by Carolyn Ellis-White
Dan Fogelberg defies classification as a recording artist, crossing over musical boundaries with aplomb. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, he leads his listeners through his own personal changes - traveling into the world of jazz, pop, classical, and most recently - bluegrass music. Such diversity, he believes, is necessary.
"I like to keep jumping around and trying different styles of songwriting. I feel my audience has come to expect some changes from time to time…you have to keep growing and changing if you are going to remain vital - interested in what you do."
As a multitalented singer/songwriter/musician, Fogelberg enjoys taking risks, feeling that he cannot base his career on repetition of itself. He likes stepping out occasionally, doing things that he is not known for - in essence following his musical heart wherever it leads him. This sentiment is best seen in his latest album, "High Country Snows." Describing it as an 'album of traditional American music,' Fogelberg readily admits that it doesn't follow the standards, just as he himself does not.
"My album is not a purist bluegrass record by any stretch of the imagination. It's probably the most pop-bluegrass album that has ever been made."
While enthusiasts may agree, there are those who believe the album was an excellent way to promote bluegrass music.
Herb Pedersen not only played banjo on "High Country Snows," he just finished touring with Fogelberg as well.
"When (Chris) Hillman and I were out opening for him (Fogelberg)…it's a little four-piece bluegrass band…we were playing to more people every night for three weeks than a lot of great bluegrass bands play to in a year - just because of Dan's draw as a pop artist. They loved it."
"We've been taking this show to New York and Boston and it's funny to see people all dressed up with diamonds running around. We've been reaching the city people - which is great. People are really getting off on it.
"My intent in doing it (the album) was because I love bluegrass in all its forms and I want to get some ears open to it. If I can reach out to people who have been pop-oriented all their lives and this creates some interest in pure bluegrass - traditional as well as contemporary - then I will have accomplished a great deal with it."
With a string of gold and platinum albums behind him, Fogelberg does not have the same expectations for his latest venture.
"I'm sure it will be my smallest selling record…it's a mode of music that most Americans aren't tuned to - unfortunately. Hey, they've opened up a lot of ears. I never made it to be a huge success. I don't care - I'm so proud of it. And I'm so pleased that I did it…it's something I've wanted to do for a long time."
Bluegrass and the more traditional types of music have always held a fascination for Fogelberg. In recent years, he's found that the songs he writes have reflected that attraction more and more. Giving into the desire for a new direction of expression he focused his energies on the creation of "High Country Snows."
Living in Colorado, he gathered the inspiration for the album from the land around him, lending a mixture of mountain bluegrass and western 'old-timey' ballad flavor. He wrote his songs as a tribute to the joys and sorrows of country living - the honesty and simplicity that surround it. Hard driving fiddle and banjo tunes bring exuberance, while soft, haunting ballads give cause for reflection. With such ballads his forte, those on "High Country" are no exception.
"Listening to bluegrass a lot on my own - living in the mountains of Colorado - and listening to so many great players…it just spawned something that I've wanted to do for a lot of years.
"Basically I made up a list when I had the material and I decided I wanted to do the album…I made up a list of who would be in my dream band - who I would love to have play on it with me and I sent it to my secretary in Los Angeles; she started calling people and the next thing I knew, they were all coming to play."
Fogelberg surrounded himself with some of the finest country and bluegrass musicians in the industry - people like Ricky Skaggs, Herb Pedersen, Jim Buchanan, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas, Charlie McCoy, Chris Hillman, and, one of his favorite traditional players - the legendary Doc Watson.
Doc recalls that he didn't know who was most nervous - he or Fogelberg, something they both later laughed about.
"Yeah, the first session…I guess because he thought we were doing some old stuff that he would know, and I had written this new piece for him. Doc likes to get things just right - so he took it home for a month or so and then we got back together and recorded it. (He) played it beautifully. It was a thrill for me to work with him.
"I grew up listening to Doc. The flat picking shots that I do - I'm not really a hot flat picker - I'm really more of an electric guitarist or fingerpicker - they have come from Doc more than anybody else. He's just one of the greatest people as well."
