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Dan Sheridan: On the Money

An Aspen songwriter and the nerve he struck
Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly, March 7, 2010
Aspen, CO Colorado

Aspen Times photoASPEN — Getting fired from his après-ski gig at the Aspen Skiing Company-owned Sneaky's Tavern has given singer-songwriter Dan Sheridan his moment in a bigger spotlight than the one he ordinarily occupies. Since being dismissed in early January — for playing “Big Money,” his song that takes direct aim at the corrosive effects of wealth, in front of a holiday-week crowd in Snowmass Village — the 45-year-old Aspenite has been written about in the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post, and was featured on a Denver TV newscast. The Wall Street Journal blogged about the dust-up, under a warning about “explicit lyrics that may offend the wealthy.” A representative from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” got in touch with him, and with Jeff Hanle, Skico director of public relations, proposing a televised show-down, but the program's interest seems to have faded.

In the town where he's lived for 20 years, Sheridan has been treated like a modern-day folk hero. Those rising to defend Sheridan, and Aspen's freewheeling character, have shrugged off the Skico explanation — that the firing was the result of a miscommunication in the organization's chain of command — and taken to the air and to the local papers, howling about the squelching of an independent voice that argued against a squeaky-clean, exclusive resort.

The day the story hit The Aspen Times, Sheridan was greeted with an ovation from his fellow passengers on a RFTA bus. In Carl's Pharmacy, a box of Sheridan's CDs is displayed beside the upstairs register. His email box has been flooded with protest songs from other musicians, but he's seen only a modest increase in CD sales.

An artist with an eye toward marketing himself would have capitalized on the incident — maybe fanned the social conflagration some, and certainly jumped on every offer that came along. But Sheridan, who has been a friend of mine for nearly two decades, gets noticeably uncomfortable when paid too much attention, and he has shied away from the controversy. When Skico quickly offered him the Sneaky's gig back, Sheridan declined, not out of anger but to avoid the tumult that would have resulted from a return appearance. He did write his own letter to the editor, but refused to join the anti-Skico chorus. Instead, he expressed gratitude for all the support he received, and even thanked the Skico brass, for offering him his job back and for “gracefully handling a touchy situation.”

Sheridan does not want to be known forever as the “Big Money” guy.

“Part of me was, ‘F––k it. Don't ever go to that restaurant again. Every gig, go for complete revenge,'” Sheridan said. “And I didn't. I didn't say a critical word. I don't want to be that guy. I want to be an artist. I want to write songs.”

The public outcry that followed the sacking has fortified Sheridan in that creative effort. The response, more widespread and impassioned than he would have imagined, was a demonstration that people are interested in what he has to say, and in preserving his freedom to say it.

“Thank god I got fired,” said Sheridan, who performs après-ski gigs on Sunday, March 7 at the Office at the Cirque in Snowmass Village, and Fridays at the Northwoods Lodge at Aspen Highlands. “I have so much more interest in my music and more confidence to keep going because the support has been so heartwarming and so beautiful. It makes me love Aspen so much more.”

‘Maybe I should write more like it'

Since writing the song several years ago, Sheridan has been cautious about playing “Big Money” for audiences. “I'm always so hesitant to offend people. My job at après-ski is just to make people happy,” he said. That afternoon at Sneaky's, in fact, he performed the song only after the bar's staff joined patrons in demanding it. So Sheridan hopes that people who know him only from the “Big Money” incident don't jump to the conclusion that he's a bitter artist spitting it in the face of those wealthier than he.

Like the episode, the song itself is hardly a complete representation of Sheridan. Most of his songs are marked by hope, beauty and a bedrock belief in friendship, but “Big Money” was sparked by a moment of anger. A few years ago, running on the East Aspen trail, Sheridan came to a detour caused by flooding. He wound up on what was apparently private property. Very private.

“Some guy pulled up on an ATV, with a walkie-talkie on his chest,” Sheridan recalled. “He said, ‘Can I help you?' And when you're running and someone says ‘Can I help you?' — they're not really offering help. He said, ‘You need to get off this property.'”

Sheridan went home and unloaded his feelings onto the page. “I think I only had 10 or 15 minutes to capture the whole thing,” said Sheridan, noting that he didn't want to distance himself from the experience.“I didn't have time to make it pretty. I just wanted to express myself quickly, without melody or metaphor.”

Which is far different from Sheridan's usual process. His songs tend to be meticulously worked over, with loads of melody and metaphor, as well as imagery, complex chords and picking patterns, and nuanced meanings.

“Everything else I've done has been so crafted,” Sheridan observed of his catalogue of songs, which are spread over five solo albums dating back to 1991's “Old Familiar Place,” and three albums by the mid-'90s band, Treehouse. “I've always wanted to make something beautiful and pretty and melodic … I had friends who said I shouldn't have put ‘Big Money' on an album because it breaks that spell.”

While it's hardly noise-metal, “Big Money” is, by Sheridan's folky standards, raw and unfiltered. The lyrics are literal and direct; the musical structure, at least on the original version included on the 2003 album “Recycle,” is a simple four strummed chords. (A later studio version, released on the album “Small Town Love,” added a bridge, making the song slightly more complicated.) The song was written in standard tuning, a rarity for Sheridan, who typically uses more complex, richer-sounding open tunings.

