Most of my readers know about my deep, abiding and often embarrassing love for Dan Fogelberg and his music. He filled the soundtrack of my youth, made me want to learn to play the guitar, was the model for all the moody musicians I fell for in college, and trying to figure out how to meet him—when I’m being ridiculously honest—is the real reason I started Performing Songwriter magazine in 1993.
My brilliant plan worked and I did get to meet Dan. I interviewed in him 1994, and had my dreams come true when I spent almost two hours talking to him about art and artistry, music and musicianship. He told me about his love of Georgia O’Keefe and stories his then-wife—who was O’Keefe’s nurse—shared with him; of sailing around with Jimmy Buffett, drinking Heinekens and penning “Domino College,” his only co-write; of the inspiration he found in Tom Robbins’ book Still Life With WoodPecker; and how overlooked Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones was and that he thought “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” was Simon’s greatest piece of work.
Today Dan would have turned 61 years old, and I thought a good way to celebrate would be to go back to that conversation I had with him 18 years ago and share a few of his thoughts on his early albums—including The Innocent Age which, unbelievably, turned 30 last year.
Thanks for all the great songs and memories you left us Dan, and we celebrate your birth. You are truly missed.
What is your perception of your first album, Home Free, now?
It just strikes me as a very young man; very innocent. It was my first record in Nashville and I was having a wonderful time. I still like the songs on that album, I just wish I could have sung better when I was younger. I mean it was just always this high falsetto. And nobody knew what they were doing (laughs). We were all just kids, you know, doing a lot of drugs and having a lot of fun. And that’s the truth. When people come to me and say Home Free‘s their favorite, I just wince. But there’s something about that innocent quality that still translates to people. It’s like my first born, you know. I’m always going to love it, but I don’t hear from it often (laughs).
Do you remember writing “To The Morning?”
Yes I do, very vividly. It was the first real piano song that I ever wrote. And I had come back from college my freshman year in the summer and I sat down at my mother’s piano at her house, I was home for the summer, and I remember being up in the morning and looking out through the venetian blinds, and it was a lovely sunny summer day, and I just wrote this song. It was very heavily influenced by Joni Mitchell. And it was all done in one morning. And it’s still one of my favorites, I still play it in concert and it still holds up. I think it’s a very good song for what it is.
What about “Wysteria?”
I don’t know where that came from. I think that was just a college drug haze, because it doesn’t make much sense. It’s this really weird thing about a vampire; a dead woman. I used to ask the audience what they thought this song was about and nobody knew. (Laughs) Wysteria is dead, it’s a ghost. And this guy’s still hung up on this ghost. Listen to it in that context (laughs). It’s a weird song. I think I remember lying in a hallway of some dumpy house I lived in in college and this thing came out. And I didn’t even know what the name “Wysteria” meant. I was at a head shop and I saw a candle or some incense called Wysteria, and I thought it was a great word (laughs).
What does your second album, Souvenirs, represent to you?
That was my L.A. days, running with The Eagles. They were all over that record, we were buddies and we were touring. The thing that I’m most proud of with that record is that it opened the door to the people I wanted to work with. And Joe Walsh got me Russ Kunkel. I always looked up to Russell immensely from his James Taylor and Carole King work. And I was just drooling to work with this guy. And Walsh just called him and he came down, and here I had him and Al Perkins from Manassas and Graham Nash came in. So I got to work with a lot of my heroes on that record. And it opened the door for me in L.A. as far as not just being the kid anymore, but being one of the guys. So I remember that one as a real good time … probably way too good a time. It’s a miracle we survived that record.
What about your album, Captured Angel?
If I only had one record to take back and redo it would be Captured Angel. I can’t even listen to that one. That was done as demos. I played everything, I did everything. My Dad was in the hospital having open heart surgery and he was really sick, and I was living with my Mom in Peoria. And while I was there I had nothing to do so I booked this little funky studio, and I would just go in and work. I would go see my dad and hang with him until they kicked us out of the hospital, and then I’d go to this studio and work till dawn. And I made all these demos that I was going to take to L.A. and redo, and I played them for everybody, and everybody said, “why bother, they’re good enough. We’ll have Russell play some drums on it and add another bass player, but we think the tracks are there.” So it came out that way. And in retrospect it was a mistake, because it could have been a much better record. Again, I like the songs on the record, I still perform “Old Tennessee” and “The Last Nail” and “Next Time.” I think there was some good writing, but I just think that the production was miserable. Because, again, I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I did (laughs).
How was “Old Tennessee” inspired?
That was a funny song. This is interesting because I never told this stuff. I wrote “Old Tennessee” as really a “cop,” as a joke. James Taylor was real popular at this point, and I was hearing this kind of … in James’ writing there was a lot of similarity. There was this east coast folky type of thing. And I said, “Well, hell, anybody can write something like that,” (laughs). So I wrote that and it’s really just a send up of early James Taylor work. And I just wrote about whatever was happening at the time, you know, about this girl I was with at the farmhouse who left, and all this sort of thing. So it wasn’t anything I did seriously, I just thought it was a send up of a particular style. (Laughing) Now I’ll probably get a letter from James.
What about your album, Nether Lands?
That was a real seminal record. I think that was the first mature record I ever made. To me when I listen to the first three, that’s a kid. I think Nether Lands was the man growing up. And I think it was musically mature, but also the lyrics finally had some real depth and philosophical strength to them that I’d never had before.
The song “Nether Lands” was a pretty grand musical undertaking.
