Dan Reeder – Let me entertain me
As an American icon with a sizable following and, not incidentally, his own record label, John Prine doubtless receives more than his share of unsolicited music from sound-alikes, wannabes and addle-pated fans. Predictably, the bulk of such unbidden offerings tends to display more abject devotion than passion, inspiration or originality. Yet one such offering recently made a direct hit on the heart and mind of the veteran tunesmith.
Moreover, just one spin through Dan Reeder’s eponymous debut will allow others to experience the thrill of discovery that not only grabbed Prine’s attention, but led him to release it (almost exactly as sent) on his own Oh Boy Records in late 2003. The eighteen original tunes on Reeder’s disc add up to a magical, charming, often hilarious, occasionally scatological journey through an extraordinary mind.
The song constructs are primitive and direct, but Reeder’s primary career as a visual artist affords him freedom as a self-taught musician to juxtapose genres in fresh, guileless ways that might never even occur to a professional. Which is to say, if you don’t know the “rules,” you can’t possibly know you’re breaking them. Elements of blues, rock, folk, gospel, art songs, show tunes, field hollers, world music and nursery rhymes blend and swirl on the same plate.
Likewise, Reeder’s curious world view and artist’s eye make for some rip-snorting fun on the lyrical side. Deadpan howlers such as the call-and-response “Food And Pussy” or the white-blues-guy send-up of “My Little Bitty Pee Pee” are subtle only in their ingenuous delivery. But Reeder also scores mightily on fever dreams and slice-of-life beauties.
With a languid, faintly dusty vocal style residing somewhere between a less-swampy J.J. Cale and a less-elastic Jesse Winchester, Reeder sings all the parts on the record. And plays all of the instruments. Big deal, eh? Well, Reeder also made all of the instruments he plays.
At a point when he had tired of painting pictures, Reeder took up guitar making. He built one acoustic guitar and three electric ones, in addition to “a few trash ukuleles, an acoustic bass and a lots of weird, unplayable instruments,” he says.
He fashioned a snarky drum kit from found items. Then he cannibalized discarded PCs to modify his recording unit, which he stashed in a shelled-out refrigerator for sound baffling. He couldn’t justify the expense of a mixer with microphone pre-amps, so he read up on the subject and built his own mixer for about $10.
All of this equipment is pictured in the CD insert. The cartoonish gear looks like it was designed for Gumby and Pokey. The cover art is an original Reeder linoleum cut. We’re talkin’ maximum DIY here, folks.
What comes through loud and clear is the work of an extremely creative (and exhilaratingly daft) person doing his damndest to entertain himself. That the listener gets to come along for a ride is a lucky bonus.
The son of a minister, Reeder was born in Louisiana in 1954 and raised in California. He attended college briefly after high school, then spent more than a decade as a meat cutter, taking junior college classes in pre-engineering and art along the way. Art trumped science, and he moved on to Cal State-Fullerton as an art major.
It was there that Reeder met Susanne (from Nurnberg, Germany), who was in Fullerton visiting friends. When her visa expired, she invited Dan to return to Europe with her. Although he was a semester shy of a B.A., Reeder went. They were soon married in Germany, and he never returned to school.
Reeder met a lot of artists on the job and in German pubs. Before long, his artwork became featured routinely in high-profile galleries.
Except for a two-year stay in Athens, Georgia, in the late-’80s (while Susanne finished her master’s degree in German literature), the couple has lived in Nurnberg ever since. They have three young children.
Regardless of the reception of his debut disc, Reeder currently has no plans to make a career as a musician. “I’m not a musician; I’m a painter,” he insists. “I’m at my best when I go into a room all by myself and lock the door. To go onstage is a horror for me. I’ve tried it; it’s terrible. I look for something big enough to hide behind.”
So why even open that window?
“I made my CD for the hell of it,” Reeder answers. “I love to sing harmony. I wanted to irritate the local musicians. I wanted to show off, and I wanted to play with my computer. I wanted something to do when I couldn’t paint. I wanted an excuse to make CD covers. And I wanted to have some fun.
“End of story.”
One hopes that it’s not, but if so, it’s a helluva good one.