Since first stepping into the spotlight in the late ‘70s, Dennis Quaid has established himself as a beloved actor, contributing to classic films like Breaking Away, The Right Stuff, The Big Easy, Great Balls Of Fire! and more. Through it all, audiences around the world have come to know and love him for his phenomenal ability to help carry stories and bring characters to life… but what folks might not know is that acting isn’t Quaid’s only passion—in fact, long before he ever considered himself an actor, he saw himself as a musician.
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It began when he was still a pre-teen—living in Houston, Texas, he started playing guitar and writing songs, supposing that he’d make a career out of it. An influential professor in college eventually sent him on his ultimate path to the silver screen, but his knack for songwriting never left.
In the late ‘80s, Quaid even made an attempt to “go pro,” putting together a band called The Eclectics (primarily made up of folks from Bonnie Raitt’s circle). With them, he was able to gig around the country for a few years and even nab a record deal… but the day after they signed, the band broke up and Quaid checked into rehab. It was over a decade until he returned to making music again. But when he did, it was a joyous occasion—putting together a band called The Sharks and hitting the road with a set of rootsy songs honoring the great American musical tradition, he tapped into his love for performing again. Now, The Sharks have been going strong for nearly 20 years.
But last year, Quaid stepped into uncharted territory: he went up to Alaska and played his first-ever solo shows. This was also paired with two new original singles—“America, I Love You, Too” and “Friends”—both of which the now-67-year-old wrote in response to the turbulence he saw unfold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To talk about it all, American Songwriter met up with Quaid in his Nashville home. Shedding light onto everything from his musical background to his biggest influences, his run with The Eclectics, his new songwriting endeavors, his views on the nation’s soul since the ‘60s, and more, the conversation was a fascinating peek into the mind of an avatar of American culture. Read the interview below:
American Songwriter: You started playing guitar when you were 12—when did you start writing songs?
Dennis Quaid: Pretty much immediately. I realized that I was never going to be someone who could shred on guitar… music was something that I did alone, after school. So, it was a pretty natural thing for me. It always has been.
AS: What was the role songwriting played in your life at the time? Was it a good outlet for you?
DQ: I guess it was teenage therapy… then it became young adult therapy. I don’t know, songwriting is almost like an affliction—it’s something you have to do. You can’t just get rid of it. If a phrase or idea gets in your head, it won’t leave you alone until you finish it. That’s basically what it’s always been for me—that’s the only way I can really describe it. And looking back, I can listen to old songs and know where I was when I wrote them. It’s like a diary or a journal in that way.
AS: Who were some of your musical influences?
DQ: Johnny Cash is probably the biggest single influence on me. When I first started playing guitar, the very first song I tried to learn was “Ring Of Fire.” As it turns out, that specific song is pretty hard and has a lot of barre chords, so it didn’t really work out… but, in general, Johnny Cash has songs with chords that just about any guitar player can play, and they all tell stories. I was just able to connect with him. I grew up in Houston and spent summers in East Texas at my grandfather’s house, so I knew city life and country life and just felt connected to him. He was a rebel, a bad boy outlaw and he was kinda funny. I think they’ll be playing Johnny Cash songs 500 years from now.
Then, I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show, which changed everything. It was four months after Kennedy was assassinated, so there was this real depression in the country. When The Beatles came on, it was like, “Okay, it’s alright to have fun again.” Then Van Morrison came around, who was another giant, really.
AS: What was your relationship with music like once your acting career took off?
DQ: Well, music is really what I thought I was gonna do back then. I got into acting in college because of one particular teacher. But the two go really well together. What I’m really interested in with acting is what makes people tick—that’s really what songwriting is all about too. I love story-telling, which goes along with movies and acting, but songwriting is another great way to tell stories.
AS: Your first foray into being a legitimate musical artist was with The Eclectics, a short-lived band from the late ‘80s. What was the story there?
DQ: It was the ‘80s and The Eclectics were pretty much Bonnie Raitt’s touring band—it was the same guys. So, we were basically sharing a band for half of the year. We were around for three years, but the very night we got a record deal, we broke up. The next day, I was in rehab. I didn’t really play music for another 10 years after that.
AS: What was coming back to music like? Was that when you started playing with The Sharks?
DQ: It was a happy return. Music is so much fun. And I’m glad I found these guys in particular—Jamie James, my guitarist, was playing with Harry Dean Stanton and one night, Harry asked me to come down and join them at this club called Tick Tock in Los Angeles. I went down there and got on stage with Harry and it was a great inspiration to me. That’s where it all started—now, The Sharks have been playing together for almost 20 years.
The Sharks are like a rock’n’roll party band—it’s all about getting people up and having a good time, moving around, and stuff. It’s all great. We still perform from time to time. But now, I’m going on tour for the first time by myself, which is a real new experience for me. It’s just you, a guitar or piano and the audience. I’ll be doing some songs that I did with The Sharks, some Jerry Lee Lewis stuff, and some songs that have influenced me throughout my whole life, with some originals thrown in there as well.
AS: Yeah, you got your first taste with that at some solo shows you did in Alaska last year, right?
DQ: Yeah, I went to Alaska and did a couple of shows up there. That was during COVID, so it was the only place you could play in the world. I really just had such a great time doing it, you know? You get that real feeling of stage fright before you go on, which I like, to tell you the truth. It’s energy—you get a real, intimate experience with an audience. It’s like stand-up where you’re pretty bare out there… if something goes wrong, you can’t look around.
AS: Last year you put out two original singles: “America, I Love You, Too” and “Friends.” What was the inspiration behind these tracks?
DQ: They were story songs, really about what was going on during COVID and all my feelings about that. There was an election too… but they’re non-partisan songs. They’re for sale for any political party. They’re about the way I was feeling and how the country’s whole mood has changed. For a lot of people, I think that’s very hard to recognize, especially compared to what it was or where we want it to go. I think a lot of people are confused about that, about where we are now. Things aren’t very clear, as they used to be.
So, a song like “America, I Love You, Too” is like a campaign song for America, you know? It’s fed up with talking heads and political parties on both sides of any issue. There’s no “grey,” no in-between anymore. But, we need grey. Or at least dialogue, instead of talking at each other.
AS: You certainly bring up a good point that the world has changed a lot since the burst of progressive momentum that blossomed in the ‘60s. Even musically—we’re living through wildly turbulent times, but music plays a much smaller role so far as political movements go.
DQ: Well, I don’t think there’s any clear-cut issue for the younger generation. In the ‘60s, there was the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement and all of that going on. Both of those movements also had really strong leaders—they were defined. But at the same time, there was a bigger dialogue going on. Johnson passed The Great Society and launched the War on Poverty all at the same time, no matter how you felt about it. It just seemed a bit more civilized.
AS: Well, you’ve got these solo shows coming up—how do you feel? What’s the future look like for you?
DQ: I think happy days are going to be here again. It’s going to swing back, we’re going to get over this pandemic eventually. We’ll be able to get back to our lives. It’ll be a new kind of normal, but people will just let this drop-off and we’ll get back to living again. As for the shows, I’m just looking forward to being in front of an audience every night on tour. I like doing that, you know? It’s really fun, it’s like an adventure. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to do that and I’m just thankful to be lucky enough to be doing it again.
Dennis Quaid will be hitting the road on headlining solo tour this fall—check out the dates HERE and listen to his song “Friends” below: