Dan Fogelberg, Immersed in Music, Part II

This is Part II of this series. See Part I here.

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American Songwriter is happy to bring you this, the second part of our celebration of the songs and life of Dan Fogelberg. He was a man with a true reverence for song and the art of music. The song that meant the most to him, as he said many times, was “Leader of the Band.” It was important because it was his history, and his place in the world as the living legacy of the musician who was his greatest hero, his father. Because his father got so much attention due to this song, with writers calling him for interviews, it was a reward for this work from the heart more important than any.

The response to Part One of this series
was unexpectedly vast, a happy surprise. We already knew of his big network of devotional fans around the world. But that this network is forever expanding, and remains as enthused as ever.
is a good and hopeful sign; his music, maybe more than ever, is bringing so many people what they need now: Real-time beautiful songs from the soul of a genuine songwriter. Dan was a guy for whom nothing mattered more than making music that was true, and he never wavered from the purity of this promise to himself. “You’ve got to just follow your heart,” he said, “and do your best work.”

Dan in the Nether Lands of Nederland, Colorado. Photo by Henry Diltz.

Immersed in Music, Part II.

Hitting the road in with Fool’s Gold, a young band from Illinois, he toured for the next two years. “Suddenly we were rock stars. These were heady days. We were soaking it up, and thought we were more important than we were. But really we were just these kids from Illinois with high voices.”

It was the end of the quiet time for the boy by the river. And it was the beginning of the hurricane, a time of both tremendous success and upheaval. “That kind of adulation gave me so much confidence. When everybody is saying yes to you, you’re unstoppable. You’re unbeatable. And I started writing like crazy.” His next album, Captured Angel, was finished and released within a year.

In 1975, learning that his father had taken ill and was in the hospital, Dan stopped everything to return to Peoria. He stayed there for many months until his dad recovered, spending his days at the hospital and his nights at a little studio in South Pekin, recording demos of new songs. When Irving and others heard the beauty and purity of the tracks he’d recorded alone, which Dan intended only as blueprints for his next album, they insisted that these were master tapes, not demos, and didn’t need to be redone. Dan wasn’t convinced, but eventually agreed on the condition that Russ Kunkel come in to redo the drum parts he’d played himself. “I can play a lot of instruments,” he said, “but drums is not one of them.”

While touring that year through Colorado with Fool’s Gold, he learned that the house of one of his favorite musicians was on the market, that of Chris Hillman, who played with the Byrds, Manassas and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Fogelberg fell in love with the mountain house, which is situated 9000 feet up on the top of the Rocky Mountains. He immediately bought it, flew to Nashville to pack up his belongings, and hurried back to the splendor of Colorado.

It was an unforgettable winter. Perched at his grand piano, he had a breathtaking view of the Continental Divide, like sitting on the top of the world. When he wasn’t learning how to run snow plows, he was at the keyboard, ready to plunge into a season of solitude and songwriting. Perfectly prepared to realize this dream of the wild, where it would get so silent he could hear the snow fall, he hit a solid wall of writer’s block. It remained unbroken for months until the eventual emergence of ‘Loose Ends’, a psychologically dark song that opened the way for the others to follow.

Throughout that winter the songs for Nether Lands spilled out of him. Unlike those that had come before, these reverberated with haunting vestiges of the classical music he’d absorbed from his parents. “That winter was like a marvellous dream. Once I broke through the writer’s block, I was in ecstasy. Because it was like nothing I’d ever dreamed I could do.”

He then turned again to Nashville and to Norbert Putnam, and the two friends produced the album in happy tandem, and created a masterpiece. “When I made Nether Lands, I felt that I had finally made a grown up record. That I wasn’t a kid anymore, and that I was finding my own voice as a writer.”

When the road started calling him again to tour for Nether Lands, the act of pushing a new album started to seem too crassly commercial, too much about money and too little enough about music. So in the face of the greatest success of his career, he chose to make his next album completely about music, without any commercial aspirations whatsoever. It would be an opportunity to step away from the madness for a moment, and create an album that celebrated the pure joy of making music. He invited Tim Weisberg, the famous flautist who played with him on ‘Give Me Some Time’ from Nether Lands to make the album a duet. With a cover photo of the two musicians looking like brothers with matching beards and long hair, the album was entitled Twin Sons Of Different Mothers.

The two twins had planned a grandiose orchestral piece to close the album. They recorded the entire track only to discover — too late — that the piano was out of tune with the orchestra and had to be redone. Rather than incur that cost, Dan wrote a quick song — now thinking that maybe one commercial track might not be such a bad idea — and at the last minute, ‘The Power Of Gold’ was recorded and added to the album.