The parts of “Big Money” that arouse attention are, no doubt, the blunt criticisms: the men wearing fur, “trophy people leading trophy lives,” and the chorus — “Down in their graves you can hear the miners sing: Big money ruins everything” — which arrives each time as a crescendo. But half-way through, the message takes a turn, from slings and arrows at the rich to a forceful reminder to stand up for the values you believe in. “Big Money” ends in jubilation, as Sheridan envisions a party at which no one tells him to turn down the volume, he doesn't have to take requests for old John Denver tunes, and to which no billionaires are invited. That ending, with its celebration of community, and the note-to-self tone to stay focused and true, takes any bitter edges off the song. And makes it, despite the unfiltered quality and lack of overt loveliness, a Dan Sheridan song in its essence.

treehouse

“The most obvious thing is, he's a songwriter of conscience,” Larry Good, a musician who lives in Marble and was Sheridan's bandmate in Treehouse, said. “Everything he writes has a message. I won't go so far as to say morality, but that's part of it too, sometimes.”

Years ago, Sheridan wrote “American Too,” which would also fall into the protest category. A response to the first Gulf War, the song insisted that the singer, an opponent of the war, was just as much an American as those who threw their support behind Operation Desert Storm.

“It's got an edge,” Sheridan said. “It was critical of President Bush and his war and his sentiment that you're somehow not patriotic if you disagreed with this war. And I'm like, Man, I'm way patriotic, and I completely disagree with your war.”

Interestingly, “American Too” has also become one of Sheridan's most successful songs; he won the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Troubadour Competition with it in 1993. (In 2002, he won the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Songwriters Competition with two far gentler songs: “Dog Food,” a sweet, humorous love note addressed from a dog to its owner; and “Small Town Love,” Sheridan's sentimental Valentine to Aspen.)

The brouhaha with the Skico has cemented in Sheridan's mind that his weightier songs have their own sort of significance. “I don't want to insult anybody. I don't like being critical of other people,” he said of “Big Money.” “But there is a sense of loss about Aspen over the 20-something years I've been here. Exclusive and elite — not good things.

“And now, when people buy a record, four out of five ask, ‘Which one has ‘Big Money' on it?' Maybe I should write more like it.”

Catholic guilt

In terms of career-shifting incidents, being dismissed from the Sneaky's gig might rank a distant second behind the divorce Sheridan is going through. For much of his 10-year marriage, Sheridan has been mostly a stay-at-home dad to his two young kids while his wife, Lani Shaw, held down a day job. Sheridan continued performing, but his focus was on playing the sort of cover material requested by après-ski crowds, and his songwriting and recording efforts were put on the side. Songwriting, he said, “kept getting in the way of being a good father. So I just said, I'm going to take a break.”

Over time, though, and as his separation from Shaw became imminent, Sheridan began to see the costs of tamping down his creative side. “By my own doing, I lost a lot of myself in the early child-rearing years,” he said, “because I gave of myself too completely. I remember saying to Lani, ‘I don't know who I am' — and I meant it.”

Sheridan has since re-dedicated himself to songwriting, and it has been a valuable form of therapy — “this beautiful little distraction when life was really painful,” he said. “But I'm getting my music back, and my happiness back. When I follow the music, when I'm creative, everything works out. And when I ignore it, everything gets messed up. That's been a hard lesson — but thank god.”

The “Big Money” episode has held lessons of its own — mostly, that standing up and bluntly pointing a finger is sometimes the appropriate course. Especially for a folk-oriented songwriter.

“I usually feel like I'm saying, ‘Excuse me. Sorry.' Trying to be this sweet, kind person,” Sheridan said. “Being raised the nice Catholic boy I am, we're taught to stuff our feelings. I always felt it was kind of bad to say anything negative.

“I've got to get rid of that Catholic guilt. I just hope I don't go to hell. I remember being a kid and thinking I would go to hell for having bad thoughts, or being pissed off.”

That guilt, and Sheridan's self-effacing nature, were in evidence when Sheridan was told he was fired. At first no reason was given, and he had to imagine his own.

“I thought I was too loud. Because all they said was someone complained,” Sheridan said. “I thought it was from a condo nearby. And I understood — someone was taking a nap, didn't want music anymore.”

Lesson learned

The Dan Sheridan versus Skico story is rife with irony. Perhaps the most obvious level is that being fired for singing a song proves the essential point of “Big Money” — that Aspen has traded its sense of fun and humor in pursuit of dollars and conformity. On a subtler note, among the complaints Sheridan registers in the song is that no one listens to his songs: “I'm just here to fill the void between cell phones ringing.” On that afternoon at Sneaky's, the wrong person happened to hear Sheridan's point exactly.

Good, Sheridan's former bandmate, sees another ironic facet. “Because all of his songs are coming from a place of kindness and goodness and conscience, it's strange to see how he can be portrayed,” he said. “The controversial song, that comes from a place of conscience. The bookend to that is ‘Small Town Love,' which is an overture to the simplicity and belonging in your hometown. Dan's hometown is certainly Aspen. He couldn't have written ‘Big Money' if he hadn't been so much of this place. Because the song is so much of this place, Aspen.”

But perhaps the richest irony is what the Aspen Skiing Company got out of the incident. There has been no policy change regarding the musicians they hire to play their venues; Hanle, the spokesman, says there was no written policy before and there is none now. But he thinks that, after the small beating the Skico took following Sheridan's ill-advised firing, there is a company-wide sense that matters should be thought through before drastic actions are taken.

“What we learned is, before anyone acts hastily, if they have questions about their actions, ask those questions,” Hanle said. “This was one person who didn't ask, didn't think. We need to slow down and think.”

Slow down, reflect, consider the impact of your actions — Dan Sheridan would certainly approve of someone getting that message out of his songs.

stewart@aspentimes.com