By Rick Gartner
Class commercialism. It’s a rare commodity in the entertainment business. It happens when an artist offers the public something that is sublimely crafted, something that reaches out and touches the heart. It happens when such an artist works independently of gold-chained media moguls. It happens every time Dan Fogelberg records an album, or walks on stage. Fogelberg’s music doesn’t need to be rammed down the public’s throat; his audience waits with open arms. In a career that has spanned just over a decade, Fogelberg has recorded ten LPs -- eight of which have earned platinum status (over 1,000,000 copies sold.) The other two are gold (500,000 copies sold). In those grooves, the listener can find everything from crisp, hard-driving rock to mellow acoustic ballads and instrumentals. Virtually all of that material is from Fogelberg’s prolific pen. A good share of the instrumentals (guitars and keyboards) and most of the vocals (lead and harmonies) on those records are also the work of this 33 year old master musician.
It seems odd when a man in this early thirties is referred to professionally as “enduring” and “long-lived”; but such descriptions are appropriate. Because Fogelberg has always insisted upon having a free hand as an artist, he’s been able to stay in the mainstream without drowning in it. That has kept things interesting for everybody. Just when you think you know what the next Fogelberg album will sound like, he throws you a change-up.
In the late ‘70s, with the entire music industry in retreat, Fogelberg was moving forward. His “experimental” Twin Sons Of Different Mothers co-featured flautist Tim Weisberg, and it included material as diverse as a bossa nova classical guitar/flute duet (“Guitar Etude #3”) and the rocking hit single “Power Of Gold.”
Fogelberg crowned the early ‘80s with a diamond: “Language Of Love,” a straight-shooting blast of rock truth serum. He made a video. The press had him pinned down at last; “Dan Fogelberg: rock ‘n roll star.” But then Dan got an idea. Why not put together an acoustic supergroup for a new album?
Before long, the basic tracks for the LP High Country Snows were recorded. An acoustic, spring/summer 1985 tour began, with the core of the High Country stellar lineup all aboard: Fogelberg (guitar and vocals); David Grisman (mandolin); Jerry Douglas (dobro); Herb Pedersen (banjo and vocals); Chris Hillman (bass and vocals); Al Perkins (guitar and pedal steel); and the dean of LA session drummers, Russ Kunkel.
Any recording company executive would have told Fogelberg he was making a mistake by going acoustic, that the market was just too thin. It’s a good thing he isn’t subject to the edicts of such sage advisors. High Country Snows already has gone gold, and is well on its way to platinum status.
The phenomenal success of this acoustic album and tour gives rise to some very interesting questions: How thin is the acoustic market, really? Do the major labels really have a grip on what the public wants to hear? What could be achieved for art’s sake if a fraction of the money now spent on promoting new wave or heavy metal was instead spent on promoting acoustic music? Leave it to Dan Fogelberg to stir things up.
There’s no secret to Fogelberg’s success. Innately talented, he started early in music and stayed with it. Dan’s father was a professional musician; his mother was classically trained in voice. They initiated Dan with “forced” piano lessons at age six.
A couple of years later, Dan’s grandfather presented the young musician with a guitar. It was actually an old Hawaiian steel guitar; but Dan didn’t know the difference between that and the guitars he’d seen Elvis and Buddy Holly playing.
“The action was about an inch off the neck,” he recalls, “so when I tried to play it like a conventional guitar I got some serious calluses right away.”
By the time Dan was 12, he was drawn into a fascination with rock and roll, thanks primarily to Beatlemania. The silver-tongued youth somehow convinced his father to bring home a Stratocaster, even though investing in rock futures was not exactly what the elder Fogelberg had in mind.
“Dad was a ‘legitimate’ musician,” says Dan, “and in those days -- especially in a place like my hometown [Peoria, Illinois] -- the electric guitar did not have the best reputation.”
Even in this early phase of his career, he displayed an extraordinary ability to have fun playing music, and make money at it. After a couple of years with backyard bands, Dan and some of his pals formed a group called the Clan. They organized, promoted, and played their own dance gigs, aided by their parents. It got to be a regular (and profitable) thing once they established a local following. Their peers were digging it but the local chapter of the musician’s union were less enthralled.
“The union chased us around for about a year until one night they really nailed us,” Dan recalls. “I’ll never forget it. They called us in on the carpet and gave us this big lecture about how we were taking the union musician’s gigs. They just hated us. We were convinced, and signed up. So they gave us coffee and donuts, patted us on the back and blew cigar smoke in our faces. I learned my lesson -- you don’t mess with the union -- and I’ve never missed a day’s dues since.”
