I’ve always been envious of those whose names form brief but complete sentences: Tom [w]aits. Ben [f]olds. Bill [w]ithers. Even Britney [s]pears. I love how such names tell the very shortest of narratives and leave me wanting to know the rest of the story. What exactly is Tom waiting for? Is he like Hamlet? I wonder what’s up with Ben’s defeatist attitude and think, “Poor Bill.” And what/who is Britney spearing and why?
Bear with me. There is a methodology to my madness.
You may have noticed that all of these names belong to singers and/or songwriters. To varying degrees, I admire each of the aforementioned artists; however, my favorite singer/songwriter with an independent clause for a name, an independent spirit, and independent label to match is Dan May. And despite the noncommittal sentiment his name expresses, he has definitely devoted his life to the love, production, and dissemination of music of sublime quality. In fact, his music and storytelling, both in song and prose, have enriched my life in ways impossible to quantify. My ever-expanding playlist of Dan’s songs is in constant rotation on my various listening devices, and I often deliberately select particular songs from Dan’s eclectic catalog to either match or generate my mood.
Like me, Dan was raised in a very large Catholic family of working class means. Also like me, Dan is a product of Sandusky, Ohio, and Sandusky Central Catholic. As in my fiction, the shared stomping grounds and people of our youth often figure prominently in Dan’s music. Because Dan was a senior when I was a freshman, we never really crossed paths in high school. What I remember of Dan from those days are a distinctive shock of red hair and that he somehow managed to exude cool without being a standout athlete at a jock-centric high school. Like me, I think it’s fair to say, Dan is an aesthete – one who possesses a special appreciation of the arts. Admittedly, however, Dan’s immersion in and impact on the arts far exceed my own. Finally, in addition to his singer-songwriter’s craft, like me, Dan is a storyteller in prose. We differ, however, in my preference for long-form fiction; whereas, Dan’s unique brand of observational humor, wistful nostalgia, and subtle social commentary best fit the personal narrative and short story genres. Any opportunity to catch Dan reading from his collection is equivalent to a master’s class in the art of anecdotal storytelling.
Although, I am a big fan of Dan’s personal essays and short fiction, it is the narrative quality of Dan’s lyrics to which I am most drawn. One of my favorite stories-in-song Dan has delivered is “The Glory Years” from the Heartland album. It’s a first person account of a man attending a high school class reunion fully cognizant that he and his onetime classmates are no longer the pictures of youth they once were as each of their faces is the “the road map of our lives.” While learning of the failed marriage of one classmate and the death of George, who “died last May,” but who “always was a sullen jerk I hate to say,” the narrator chooses not to dwell on the unrecoverable and unchangeable past. Instead, he optimistically asserts that “It’s not where you’ve been but where you go from here” that matters — even now.
Dan is a singer-storywriter in the “every man” tradition of Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Cleveland’s Michael Stanley –rarified company for sure. His songs teem with philosophies and wisdom gleaned from a life both traditional and extraordinary in equal measure. At this point, it’s typical for Dan’s biographers to dive into obstacles faced and overcome in both his personal and professional life. I’m not going to go there. For one, others, including Dan, have documented it better than I’m able, and two, my relationship with Dan is primarily with his art. Also, most artists I know and know of would prefer to shrink into the background, if not completely disappear, and let their art speak for itself. For those unfamiliar with his story, I’ve linked an excellent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/philly/entertainment/20100921_From_Air_Force_to_opera_to_singer-songwriter.html
I think one of the secrets to Dan’s genius is the relatability of his song-stories and his willingness to express genuine emotion and vulnerability. The somewhat incongruous but, ultimately, perfect blend of his deep baritone with the touching sentimentality of many of his lyrics share that it’s okay for me – even as man – to feel, to cry, to dream, and to be less-than-perfect. I could link so many examples, including “Dreaming at the Speed of Sound,” “Fate Said Nevermind,” “The Field,” etc., but I’m only going to share one such heart song, my favorite: “Shades of Grey.”
As a lover of language, my focus in music appreciation is often zeroed in on the profundity and/or wit shared in lyrics. To the contrary, my wife, who is another fan of Dan, is a slave to melody. I actually watched her listen to an entire Jon Secada album without realizing, until it was over and I made her aware of it, that every song was sung in Spanish. My point is that Dan brilliantly checks both boxes: music and lyrics. For example, dig the wordplay in these lines from the poignantly wistful “Lucy:”
Lucy sits in the middle And rubs my leg just a little, Plays my heart like a fiddle, Will it ever end? Like skipping stones in the river, With deadly aim she'll deliver An arrow drawn from her quiver To my heart again.
The ultimate test of any performance artist occurs the moment the house lights extinguish and the spotlight illumines. As evidenced in the videos I’ve shared, Dan’s voice is nothing-short-of-angelic live. It is truly a blessed experience to attend one of his shows in-person or, as has been often necessitated lately, online. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve attended. In fact, I’ve been in the audience at more of Dan’s shows than any other artist, and I will be in front of my best computer screen next Friday night at 8:00 for another livestreamed performance. For those in the Philly area, however, a live audience at the Sellersville Theater, appropriately distanced, will be admitted. I’d like to invite you to join me – either in-person or online – for this night of absolute bliss. I don’t invite you for my benefit or for Dan’s but for your own edification. Just click the link below for advance tickets.
In this post, I’ve shared several of my personal favorites from among Dan’s songs, all of which reflect my tastes, but believe me when I say that it was exceedingly difficult to choose just those few, and trust me that Dan’s catalog is large and eclectic with something for everyone’s musical preferences. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t share my wife’s favorite: “The Gift.” It is hands down the finest tribute to one’s parents I’ve ever heard. We are literally moved to tears nearly every time it plays.
This post is clearly and unashamedly a love letter to Dan’s music. As in all attempts to express love in language, it falls short of the appreciation I actually feel. I sincerely hope some of you will join me in my love affair.
Thank you, Dan.
Always with gratitude and love,
If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order any of my novels from the link to my “Home” page below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty