO’s The Newsroom delivered some of Daniels’ most intense moments on film and secured him a spot on the nominee list for every major Best Actor award throughout the duration of the series. (He took home an Emmy for his work as McAvoy in 2013).
One prescient monologue stands out not only for Newsroom fans, but Daniels, too. In the very first episode of the series, McAvoy — disillusioned by America’s decline on intellectual, industrial and philosophical levels — stuns an assembly of Northwestern University students when he launches a tirade about the United States and how it has a long way to go before it can claim to be the greatest country in the world again. The episode aired in the summer of 2012, a month before Mitt Romney would secure his place as the Republican candidate to challenge Barack Obama in the Presidential election and weeks before now-President Donald Trump would question Obama’s American citizenship with a single tweet.
Throughout all of this and into the current climate, Daniels was paying close attention — and it filtered into his music. The actor is a guitar-wielding musician when he isn’t on screen, playing with his son, Ben, and touring the country together. In February, they released a live album, Acoustic Sittin’ Tour 2018, and one of its tracks, “Hard to Hear The Angels Sing,” was penned by the elder Daniels after he read an op-ed in the Washington Post shortly following Trump’s election. With little more than his own voice, the subdued strumming of his acoustic guitar and lyrics from the Star-Spangled Banner and “America the Beautiful” interspersed with his own thoughts, Daniels’ less-is-more approach posits simple questions and conundrums.
Here, he expounds upon why he felt compelled to pen “Hard to Hear the Angels Sing” in the first place — and why artists bear a certain responsibility in these trying times. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
When you introduced “Back When You Were Into Me” on Acoustic Sittin’ Tour 2018, you were talking about where songs come from, and how you pick up on prompts when you “hear things” in conversation especially. It sounds like this song had a similar genesis, in that you were inspired by Kathleen Parker’s words in the Washington Post. When did you write the song after that?
I was following along with breaking news (that seems to break every twenty minutes now). You feel helpless. You really feel like, “What can any of us do except watch and hope for the best and brace for the worst?” I remember Frank Rich — who’s now executive producer of Veep, but at the time he was writing for The New York Times and New York, I believe — wrote a piece about six weeks after 9/11, and it basically said, “Where are the artists? This is where the artists need to step forward and help explain, illuminate and help us figure this out.” I remember Springsteen was driving around and somebody pulled up next to him at a light, and just rolled his window down and said, “We need you now!” and drove away. Then he wrote “The Rising.” That’s always stuck with me.
Off-Broadway — that’s where I fell in love with writing — it was always, “What’s going on now and how can we write about that?” So when I read that column by Kathleen Parker, and in it she was discussing post-election how what, regardless of right or left, we have lost is class and decency and the way it was gone about in order for this administration to win. She just wrote, “It’s hard to hear the angels sing.” I said, that’s it. I took that and then made it this echoing of the National Anthem and religion in there, and just caught the moment. This is what it’s like to live in America right now: Amidst all this noise, all of this hatred … it’s hard to hear the angels sing, and we’re supposed to be the most religious, our virtues, our morals, all of this. You kind of look at it like, “If Jesus came back, what would he say? What would he think about all of this?” The song just dealt with all of that, and that line that Kathleen wrote, that’s what I taped in front of me and wrote the song. It came pretty quickly. It’s on the nose, especially the chorus. It doesn’t pull any punches. It just asks the question: Are you really okay with this? Are you okay with how this went down? He represents who we are. Are you happy with that? I don’t think the angels would be, and that’s what the songs speak to. You can do that with a song, especially if you’re an actor who writes songs and isn’t known as a songwriter or Nashville or anything like that. I just write ‘em to write ‘em.
I’m curious about this choice to work with the lyrics of the National Anthem and these American folk songs. Do these verses have new meaning for you?
I’m the guy that got to do the Northwestern speech in The Newsroom to the college kids. You come out of the other end of a speech like that, and you can’t help but think. Has [the meaning] changed? No, but the Northwestern speech made me question and think about a lot of things regardless of what they were. You look at Woody Guthrie, he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in response to “God Bless America.” It was done in such a patriotic way, but then this is who we are. To lay those lyrics under today’s times in a kind of lament, and today’s chaos in Washington, the lack of identity as a country — it just went there. “Hard to Hear the Angels Sing” asks the listener to reexamine the Star-Spangled Banner. Still patriotic. Still proud of it. But something’s not right here.
Do you get the sense that your audience is reflecting on that? There’s a lot of laughter in your live show, but this song is a somber moment in the set. How has this gone over when you’ve played it for audiences?
That’s kind of what I do with the show. I learned that doing theater and plays and stories. Even the dramatic stories have humor. It’s a little bit like letting the air out, but there’s a way to relax the audience. When I started doing the solo show, I knew I needed to build it like a play: You build towards a climax, and then you get out after that, but you gotta take ‘em along. You gotta build it. Especially if you’re like me, and nobody knows what you do: There are no hits. It’s not like I can roll out the greatest hits or anything. So the humor and the songs that are funnier, there’s something to make them laugh a little bit. They’re set up for a gut punch, which is either a song like “Back When You Were Into Me” or “Hard to Hear the Angels Sing.” You don’t introduce it, you just lay it on ’em. When you hit ‘em with a serious one, it rocks ‘em even more. It moves ‘em even more, vs.. three ballads and you lay that on ‘em, or you do a big long speech. I really enjoy the way to set ‘em up: really entertain the hell out of ’em, then really make a right turn and poom — now they’re in another place. It’s a lot like the acting career; I start out with just me and then I move it around so there’s a variety to it, and then it builds to something, and then we send ‘em home.
You just described your Newsroom monologue, in a way. There were jokes exchanged before you dove into that speech that’s since gone on to define your time on that show. You’ve played characters steeped in politics who aren’t politicians or directly involved in politics. How have your experiences playing these characters affected your interaction with or your relationship with politics?
Yeah, they come when they come. Langford Wilson was a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, and when I was starting to write plays, he just said, “Keep your ears open.” Always be listening; always be writing; always be thinking; you never know. Someone’s gonna say something; someone’s gonna do something; and it’s gonna lead to something that’s probably more true than if you’d made everything up. That stuck with me… All songwriters know: You gotta write four bad ones to write that one, and that’s okay. You can’t know until you’re done with them. Then it’s just like movies and TV or a play: Once you write it and somebody hears it, it’s no longer yours. That took a long time to learn.
You mentioned Woody Guthrie before, but I’m curious: Are there any musicians that are putting out protest music or releasing music now that’s resonating with you?
I love the Writers With Guitars, I call ’em. Certainly initially on it was Arlo Guthrie, Stevie Goodman, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright — they all could do serious and also funny. Cheryl Wheeler, Jason Isbell, Keb’ Mo’, Kacey Musgraves… I really like the story of Ashley McBride, how she’s breaking and the way she just writes good songs. I just love that. John Hiatt. Lyle Lovett. Will Kimbro. Love that guy’s playing. Kelly Joe Phelps — I’ll never play like Kelly Joe, but I can try. Noah Gunderson. Sturgill Simpson. Only they could write that verse, and that’s what you’re going for. You may not sell as many records for some — I mean, Jason’s not gonna have any problems — but it’s okay to write more specifically. I write for writers. I’m hopeful that someone might hear something I do and go, “Oh, that’s a good line. I like that line.” That’ll be enough.