After the Clan disbanded, Dan got his first acoustic guitar, an Echo 12-string. This was a time for growth and a new direction in his musical development, a time for “sitting on the bluff over the river and becoming a romantic,” he says. Tired of the band scene, of singing and playing electric lead guitar, Fogelberg’s attention was caught by the music of Gordon Lightfoot. It inspired the young musician toward songwriting. “ ‘Louie, Louie’ had its place,” says Fogelberg, “but Lightfoot was doing music as literature -- poetry with beautiful melodies -- and it really got to me.”
Dan was also struck by the acoustic playing of Red Shea, Lightfoot’s original lead guitarist. “I still marvel at Shea’s work on those records,” says Dan. “ It’s just delicious to a musician." The influence of Red Shea’s tasteful, understated approach is reflected in all of Fogelberg’s playing (even in his electric work). It’s the school of guitar that emphasizes note selection, rather than flash.
For about a year, Dan continued his acoustic explorations. Then came the itch to get a new band together. But by this time the acoustic side of his musical personality was firmly established.
That was the era of the country/rock pioneering of the Dillards, the Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield. Fogelberg’s new band, the Coachmen, reflected the electric/acoustic fusion. Dan recalls their version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird,” in which he fingerpicked his 12-string, and then switched to banjo for the contrasting section of the tune. The Coachmen had a strong local following, and even produced a few of their own records (with Dan in charge of the sessions). Pretty innovative for a bunch of high school kids from Peoria, back in the mid-Sixties.
The Coachmen had a perfect benefactor. The local music store owner served as their manager and gave them the run of the store. It was a veritable playground for the adolescent music addicts.
“On the night of a gig,” Fogelberg recalls, “we’d go into his vault and haul out a different guitar, a new PA -- whatever struck our fancy. We got to demo a lot of equipment, and I really got to know what it was like to play different guitars. We spent a lot of afternoons there just trying out new guitars. That was the first place I played a Martin. I strummed my first chord on that thing and just couldn’t believe how beautiful it sounded. It was really a revelation.”
The Coachmen lasted until their high school days ended. Dan headed for the University of Illinois to study art (painting); but music was his real passion, and it wasn’t long before classes took a back seat to coffeehouse gigs and jam sessions. At that time he was back in an acoustic focus, writing songs and playing solo with his 12-string.
One experience that gave him new food for thought was a Joni Mitchell concert. “I was sitting next to this girl who had binoculars and was constantly writing stuff down as she watched Joni play. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me, ‘I’m trying to cop Joni’s tunings.’ Tunings! I’d never thought of that. So I started playing around with alternate tunings, and that really opened up my songwriting. It took me out of the simpler folk compositions and into a more sophisticated place.”
Dan’s solo performances gained him a solid reputation around town. He recorded some of his tunes and got them on the local radio playlists. They caught the attention of Irving Azoff, who at that time was a moderately successful regional booking agent for REO Speedwagon, Michael MacDonald, and other now famous musicians.
(Irving “Papa Bear” Azoff has done pretty well for himself. He’s a founder of Frontline Management, a company whose clients include Fogelberg, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks, Jimmy Buffet, Steely Dan and others. Azoff is also president of MCA records.)
In September, 1970, a mutual friend got Azoff and Fogelberg together. The meeting was to take place at a local fraternity bar. Dan plays his memory tape: “I didn’t want to go there but my friend dragged me over to this crazy place. It was wild - the walls were being torn down by a bunch of fraternity jerks who were going nuts on a Friday night. Glasses breaking, fights. It was insane. Irving was a hip capitalist and I was a radical; we were really from opposite sides of the tracks.
“So Irving had an upright piano set up and I took my acoustic guitar. I sat there in the middle of this din and played five or six songs I had written. Irving and his partner were the only two people in the place who were listening. I just hated being there.
“When I finished playing Irving came up to me and said, ‘Yeah, you’re the one.’ We started making plans right there. Irving was ready for the big time, and he was going to take me and REO Speedwagon along. We were each other’s ticket into the LA scene.”
There were still lean times ahead, while connections were being made. “Lots of canned chili and lots of waiting for phone calls,” says Fogelberg. Eventually a contract came through with CBS’ Columbia Records division.