You have no idea (laughs). I cut the track solo and then I hired Dominic Frontiere, the arranger, and I worked with him for a couple of days. And then we went in and they had a 69-piece orchestra. We played the chart, and then I freaked out and ran out and re-wrote the whole thing (laughs) at the session. This thing went like eight hours with 69 pieces. You wouldn’t be able to do that today, it’s cost prohibitive. I mean we were just nuts (laughs). My friend Norbert Putnam, who produced it, and I were having a great time. He bought a whole cooler of Dom Perignon and we were saying, “Boy, this is gonna be great, isn’t it.” And here are all these people and we’re out at the Burbank Sound Stage where they do the movies. We’re drinking champagne before the thing even started, thinking we were just going to sit there and listen. And I heard the first chart and just went, “Oh my God!” It sounded like a train wreck. So I was half lit to begin with, and then I had to go out and try and tell these guys what I wanted them to play. It was a long night (laughs). It was a great night in retrospect.
Tell me about that Twin Sons of Different Mothers with Tim Weisberg.
That was a real quickie. I had called Tim in to work on Nether Lands on a track. We just hit it off and I really liked his stuff, and it would be interesting to see what we could come up with. So I just started thinking about writing without lyrics, which is something I love to do. I started composing all of these pieces and asked Tim if he was interested. And he listened and said, “let’s do it.” So it was about six months, start of finish.
That album did really well, didn’t it?
Yeah, that just blew the top off the whole thing. And I was embarrassed to even put it out, you know. I mean, I liked it but I just thought it would be torn to shreds and ignored. And so I said, “Irving, you hold it for a week, I’m going to Europe,” (laughs). “I don’t want to be around when it comes out.” And then I got these calls in Amsterdam saying I had a hit record with it.
And “The Power of Gold” was the single from that?
Yeah. That was one of the few things that I’ve written specifically for radio that worked. We had this whole thing of all this instrumental bossa nova and other stuff—a pretty eclectic mix of music—and we had this big huge grandiose symphonic piece that I had written and actually tried to record. And I went home thinking that that wasn’t what we needed to end that album with. We needed something that rocked. And we had already done most of the album. So I remember just going home and banging this thing out in a day or two and calling Tim and saying let’s cut this other track. And we did it, threw it on there, and the next thing you know it was on the radio.
High Country Snows was a real departure for you. Was it a really fulfilling album for you to make?
It’s the most fun I ever had in the studio, and I think that comes across on the record. It was just a joy, a pure joy from day one to the finish.
How long had you toyed with the idea of making a bluegrass album?
It happened really pretty quickly. I had been listening to a lot of bluegrass because I was building my ranch in southern Colorado and I was driving a lot between my old house near Boulder and this place. And I was listening to bluegrass because it seemed like great music to be driving through the mountains listening to (laughs). And so I renewed my interest just kind of on my own. And then I went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1984, I think, just to hang out. I showed up and Chris Hillman and Al Perkins were there, and Herb Peterson had missed his flight. They were supposed to do a trio, so Hillman asked if I wanted to be in the band—actually he didn’t ask, he said “you’re in the band” (laughs), and I hadn’t done any of that kind of stuff in a long time. So we worked up some chestnuts backstage and went out and did a show. And I started thinking about how I really enjoyed this music when I was younger. It’s really complex, it’s really challenging, and it’s a whole genre of singing and playing. So I just came back and said this is my wish list of musicians and it turned out that all went for it. So I didn’t have a choice, all of the sudden everybody was saying, yeah, let’s do it. And all of the sudden I had this phenomenal band ready to go, so I thought I’d be an idiot not to do this. I had a hard time convincing the record company, though.
“Same Old Lang Syne” is one of your most popular songs. What was the writing of that like?
That was really a joke. It was just an exercise in songwriting. It took a long time to write that thing. And what I had done was I took Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, that riff, and I wrote it in C major and played it with a Floyd Cramer feel, which I thought was funny to begin with. And then I threw this 6 minor chord in, which to musicians I thought would be a very funny thing to do. So I was just going to throw this at my friends in the studio as a joke. And then I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to exercise my craft here, and let’s see if I can do a song about nothing. About something so inconsequential.” So I was thinking about what that could be, and I thought, “Okay, you just came back from your mom’s, you ran into your high school girlfriend, see if you can write a song about that.” And so I started writing it and just laughing about it, that it was actually fitting into this song (laughs). And then I came up with the title, which I thought was a good pun. And suddenly I realized that there was a great poignancy developing in the song that I never intended. And it started taking on a life of it’s own. And it kept drawing me back over a year. And I’d work on it and write one verse or two lines or something. And finally after the whole time I had this big piece, and I went “My God, this is actually good,” (laughs). And I never intended it to see the light of day, I never intended it to be a serious piece of writing. You just never know what people are going to take a liking to (laughs). I thought it would just help me write other, better songs. But I don’t know that I’ll ever write a better song than that. It’s a darn good one, it’s still a powerful performance piece, and I never get tired of it.
What about “The Leader of the Band,” was that something you had been wanting to write for a while?
That was totally spontaneous, it was a one-day wonder, I just happened to sit down with the guitar and bingo, that thing was done. I mean I never consciously wanted to write a song to my father. If I had consciously thought about it, I never would have done it. Because I thought it was too obscure and certainly non-commercial. That for me was a real great moment, because whether or not that song was ever a hit, it meant a great deal to my father. He got to hear it, and it said things that neither one of us could say to each other. We weren’t real communicative males, you know, we’re midwestern (laughs). So that song was so timely because he only lasted about another year after that. That’ll always be a real special song to me.
—By Lydia Hutchinson
Photo by Henry Diltz