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Bill Danoff is having a big autumn, as two of his compositions bring him the semi-anonymous rewards of the songwriting life. This is not a new experience for Danoff, who was working the folk-club circuit before he graduated from Georgetown University in 1968. He and Taffy Nivert wrote and performed original material first as Fat City then as Bill and Taffy and eventually married, along the way producing a list of songs with catchy melodies and arresting lyrics.
One night at the Cellar Door, the duo met John Denver; that connection led to their collaboration on “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the Denver rendition of which became a worldwide hit in 1971. Denver later included the tongue-somewhat-in-cheek Danoff/Nivert ditty “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk for Christmas)” on his Farewell Andromeda. Danoff and Nivert never recorded the song, but it was a staple of their holiday shows. The couple’s next commercial triumph was as half of the Starland Vocal Band, which topped the U.S. charts for two weeks in 1976 with “Afternoon Delight.”
Nivert and Danoff, who have two daughters, divorced but remain amicable. Danoff’s 1989 Souvenir CD includes “Caipirinha,” with saucy back-up vocals by his ex-wife, and a “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on which daughters Lucy and Emma accompany him. The collection’s stand-out is “Potter’s Wheel,” a haunting song indebted melodically to Tom Rush’s “Merrimack County” but possessed of Danoff’s signature insights and wordplay.
Now, both “Wheel” and “Please Daddy” have resurfaced; the former on Midnight at Cabell Hall (Red House Records) by Freyda and Acoustic Attatude, the latter on Alan Jackson’s Honky Tonk Christmas (Arista). Ex-Trapezoidist Freyda Epstein and cohort wrap “Wheel” in a gorgeous arrangement recorded live at the University of Virginia auditorium. Jackson’s gritty “Daddy” comes via studio, but still captures the song’s tragicomic essence—longer on the tragedy now than when Danoff wrote it and a sloppy drunk seemed so much funnier—in performance and liner notes.
“This is a song I can hear some ol’ bar band playing late on a December night with everybody singing along,” Jackson writes, nicely describing how many longtime Danoff fans remember the tune.
Honky Tonk Christmas could put more than a few presents under the Danoff family tree; last week, the disc was 106th on the Top 200 and 23rd on the Billboard country chart. Having a hot Nashville cat use a song fits with Danoff’s bid to establish a toehold in Music City. Lately, he has been making the song-plugging rounds there, and finds the atmosphere inviting. “I’d gotten accustomed to a sort of loneliness,” he says. “Here in Washington, someone asks what you do and you say, “I write songs,’ and they drift off, but in Nashville when you admit you’re a songwriter, they perk up. Songs are the lifeblood of the place, and they welcome people who write them.”