Cyndi Wheeler – At the corner of jazz & bluegrass
“Doing this sort of music was an idea,” Cyndi Wheeler explains, at a java emporium not far from Music Row. “I’ve come to love bluegrass so much; it speaks to me on a whole different level than jazz does, but both are exciting. I love them both. So, thinking about what would be new and different to do, I had the idea to try to combine the two.”
The results will be heard on her accomplished first album, the romantic yet breezy Tonight You Belong To Me, available for two months, beginning February 13, via iTunes, and then on producer Scott Rouse’s Groovegrass Recordings label.
The songs, fetchingly sung, are mainly such 1940s and ’50s popular jazz standards as “September Song”, “Moonlight In Vermont”, and “What A Difference A Day Makes”. The swinging acoustic instrumental backing is provided by some of bluegrass’ finest. The plunking 1920s canoe-serenader-style “ukelele” on the title track turns out to be Ronnie McCoury on mandolin — and that smooth voice harmonizing with Wheeler’s on the song belongs to none other than Ricky Skaggs.
Wheeler picked up the basic arrangement for her version of “Tonight You Belong To Me” from a classic source — of a sort. “It’s one of my favorite songs of all time, period — but the first time I ever heard it was in the movie The Jerk, with Steve Martin,” she admits. “There’s a scene where he and Bernadette Peters are sitting on a beach, and that’s what they sing!”
Wheeler’s original introduction to the charms of jazz singing had come in a similar moment of serendipity. Having grown up in small, fountain-free Fountaintown, Indianapolis, she’d been more likely to have a Foreigner album in the car tape player until, in her senior year of high school, a friend played her a Manhattan Transfer cassette.
“I suddenly got it,” she recalls. “I’d never really heard anybody do anything like those harmonies — or those songs….I’d grown up singing and dancing, since I was 5, doing shows in Indianapolis. It was like my after-school job. The day I graduated high school, I threw my cap in the air and left home. I started doing jobs, traveling, doing all different styles of music.”
Wheeler was singing and dancing in clubs, on cruise ships, anywhere. She first showed up in Nashville with hopes of making it as a country singer in 1989, when Opryland theme park shows were in their heyday. After a successful audition, she was booked instantly by the Opryland people, but as a cast member of a jazz-oriented book show — in Baltimore.
With her vocal flexibility and finesse, Wheeler later went on to become a sought-after Nashville session vocalist and jingle singer, and a performer on Gaylord’s General Jackson showboat, too. What she wanted to do most, make a record of her own, proved elusive — as did, she admits, a personal focus for her talents.
“I feel like I was blessed with versatility, because it’s kept me working. I can deliver what you need,” she says. “But for a while, it also caused me to lack direction.”
While singing behind country singer Chely Wright on a 1997 tour of Japan, she met Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes, and the rest of bluegrass band Blue Highway, who were on the same tour and were already produced by Rouse, for whom she’d also done some soundtrack work. When a duet vocalist was needed to match Stafford on the Blue Highway CD Marbletown, Wheeler got the call.
She went on to croon the World War II-era “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on the Grammy-nominated, Rouse-produced 2004 disc Christmas On The Mountain, in what might have been a backup performance until legends Doc Watson, Del McCoury and Mac Wiseman, who were featured on that disc, all suggested Wheeler should be heard on the lead.
Watson enthusiastically suggested some of the swing-era songs on Wheeler’s new album, and Wiseman appears on one track singing backup for her. Her appearance on Charlie Daniels’ 2005 bluegrass gospel CD garnered her additional attention.
The experimentally inclined Rouse — he’d famously put Doc and Mac together with Bootsy Collins in the Groovegrass Boys — brought together the musicians who would help implement Wheeler’s notion of combining jazz standards and bluegrass instrumentation. Jazz-comfortable bass player Byron House (of Sam Bush’s band) joined dobro master Ickes, guitarist Stafford, and mandolin star Ronnie McCoury, among others. Both Wheeler and Rouse say the players took swiftly and well to the clear change of pace of the swing-era songs’ tone and sentiments, and it’s evident in the hearing.
Wheeler vows that her future shows and recordings will continue in this affecting grass-jazz hybrid mode. “If you ask what my dream was when I was still back at home,” she says, “the truth is, I had a million of them. I had to go from this job and that, here and there, to figure out who I am, and what it is that I really need to be singing. I wasn’t sure why I even ended up down here. Now I am. I want to be doing this.”