It became one of the biggest hits of his career, causing the mostly instrumental Twin Sons to become a colossal hit. Dan, who had expected it to be savagely attacked by the critics, decided to skip the bloodbath by jetting off to Europe with friends prior to its release. In Switzerland, he was flabbergasted to receive an excited call from Azoff informing him that the album had gone Top 20.

Here he was, consciously trying not to make a blockbuster, and it went through the roof. Figuring there was no sense in fighting it, he returned to the States, and went into the studio immediately to work on songs for his next album, Phoenix. He didn’t stop recording for many years. So jazzed was he by the unintentional success of Twin Sons that he set off on a non-stop procession of writing songs, recording, and touring.

“When I made `Nether Lands,’ I felt that I had finally made a grown up record. That I wasn’t a kid anymore, and that I was finding my own voice as a writer.” Photo by Henry Diltz.

Like Bob Dylan, rather than write only enough for one album, he’d simply write and record constantly, until there were enough songs to pick and choose from for a full album. From Boulder to Sausalito to Hollywood and beyond, he’d touch down and cut some tracks. In this way, many of his greatest songs were created, such as the gorgeous ballad “Longer” from Phoenix.

Though the albums that emerged from this hurricane were great ones, the process left him with little energy to devote to his personal life. Reflective of his need for simplification, he embarked on a solo tour, in which he’d open the show at a grand piano, playing the ethereal ‘Nether Lands’. In 1979 he brought this show to Carnegie Hall in New York, which was one of the proudest moments of his life. His parents were in attendance, allowing him to finally prove to his father, as if there were still any questions about it, that he, too, was a “legitimate musician.” The leader of the band had only been to the historic hall once before many decades earlier, to see Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic. It was a night that both father and son never forgot.

On New Year’s Eve 1980, Dan sat in his Colorado home sequencing the songs for his next album. But no matter what order he’d try, he knew something still seemed to be missing. So in a move he knew could be construed as professional suicide, he decided he had more to say, and told Irving he was going back to work. The new record, he announced, would have to be a double album.

The record company, hungry for a new product, was predictably furious about this. ‘Same Old Lang Syne’ had already been released and people around the world were screaming for a new record. Even so, Azoff supported him wholeheartedly, and informed the company that they’d simply have to wait.

Dan spent six more months working, and the songs that emerged were astounding, including ‘Ghosts’ and “The Reach”. Again, it was a case of doing what he needed to do for the music — as with Twin Sons — that led him to the greatest success of his life, The Innocent Age.

As his twenties came to an end, the album marked the closing of one chapter, and the opening of another. It also afforded him the opportunity to fulfill some musical fantasies, such as recording with musical heroes who were his inspiration during the river years, such as Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Chris Hillman, all of whom show up on The Innocent Age. Another fantasy fulfilled was the formation of a new band, the kind of group that prior to this level of success he could realize only in the studio, with Russ Kunkel planted firmly behind the drums.

“When everyone is saying yes to you, you’re unstoppable. You’re unbeatable. I was writing like crazy.” Photo by Henry Diltz

Released in the fall of 1981, The Innocent Age became an unprecedented success for a double album, which are often too expensive to become hits. This was a big exception, generating not one but four Top 20 hits in all — including ‘Same Old Lang Syne’, ‘Run For The Roses’, written for the Kentucky Derby, ‘Hard To Say’, and the touching tribute to his father, ‘Leader Of The Band’. “I still think most highly of that album,” he said. “Making it was certainly one of the high water marks of my life.”

With multiple radio hits in constant rotation around the globe, Dan and the band sold out 20,000 seat arenas all across America. As he put it, “It was the big time. Big time rock and roll. That was really the peak. You couldn’t get much bigger than that, really. It was amazing.” Though he’d already reached some lofty professional heights, he felt himself being pushed even higher. He thought to himself, “Now the hurricane begins in earnest.”

After rolling with the band for months on the road promoting The Innocent Age, he returned once again to the tranquility of his newly constructed ranch to ponder his next move. Since that album presented the closing of an emotional chapter in his life, he decided to explore new avenues of lyrical expression. Like Joni Mitchell during her Hissing Of Summer Lawns period, he abandoned introspection to write about the world around him. And like Joni, he was critically attacked for it. Though the resulting album, Windows And Walls, featured the hit single ‘Language Of Love’, the marvellously cinematic ‘Tucson, Arizona’ and other great songs, the critics tore into it with a vengeance they reserve only for those who have been to the very top of the mountain. And as they knew, Dan Fogelberg lived at the top of the mountain.

During the many hours spent in his truck driving back and forth between Boulder and the ranch he was building, he’d been listening to a lot of bluegrass tapes, feeding his desire to play some roots music again. After sitting in with Chris Hillman’s acoustic band at the 1984 Telluride Bluegrass festival, he decided to make a record that, like Twin Sons, was meant to be a step outside of the spotlight to enjoy the simple pleasure of playing great music with great musicians.