Dan moved to Nashville, where he made his first record (Home Free) and got into the studio scene as a session guitarist. During his tenure as a session player, his Red Shea concept of guitar playing was reinforced. “It became even clearer during that time, it’s not what you play that counts, it’s what you don’t play,” he says. “For a young guitarist, that’s a very important distinction to make.”
Initially, Fogelberg’s first LP didn’t catch on. (It later went gold.) Things were still coming together in a career that had long been fueled by patience, persistence, and enormous talent. In a business move that really laid the foundation for what was to come, Irving Azoff, Joe Walsh, Fogelberg and the Eagles formed Frontline Management. Azoff and Fogelberg also formed Full Moon Productions, says Dan, “so that I could make records without a record company breathing down my neck. It was protection for me.”
Under the new business arrangements Fogelberg made his next LP (Souvenirs), which was his first million-seller, and which included his first hit single (“Part Of The Plan”).
From that point, Fogelberg has proceeded to carve out one of the more secure niches in the entertainment industry. He writes and records songs that move him, and they seem to move the public as well. Perhaps the best example of the Fogelberg phenomena - and the song which he points to as his favorite - is “Leader Of The Band,” (a tribute to his father). That hit single from 1981 is essentially an acoustic guitar/vocal mix, and it was released at a time when hark rockers and disco drivelers ruled the charts.
In his Frets interview, Fogelberg discusses his recent work, and his philosophy of music. Through the accompanying article, we’ll take a look at his acoustic guitar technique.
Following your own musical interests, rather than following trends, seems to be the way you operate. Is that a fair assessment?
I’ve always liked taking risks. As an artist, a key to longevity is that you have to keep doing different things. You have to keep giving people different sides of yourself or you’ll just run it into the ground for the sake of commercialism. With Twin Sons, for example, I’d been getting known as a singer/songwriter; but I had really come to Nashville as a picker. I was getting a little frustrated being labeled as a sensitive balladeer, when I was an instrumentalist. I wanted to show my stuff and let people know I do other things.
When you branch out like that, does it lead you on to other new directions?
Yes, and it really influences my overall approach to music. Working with Tim Weisberg and getting with his flute playing did a lot for me. Working with new combinations of instruments gives you a different perspective on your own playing. For example, working with [saxophonist] Michael Breck influenced my lead playing -- the way I phrase and the sounds I use. Getting a new instrument also can have an effect. When I got this beautiful Ramirez classical guitar I just had to do something new with it, and it influenced my composing. My interest in bossa nova resurfaced on Twin Sons, and I worked out “Tucson”, which has a strong flamenco line running through it.
Isn’t there a danger of getting stretched too thin when you do a variety of things?
I’m a singer/songwriter, but I like to go different places with music. I’ve been exposed to a lot of different music styles, and I love them all. I want to experiment and I want to play all of the things that interest me. It does mean that I’ll never be a virtuoso in any one area, but I’ve never been concerned with that. The music I do end up recording and performing, I think, has a lot of integrity.
How did the idea of High Country Snows come to you?
While I was working on Windows And Walls I went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which is near where I live. I just went to dig the festival and I see Chris Hillman, Al Perkins, and Herb Pedersen, who were going to play there. About 20 minutes after I got there, Chris and Al walked up to me and told me that Herb had missed his flight from Miami and wasn’t going to make the gig. They were scheduled to play in about an hour. So Chris told me point blank, “You’re in the band.” I hadn’t played that stuff in years. But we went back to the trailer, worked out some of the old tunes, and went out and played. The people loved it. I ended up staying the whole weekend, and got to meet Doc Watson, who’s a hero of mine. I also met Vassar Clements and John Hartford, and I got to see a lot of people from Nashville who I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was really great. The whole experience reminded me that I had been writing that kind of material all along, tunes that hadn’t fit into any of the records I’d done.
And that reawakened your interest in bluegrass-type music?
Yes, I decided I wanted to play it again -- even if it wasn’t trendy or hip. I had been spending so much time with my rock and roll and the technology of recording that I found myself yearning for the simplicity of ensemble of acoustic music. I had a strong background in solo acoustic folky stuff, and I realized also how much I missed sitting down with everybody and picking, as I used to do during my Nashville days. It all seemed to fit, and I got enamored with the project.
How did the actual lineup take shape?
Herb turned me on to the Here Today album [featuring Pedersen and other players in a band led by David Grisman], and I thought how great it would be to get some of those guys. Anyway, I made a list of who I thought would make up the ultimate solo acoustic band, and they all said they’d like to do it. So I thought, “I gotta do this right now!”