If Fogelberg was amazed at his ability to draw these people together, he wasn't the only one.
"After thirty-four years in the business - professionally," says Jim Buchanan, renowned fiddle player, "this is one of the probably very few times in my career to meet a guy that I have known (about) and listened to for quite some time - but I never thought our paths would cross. That's the amazing thing about it. Through the country and bluegrass thing it did - it crossed over - and I feel very fortunate in having done this album. It reaches a big mass of people. I mean a broad scope, a mainstream of people. I thought it was a great idea he had to do it."
With the ability to make music on over thirty different instruments, Fogelberg is capable of producing an entire album virtually by himself.
"Usually when I record an album, I end up doing most everything myself - except for drums - and it was nice not to have to be the lead guitar player on every track and singing all the harmonies myself. It was really fun to work with all these great musicians and give them room to stretch out and play. And the solos just blew me away."
The youngest of three sons, Dan Fogelberg was born in Peoria, Illinois, to parents that encouraged his musical growth at a very early age, providing him with a wide variety of musical exposure. He credits them a great deal for his success. One of his biggest hit singles - "Leader Of The Band" - was written as a tribute to his father.
"My father was a professional musician all of his life. He played in jazz bands during the 1920s and '30s, and he played with orchestras in and around Chicago. He was a bandleader, a teacher, and eventually head of a high school music department."
His mother he thanks "for her gift of words."
"My mother was trained in classical voice - and that lady could sing - but she chose not to pursue a career - she chose to have a family instead."
Fogelberg tells a story about his earliest musical experience, recounting how, at the age of five, he took an Elvis Presley single with him to kindergarten, avowing that he would not take a nap until the record was played. It was - and he did. But it was not until a few years later that he began serious study.
"I began playing when I was ten. My grandfather gave me an acoustic guitar and unfortunately, I didn't know at the time that it was a Hawaiian steel guitar," he laughs. "The action was like an inch off the neck, so I got really strong calluses early on. I finally figured out that this was not the way to do it, and I went out and got a regular acoustic.
"I took piano lessons when I was very young, but I got out of that, and once I got a guitar, that was about it."
"I've got a pretty good ear - that's really the way I'm trained - ear training. I have a natural gift for picking things up. That's the way I learned to play guitar - that's the way I learned to play everything. And playing piano opens up a lot of doors - you can play any kind of keyboard."
As an accomplished pianist and guitarist, Fogelberg likes to experiment with other instruments as well. On past albums, he's employed a number of strange, and often, seldom heard of, musical implements. The bowed psaltery, for instance.
"A psaltery is a very ancient little wooden instrument usually in the form of a pyramid. It's got strings that run up - it's got fifteen or sixteen strings I believe and two octaves; you bow the strings between the tuning pegs. It's a very strange little thing and it makes a very strange little noise.
"As far as the more exotic things like psalteries and the Coral sitar - I pick things up and mess around with them until I get out of them what I want. I wouldn't call myself a good bowed psaltery player or a good hammered dulcimer player, but I own the instruments and mess around with them to get something I like for a particular part of a record. I used them more for sound - I'm not really proficient on any of those instruments."
By the age of twelve, Fogelberg was playing professionally, joining his first band when he was fourteen. When he reached his junior year in high school, he was through with what he called his "band period," recalling that his "more introverted self came out and started taking over." For the remainder of his time in high school he concentrated on writing songs and playing the guitar.
Attending the University of Illinois, Fogelberg studied painting as a fine arts major but continued to devote a good deal of his time to music. After two years of college he felt he had to make a decision as to his future: he'd become very successful as a musician, and although he enjoyed painting, he dropped out of school to pursue a career as a musician. He has continued to paint - many of his albums bear examples of his work - but not to any great extent.
"I don't really get a chance to paint anymore because I'm just too busy. To paint the way I did when I was in college - when I was studying painting - would take me years to get back to because it's something you have to do every day to keep it up, to keep your eye up - to keep your hand up. I just don't have time to do that anymore so I've gotten very interested in photography in the last ten years. That I can do when I travel - I can carry cameras anywhere and then go back home and go in the darkroom."