He jotted down a new dream list of his favorite acoustic pickers, and each one agreed to be involved: famed guitarist Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas on dobro, mandolinist David Grisman, Herb Petersen on banjo, and Chris Hillman, Vince Gill, and Ricky Scaggs singing harmony. The resulting album, High Country Snows, joined Jerry Garcia’s Old And In The Way to become one of the best-selling bluegrass albums of all time.

The recording sessions were pure fun, the most enjoyable record-making experience he’d known since those early days in Nashville with Norbert. “I put that album on and I really dig it. I put it on and say, ‘Man — listen to these guys! There’s a great spirit that’s in those grooves.’ Some of my others are almost too perfect. As Roy Acuff said, ‘Every time you do it, you lose a little something.’ And on that album, we lost nothing. It was so fast and easy. They were such great players that it didn’t take long, you’d just let them go and that was it.” During 1985 he toured with Chris Hillman’s band to support the album, a group that eventually evolved into the Desert Rose Band.

Though his professional life was in great shape, his private life was darkened by the recent breakup of his first marriage. Drummer Joe Vitale said to him, “God, spare me, don’t go home and write the ultimate divorce album.” Dan promised that he wouldn’t, and then proceeded to do just that, spilling all of his pain into the songs that provided the foundation for his Exiles album. He also let off a lot of steam by playing little Colorado bars in a good time rock and roll band he formed with Vitale called Frankie and The Aliens. Having shaved off his famous beard, he went virtually unrecognized, allowing him to reconnect with the spirit of pure anonymous fun he knew when first playing rock and roll in Peoria.

It also got his guitar chops into better shape than ever, as preserved in the intensity of his guitar work on Exiles, released in 1987. His singing, rawer than ever and bordering on pure soul, signalled that he’d been through tough times. “That’s blood on the tracks, there. You can feel the pain and the anger in that album as much as you can feel the joy in High Country Snows.”

Though his next two albums, The Wild Places and River Of Souls, were released as separate discs, he conceived them more as a double album, connected by the theme of the environment and inspired by world music. They are songs informed by his horrified awareness of the Reagan administration’s betrayal of the environment. Though he’d been active in political issues throughout his career, he’d never devoted an entire album addressing these topics. Like many of his friends and contemporaries, songwriters such as Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn, he risked the possibility of alienating portions of his audience, as well as writing songs more topical than timeless. But his conscience would not allow him to ignore the direction the world was heading in.

“You’ve got to just follow your heart and do your best work. For better or worse, I have followed my heart.

Photo by Henry Diltz.

“I felt there was no way we could save this planet unless we learned to love it. So these songs were about my love for nature.” He was living now at the ranch through most of the year, and spending his summers in an old sea-captain’s house he purchased on an island off of Maine. The Wild Places was the first album in this cycle, released in 1990, with songs about his time on the ocean, where he spends long days sailing on a wooden yawl called “The Serenade”, and songs about the sweetness of his solitude in Colorado.

The Wild Places and River Of Souls were the first albums he recorded at his newly completed home studio, which allowed him to be free from the time constraints of commercial studios. While The Wild Places was more collaborative in nature, on River Of Souls he played almost all of the instruments himself, as he had back in Pekin making Captured Angel. Released in 1993, it’s an album that not only reflects the beauty of the natural world, but also affirms his faith in a world beyond. It’s a world connected to this one by a river.

Although River Of Souls generated one hit, ‘Magic Every Moment’, it failed to become an instant blockbuster as so many of his others had. But his need to explore new territories both musical and spiritual far outweighed any inclination to repeat past glories. “I know metaphysical songs aren’t going to sell on the radio,” he said with a laugh.

Having spun so long in the hurricane, he’s learned that the only authentic test of an artist is if he can stay true to his own vision, despite the clamor of the commercial world.

“You’ve got to just follow your heart and do your best work,” he said. “For better or worse, I have followed my heart. There is no doubt in my mind or heart that everything I’ve done is exactly what I intended to do.”

One Comment

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  1. Thanks Paul for these beautiful articles and sharing your thoughts about my favorite singer/songwriter. I still feel he taught me to listen to singer/songwriters. Today i listen to singer/songwriters like Daniel Romano, Jimmy LaFave, Michael McDermott, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Gretchen Peters, Rosanne Cash etc.
    Together with my wife we traveled to Colorado in 1998 to see him perform at the West Fest. We even had a brief encounter. Four years later we traveled to the USA and attended four concerts at the East Coast including a show in Ontario.
    Fogelberg almost scored a hit in Holland with “Longer” en “Nether Lands”. The last song is still sometimes played on Dutch radio. I feel he’s very underestimated by the (American) music critics and I really don’t understand why. His music and lyrics are beyond compare and they have moved and influenced me. I think that “The Innocent Age” is one of the best albums ever made.

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