It seemed to take quite a while from the time the tracks were laid down to the time the album was released. What kind of problems did you run into?
Well, first of all the recording went very smoothly, but we did a lot more material than we could use on the record. When we got Doc Watson to come, we sat down and did about three hours of stuff with us playing and Doc singing. It’s just wonderful, but none of it ended up on the record. Then one night we had the Chieftains in the studio, because at one point I was going to do half of the record as traditional Irish music. We actually cut a track with the Chieftains that is wonderful, but I didn’t use it because it would have been too difficult to divide up the sides and blend it all together. Who knows, maybe sometime in the future we’ll release some of that stuff. Anyway, it was just one hell of a lot of fun to work with all these guys; it was something I really needed.
Did you also see this project as a way to give acoustic music a little more commercial exposure?
Yeah. You know there’s been so much crap on the airwaves lately. Third generation disco. Part of my idea was tied to the fact that all these guys are musicians I greatly respect. They’re heroes of mine, and if there’s any way this can get them and their music more exposure, I’ll feel good about the project just for that. I think it’s really a shame that such great musicians aren’t getting the commercial success they deserve. I think if the public just gets a chance to hear the stuff that Grisman and these other guys are doing, a lot of ears will really open up.
Let’s talk about your approach to songwriting. Is there any method to this madness?
More so now than before. I used to wait for inspiration, but now I write some every day when I’m at home. In the evening I’ll spend at least three hours working on music. I give some time to writing new stuff; sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not.
Do you write the music or lyrics first?
Generally, music first. I just pick up the guitar or sit at the piano, and if I find some changes or a melody I really like, I’ll just start working it out. I generally write songs from start to finish, but occasionally other ideas derail me. When that happens it’s not really a problem because I have a good memory and the music stays upstairs. But I do usually write down lyrics as I go along.
Have any songs just come right out all at once, music and lyrics?
Yeah, those are the best songs, and you don’t get many. “Leader Of The Band” was one of those. I just sat down with my acoustic guitar, and bam! the whole thing just came to me. “Longer” was the same way. I was just laying in a hammock at the beach in Maui, looking up at the stars, kicked back with my guitar. I think part of it is just being in the right place in the right time. That song was floating around the world and saw me, and figured I’d give it a nice home.
Do you use that octave-up, “high strung” guitar technique, changing gauges on the bottom four strings and cranking them up an octave above their normal tuning?
Oh yeah. I’ve used that for a long time, only where it fits, of course. I think I first used that on “There’s A Place In The World For A Gambler.” It’s a great effect. You just mix it in there enough so that it makes everything sparkle.
Do you use a click track for timing reference, or rehearse with a metronome?
No, it throws my timing off! [laughs] In a way that’s true. I think music has to breathe; it shouldn’t have perfect timing. That’s what bothers me about drum machines and the general techno approach to music. It just doesn’t have any soul. Music needs dynamics of speed as well as volume. You know, you rush a little into a certain line, and you drag something else for effect. When you want to stress something vocally your hands have to go with it. That ties into the question of doing live mixes. On certain tunes you just can’t be sure exactly how you’ll want to use the dynamics of time, and it’s really hard to separate the lead vocal and primary accompaniment in those cases.
How do you view the process of your career at this point, and looking to the future?
I think I’m going through a progression, expanding my songwriting form, and then I’d like to get beyond that to move into pure instrumental composition. I’d like to write some classical music. I’ve touched on it in the past, but I’d really like to dedicate myself to that form, as much as I have to songwriting in this first phase of my career. I know if I’m going to do it well, it’s going to take years, and I’m looking forward to that.
Would you like to go to a conservatory?
Yes. I definitely should go back and study. It would be nice to have a normal existence for a few years.
Is the life of a celebrity getting a little old, like that line from “Same Old Lang Syne” where you sum up what you’re doing as, “The audience is heavenly, but the traveling is hell”?
Right. You know, people envy the life of a musician and think it’s wonderful and glamorous. Parts of it are wonderful. I like having a lot of money. It’s bought me freedom, in a sense, and some very beautiful things that I appreciate. At the same time it causes so many pressures and hassles that I’m really not free.
You’re locked into a certain cash-flow lifestyle?
Yeah. I’ve created such a big scene around myself. I’m the center of a corporation, and sometimes that gets pretty damn old. I’ve got to keep the earnings up in order to pay my overhead. That’s fine for now, but sooner or later I want to cut back and just be me -- just live a normal life.
