There is a long line of those who’d kill to stand in St. Paul singer-songwriter David Hanners‘s shoes. On top of a successful music career, Hanners owns a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. He followed his acclaimed recording debut, Nothingtown, with last year’s highly touted The Traveler’s Burden and is now back promoting the disc.
There is reason to take note. Danners has walked off with a number of songwriting honors. He’s a winner of the Minnesota Folk Festival’s “New Folk” songwriting competition. Other artists have recognized his work; earlier this year, famed photographer Wing Young Huie selected David’s “The Ballad of Mohamed Saleh” for the soundtrack of his groundbreaking University Avenue Project. David’s songs have also been featured at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of Laura Lundgren-Smith’s play Digging Up the Boys, a work about three trapped coal miners set in the 1930s South. David Danners has opened for such national touring acts as Tom Paxton, Bill Staines, Ellis Paul, and Garnet Rogers.
He took time out for an e-mail interview about his craft.
What model guitar(s) do you use, and why?
On The Traveler’s Burden, I used three guitars: a kit-built dreadnought, basically with D-18 specs, built by Dennis O’Neil of Browerville, Minnesota; a ’98 Gibson J-45; and a steel-bodied resophonic guitar from Republic Guitars of Dallas. I used the O’Neil on nine of the tunes, the J-45 on one (“Bare Trees”), and the reso on “Tex Thornton” and “When My Demons and I Come Home.” This was only the third guitar O’Neil had built and it is one of the finest sounding guitars I’ve ever played. It’s a cannon, but it also records very well, in my opinion. It is loud but very even, with just the right amount of bottom-end. It’s not the prettiest guitar you’ll see—Dennis doesn’t use spray finishes because he’s concerned about the environment—but who cares about cosmetics when you’ve got great sound? I had him deviate from the “normal” kit-built guitar in a couple of areas. The big one is that I had him shave the neck to “V” profile, like pre-war Martins. I just find that profile very comfortable. It also has no position markers on the fretboard. I like a plain look. It also has a “dalmation” pickguard that I got from Collings Guitars down in Texas. I’m left-handed but play “upside down,” i.e., I hold the guitar like a lefty but don’t change the strings. The treble strings are closest to the ceiling. The J-45 has aged fairly well and sounds really good. It is my main stage guitar. It’s a Gibson through-and-through—very dependable and has the great slope-shoulder “chunk” sound. Great sound. The reso is a 12-fret slot-head model and I really like playing it. It’s a fun guitar to play. I also used an F-style mandolin built by Tom Jessen of Mankato on the record. I got it in ’97, and although Jessen had built several A-style mandos, this was his first F-style. It came out really nice, has just gotten better with age and records really well. I own an Epiphone “Inspired by 1964” Texan. I’ve always loved the Texan. It’s a great folk guitar and I have a thing for slope-shoulder guitars anyway, and the one I’ve got has a nice sound. The vintage ones are really pricey. This one is all solid wood, and it’s just like the original Texans except it has a non-adjustable bridge and a polyurethane finish instead of a nitrocellulose finish. The non-adjustable bridge is actually a thing in its favor because adjustable bridges were big tone suckers. The poly finish means it will survive World War III, but I wish the thing looked older than it did because it has a nice vintage sound. A vintage-sounding guitar should have scars.
What moved you to become a singer-songwriter?
I suppose that, like a lot of folks, I decided to try songwriting as a means of expression. There were things I wanted to say. It’s kind of a basic human desire to be heard. Or noticed. We all have our own unique points of view on the world on things big and small. I’m not saying my point of view is any better or clearer than anyone else’s point of view, but songwriting seemed a good and constructive way of expressing yourself. And by virtue of what I do for a living, I come across a lot of people who are either at their very best or very worst, so it seemed to provide a lot of fodder for songs, although when I sit down and look at my tunes, very few stories that I’ve done have actually been turned into songs. There’s only two or three, actually. But seeing people at their best or worst gives you insight into how people react under different circumstances, and that insight has certainly found its way into my songs.
What attracts you to the folk genre?
