A Conversation with Dan Maher

Jun 1, 2017

Inland Folk  has been enchanting audiences for decades - it's a Northwest radio staple and its success is due to creator, host, producer and heart behind the show, Dan Maher. Dan's passion for music and love of radio is the reason Inland Folk celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. 

I sat down to chat with Dan about this landmark, his love of music and his life in radio. 

Jessie Jacobs: 35 years of Inland Folk – that’s pretty impressive.

Dan Maher: Yeah, there are programs, nationally, that have gone on longer. So there are people that love the music and probably have a hard time sort of letting go. It gives ‘em something to do as they get older, you know, which probably I might think that over.

JJ: So what’s the most important thing you personally have taken away from your career in radio?

DM: Well, the knowledge…I’ve learned so much.

JJ: About folk music? About people?

DM: Oh just - about music and about people. A little about technology and a little about the FCC. But again, the whole people thing is just amazing. I think I’ve learned that you can’t judge your audience, you can’t know your audience until your audience tells you that they know you. And I only know my audience based on what I’ve heard.   I don’t make any assumptions about them and I don’t make any assumptions about how I relate to the audience – I’m just me. It’s just my life.

So I guess what I’ve taken away is the fact that   when you practice something that is that much apart of your life, it matters so much to you and others – but you don’t even know, you have no clue. You have no clue as to the impact you’re gonna have on anybody.

JJ: Do you have one year that maybe sticks out as your favorite?

DM: Oh no. ‘Cause so much music comes out on a yearly basis – you could say my first year would stick out. I remember the very first song I ever played as an Inland Folk host was “It Takes a Worried Man” by The Kingston Trio and I played The Seekers’s “I’ll Never Find Another You,” all this is 60’s stuff.  I remember that just as clear as a bell.

And then I remember my first interviews!  There was a time I did a lot of interviews by phone and I interviewed major folk stars – people like Tom Paxton and I got to interview Mary Chapin Carpenter.

JJ: Wow!

DM: Yeah that was pretty cool. I remember the very end of the interview she said “this was wonderful! You really set it up in such a way that was really comfortable.” And I said “No, no no – you say that to all the interviewers.” She said “No, I really don’t!” and I said “Well, I just want you to know that I’m a little intimidated and I think you’re kind of a star and you made it really easy for me, too.”

She said “Oh, bull----, you say that to all the girls.”

[Laughs]

JJ: So what words of folk wisdom has affected you the most?   Are you a lyric man?

DM: I’m a lyric man. But that being said, you can write “tunes” or you can write “songs.” In folk music, that’s a very definite distinction. If you’re going to write tunes, then  the instrumental is that makes that all work. So I think the whole folk wisdom thing…Jesse Winchester said “Let the rough side drag, let the smooth side go…let the smooth side go, when you pull that load everywhere you go.” That’s what it was. And I like that  “let the rough side drag.” Just let it drag, just move on. Just make it all work.

JJ: So you say you’re a lyric man, but you obviously really like your tunes as well. What do you look for in a good tune? I mean, you clearly like your tunes full of…passion.

DM: I like it full of passion and I like the images it evokes. Now maybe the images I get from it are not the images that were intended, but it does give it an image. And you know, nobody has to be flashy, flashy, flashy - I mean, that’s impressive to me. But if you can get a fiddle or a banjo or a guitar or a penny whistle that evokes emotion, because music – so much of music today is an exercise of the head, not of the heart. Technically, these people are wizards., but you have to have that emotion, that soul that “it”…that spirit behind it to make it all work. Mark O’Connor can do that, Bela Fleck can do that, Alistair Fraser on the fiddle can do that. These people that when they play Scottish fiddling  and they just make you think of misty headlands and jagged mountains and stuff like that…then all of sudden you find out it was written about some building in a city. But who cares.

JJ: Do you still consider it music? Even if it was just written with the head?

DM: Oh yeah, it’s still music. At that point you have to say “this really is still amazing, but it’s amazing because it’s technically awesome” and you leave it at that. And of course the ultimate wizardry would be to combine the head and the heart in an equal manner. Like I said, I think Mark O’Connor can do that. I think Tony Rice can do that. I think there are a lot of Celtic groups that can do that. It’s because they have that “it.” You can hear it in soul music and gospel – they have the “it.”

And the people that are imitators – it’s just clear as bell that they’re imitators right off the bat. It’s more of a self-awareness thing, ‘cause you have to put yourself into your music.

JJ: Speaking of putting yourself into your music, you are a performer –

DM: I’m an entertainer.

JJ: You’re an entertainer! Have you ever played a song on Inland folk and turned around and said I’m going to learn that.

DM: Oh, Yeah.

JJ: How many times and what was the most recent one?

DM: I think at least five times a show. I’ll just hear it and go “I have to learn this.” I just heard this one particular sea shanty and I said “I love this sea shanty, I just have to learn this.” And of course I took it home and learned it. But it happens at least once a show, at least. More often than not, three times a show. 

I used to be able, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I could listen to a song and hear it maybe six or seven times and play it like I’ve played it all my life. Now it’s a two or three day process. I have to work hard at it. The brain’s just too full of stuff.

JJ: All for the love of music.

DM: Well, it’s got a bunch of other stuff in it.

JJ: So what does 35 years mean to you?

DM: For the first 20 years, I had a lot of ego in it. Now I have a lot of self confidence in it. You know, the ego was what I wanted people to think of me and what I wanted people to think I was like behind the mic; who I was. Now the self confidence is that I know I can produce a good product that people want to hear; people want to listen to. That really should be enough. And it really doesn’t matter that I’m Dan Maher and that I play and that I sing and that I’ve done all these different things. I’ve been to Europe three times and I’ve collected songs…none of that really matters.  What really matters is that you can say to somebody “This is a good song. This is a good tune. I hope you get that this is an amazing thing.”

I guess what I’ve taken away and what I’ve totally gotten from it is that I know, on a per show basis, there’s enough good quality in there and there’s enough heart from me in there as a host that that’s really what counts. And when I get emails, they’re always saying “You have this human approach. You are really able to convey what this music means to anybody.” That’s not an art that you develop, necessarily, its not something you say “I’m going to do it so all the people email me to tell me I can do this.”  It’s just…as the years go by and you love what you do and you love your music and you love everyone else’s music…I guess it’s just the love of music that really comes through. That’s the universal piece – the love of music in that sense is even more universal than the music. 

JJ: Thank you, Dan.