Dan Fogelberg's Acoustic Style
Clear Touch ~ Hard Attack
Long, lean, well disciplined. Viewed at close range as they move across the fretboard, Dan Fogelberg’s fingers look more like those of a classical player than those of a rock guitarist.
Fogelberg utilizes a wide range of fingerstyle techniques in his accompaniments from delicate, warm-sounding all-flesh fingerpicking to percussive strums, and bluesy string snapping. He’s picked up a trick or two from about every style around, and he melds them into effective, even dramatic, backup parts for his compelling vocals.
When playing acoustic on his Martin D-41 he rarely uses a flatpick, unless he’s playing straight bluegrass rhythm in a band situation. When he’s doing his solo set virtually all the accompaniment work is in an open-handed style, since he prefers the versatility of dynamics offered by this quasi-frailing approach. Fogelberg never uses a thumbpick or fingerpicks, and his nails are very short. The sound is almost generated by flesh, except when he really digs in for bluesy single-note runs.
On stage, Fogelberg uses two 12-strings (an Ibanez and a Guild). Those instruments are primarily used to invoke rich orchestral-sounding chords, often in D and D modal tuning. He uses those guitars a lot more in concert that he does on his records, primarily because they give him a rich backup for his solo set. For strummed chordal sounds on the 12-string, he does use a flatpick.
Dan selects chord voicings for their effect rather than for their accessibility, his left hand moving almost gracefully up and down the neck. He has a strong preference for the ringing, open sound provided by sympathetic vibrations of the bass strings in dropped D and various open tunings.
Probably the most striking thing about his acoustic guitar styling is the wide range of dynamics he employs, and the wide variations in texture. Fogelberg is very skillful at keeping the guitar subordinated to his voice, then launching out into a melodic fill between vocal phrases.
The fills range from single-note runs to chord progressions that imply the melody, linked with harmonics and bass riffs. For rhythmic emphasis, he’ll occasionally mute the strings with the heel of his right hand. Considering all that diverse activity, his accuracy is very impressive. In the three concerts witnessed by this writer, the few obvious mistakes he did make were primarily the result of an overly aggressive right thumb that dug into a bass note just a little too hard, causing a buzz on the adjacent bass string.
For all its complexity, Fogelberg’s playing style is something he says just happened organically, over the years.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing, really,” he asserts, “I’ve just combined a lot of different styles into what works for me when I play solo. I’m sure it comes from playing so may different instruments and being involved with so many different kinds of music.”
One style in particular is the source of his stop-and-go rhythmic drive.
“There’s a lot of blues in there, on the percussive stuff,” he says. “I really pop the strings on the bottom, strum across them with my fingernails, and then choke them back with my knuckles.
“I remember hearing that type of thing on Robert Johnson’s records. It’s almost a slide technique. It can actually serve more than just the obvious purpose: When you’re doing all these transitions, sometimes you just might get hung up on a string, not hit it just right. The rhythmic choking gives you a way to bail out of that situation gracefully.”
But that is just one ingredient in Fogelberg’s formula for a good accompaniment.
“Solid in the bottom, good time, and interesting melodic fills,” he prescribes. “You can’t just fingerpick like the folkies did in the good old days. Basically, I try to create some simple support when I’m singing so that the focus is where it should be; and then when I stop singing, I try to find some sort of interesting fill. When you’re playing solo, you’ve got to keep things interesting or risk losing the audience.”
Fogelberg believes that his broad palette of tone colors and dynamics comes both by planning and instinct.
“In order to get those songs ready for performance, I really need something predictable, to where I know I’m reasonably safe,” he says. “But at the same time I want to have some fun. I like to step out a little bit and take a few risks every night, and change things around as I go. Otherwise, it would get real boring for me. And I think it’s more fun for the audience too.
“As far as tone color is concerned, whether I’m flatpicking or fingerpicking I’m constantly moving my hand back and forth between the bridge and the soundhole for different effects. A lot of times I’ll spread my picking hand out. It’s something like a classical position. My thumb projects out near the soundhole, for a round warm sound in the bass; then I’ll have my fingers toward the bridge so I can get a little more bite out of the top strings.
“I don’t play the same way every night. I like to move things around. There are some shows when I’ll play with the heel of my hand off the guitar, and some shows when I rest it, whatever feels comfortable at the time. There are shows when I’ll play in the proper [classical] position, with my foot up to rest the guitar. In other shows I’ll have my foot out there stompin’ away. It’s really a mish-mash of technique. Basically it’s whatever gets me through the night!” -- Rick Gartner