In the future he hopes to exhibit his work and would very much like to publish a book of pictures in the next year or so.
Fogelberg stays very busy with his music but doesn't let himself become so involved that it overshadows other aspects of his life.
"About half the year - or a little more - I'm in the studio writing or on the road; but I like to keep the part of my life alive. I'm not consumed by music - I love it dearly and it's what I do - but at the same time, there are things every bit as important to me - skiing, my ranch, photography, my horses - I try to keep a balance between the two. I don't want to spend my life doing nothing but music."
Fogelberg's recording career began in 1972 and continues to flourish into the eighties; "High Country Snows" is his tenth album. Not only does it represent fulfillment of a long time dream for the performer - it gave him "more fun than I've ever had in this business." And did the finished album live up to his original expectations for it?
"Oh it exceeds them - for a lot of reasons. It was very satisfying for me because I like the material that I wrote for it - I was really proud of that stuff. But then the playing that people did…it's an album that I'll listen to all my life. You know, a lot of my records I can and don't want to listen to anymore - I've heard them so much or whatever - but this one I'm going to listen to a lot. I'm just so knocked out by the playing."
Fogelberg readily admits to having great respect and admiration for the people who worked with him on this album. Coming into the recording session lacking the extensive bluegrass training that some of the others had, he was still able to fall into sync quickly and smoothly, bringing high praise from his fellow players.
"He knows what's supposed to be - where it's supposed to me," says Jim Buchanan. "Dan's a great musician. Of course, I can play real fast and it didn't surprise me that sometimes he can't keep up. He and I have laughed about that. But that's from that bluegrass training of mine. I think it was a gutsy little thing he did - jumping right in there with some powerhouse players - and it worked; it came together. It was everything I personally felt it should be."
"Dan is a wizard," emphasizes Doc Watson. "Although he doesn't play bluegrass as familiarly as I do or some of the other players, he is still a fine, fine musician. He's a fine person, as well. I truly did enjoy working with him."
Ricky Skaggs echoes that feeling:
"I really enjoyed working on "High Country Snows" with Dan. It was a fun project and I consider him to be one of the finest singers and musicians in the business today."
With one dream behind him, Fogelberg is already moving towards a new musical experience. He plans to start working on a new album in the fall.
"Everybody's coming to me now and saying, 'okay, bluegrass. Now what? Blues? Sounds like you're writing a lot of blues' - which I am. So I don't know. I could do any number of styles - I just don't know where the next direction is going to take me."
He's not afraid to experiment; not afraid to travel into uncharted waters. He's a musician because it's what he loves. He has embraced the entire medium and moves freely with it. When it comes to music - Dan Fogelberg doesn't show favoritism.
"Do I have a favorite? No. I just like good music. That's one of the reasons I move around so much because there is good music in every genre. There's good classical and there's bad classical - there's good jazz and bad jazz - good country and bad country - good rock 'n' roll and bad rock 'n' roll. I like good music and I guess that's subjective but there are certain standouts that rise to the top of every field. The Stanley Brothers…Doc Watson. But I listen to such diverse types of music that I can't really say I have a favorite [style]."
With "High Country Snows," Dan Fogelberg paid tribute to American traditional music the best way he knew how. It was his intent to spread bluegrass music around; share it with new audiences. It was a risky venture but it has paid off not only for him but for bluegrass itself. As a result of this album, more and more people are taking a new look at one of the oldest forms of music, appreciating what it has to offer. Instead of a maverick, perhaps he should be called a diplomat.
Says Jim Buchanan, "I met a friend and I enjoyed doing the work. Dan is a hell of a nice guy and I hope this album stays around for a long time and opens up some other people's eyes as to who Dan Fogelberg is - outside his regular audience. I sure think a lot of him. And hey, he's just doing what we all are trying to do…keep a little joy and laughter and good times for the folks."
Reprinted by permission Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
Copyright June 1986
Generously submitted to The Living Legacy by Carolyn Ellis-White.