In a word, storytelling attracts me to the genre. My songs are fairly simple stories. Some are big and have a moral, while some are small and what you hear is what you get. A critic in Duluth who reviewed The Travelers’s Burden (and gave it a very negative review, I might add) wrote that the songs were ones that pretty much anybody could have written. He said that like it was a bad thing. He didn’t get that that was kind of the point. We’re all storytellers. It is a tradition as old as humanity itself, and folk music seemed to me the closest genre to that tradition. Yeah, I try to turn a phrase every now and then and there are a few I’m proud of, but I try to write simply and I try to stay true to the characters in my songs. Sometimes that can create a conflict because I’m having to have a character say something that I myself would never say. An example is “The Ashes of St. Anthony’s.” The song is based on a true story, and the character in the song uses the word “Jap.” That is obviously pejorative and it is a word I myself would never use. But to stay true to the song’s protagonist, it was a word that had would go in there because he fought in the Pacific in World War II. I grew up east of Effingham and “Jap” was just a word people used, particularly in the early ’60s when I grew up. Obviously, the characters in my songs do lots of things I would never do.
Who are your strongest influences?
This may sound odd for a songwriter, but I don’t listen to a lot of music. I used to, but not any more, for some reason. Not sure why that is. It’s not that there isn’t good music being made these days. There is. I just don’t spend a lot of time listening to it. I don’t have an iPod and I don’t even have a CD player in my car. My formative influences, though, were Flatt & Scruggs; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (particularly Stephen Stills); the Flying Burrito Brothers; and John Stewart. And being from Illinois, I was also influenced by a trio of Illinois songwriters: John Prine, Steve Goodman, and Dan Fogelberg. My big influences over the past couple of decades have been Steve Earle and Bill Morrissey. I’ve been fortunate to have met and spent time chatting with both of them. I got turned on to Earle when I lived in Dallas. There’s a great public-supported radio station there, KNON-FM, and back in the ’80s they were playing artists who were great but commercial radio wouldn’t touch, such as Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Iris Dement, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lucinda Williams, Shake Russell, and a bunch of others. Hearing Bill Morrissey’s Inside album in 1992 was an “epiphany” moment in my songwriting. It made me really want to get more serious about writing and performing. He’s one of the best out there today, and his writing has such a literate quality. Locally, some of the influences I’ve had have been Bob Nordquist, Bernie King, Lonnie Knight, Russ Brown, and Jerry Rau. All are great in their way, and all have given me things that have enriched my music. They are all great songwriters. I think most songwriters out there just spend their time trying to re-write Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” I probably spend my time trying to re-write James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters” or Bill Morrissey’s “Man From Out of Town.”
What’s next for you?
I’m not really certain what’s next. I don’t have things mapped out, which may be part of my problem. I have no clue how my music is received out there or whether it resonates with people. My attempts to build an audience have failed miserably. Working a 40-plus-hour-a-week job can make it hard to work on the business end of music, but maybe I’m just using that as an excuse. But the thing is, I never really know if my music sucks, or I just haven’t found the right audience or maybe there’s some business angle that I just haven’t tried yet. One of the reasons we make music is for public consumption and when you do that, you’ve got to expect a certain amount of rejection. There are times when I really just want to give up, but I’ve got this record I need to sell. Also, every now and then, I’ll get an e-mail from somebody who heard something in a song they liked and was kind enough to tell me. I was feeling down about my music a few nights ago but then, out of the blue, I got this e-mail from a guy who saw one of my songs on YouTube, “Drunks Look After Drunks,” and it reminded him of a buddy he had who died a year ago. He went into some detail about how the song brought back a lot of good memories. I wrote the tune about a guy I met in a homeless shelter in St. Cloud, so there was no connection to the guy’s friend. But I guess it had something in it that clicked with this guy. I wrote him back and thanked him and told him where the song came from. I know the music business has never been a meritocracy, but it just seems that there are times when you see critical praise getting heaped on some act and I watch and listen to them and think, “What am I missing? I’m not gettin’ it.” But I try not to express that very often because it comes off as whining and I don’t like whiners, but then again, I’m whining. It is obvious plenty of folks have listened to my stuff and their reaction has been, “What am I missing? I’m not gettin’ it.” The thing about The Traveler’s Burden is that Ric Lee and I made an honest album. We don’t make any apologies for it. The songs are honest, the performances are honest, the production is honest and we did the best we knew how to do. You can like it or not. I hope it is an original. For better or worse, it is authentic. So with that as prologue, if I get enough self-confidence to do another record, I may return to my roots and do something old-timey and/or bluegrass. Whatever it is, I’ll keep it simple and straightforward. I’ll never use Auto-Tune, no matter what the critic in Duluth says about me.