The Unknown Americans are what lead singer and band leader Danny Shafer calls, “a hard working band – we’re happy to show up just about anywhere.” Combining elements of rock, folk, blues and country they seem have found a comfortable niche like “that small little business that’s just doing fine just standing there on the corner.”
With bassist Jon VanSpriell, drummer Jon Mouser and pianist Ben Gallageher, Shafer plays over 200 shows a year but he started at the Happy Days Lounge and Grill in Chicago.
“I played there every Thursday night (when) I was 16 years old, from eight to eleven. My mom drove me and drove me home.”
Growing up in a “rowdy, working-class, and Catholic” family, young Danny started playing music in school. He began on the trumpet and progressed to the French horn, the guitar came later.
“I picked up the guitar when I was about 12 or 13 and once I picked it up, I played seven hours a day. It went everywhere with me it was just constant,” he said. “I would go to anybody who played and ask them to show me something so I was taught by everybody in the neighborhood.
“I’ve been playing my whole life, it was just the only thing I ever wanted to do.” Shafer added. “I never really had an inclination towards anything else. It was either that or professional baseball. Those are the only two things I ever wanted to do. I never really cared about anything else.”
Even with Shafer’s dedication to his craft, there were a few musical diversions.
“I played in a trash band in high school and I almost dropped out of high school because I thought I was gonna be this trash singer, there practically is no such thing. I played a lot of stuff, but I always kept my acoustic guitar right there. It was there through all that stuff and I wrote songs on that all the time.”
At Northeastern Illinois University he studied “everything and nothing” before dropping out his junior year to join a bluegrass band. With the band he discovered Colorado and decided to leave the band and move west in 1990.
“I started another band right away,” he said. “That was the first band I really toured with hard from ‘90 to ‘94. It was a three part harmony group, acoustic (called) Three-Fisted Lullaby. Right after that band stopped I put together my own band, the Danny Shafer Band which was together for six years, something like that.
“And then I played in a band called the All Night Honky Tonk All-Stars which played all honky tonk music. It was a great education and that led me to putting together the Unknown Americans.”
The amalgamation of music that is the Unknown Americans is partially influenced by the country artists Shafer grew up listening to on the radio.
At a recent show at the Boulder Theater he introduced a cover of “Bloody Mary Morning” by saying that Willie Nelson was the one who “made it okay to have long hair in country music!”
“I grew up listening to a lot of 70s country music. My dad was really into it. Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard – everything that was on country radio.”
Other musical experiences have also played a role. Shafer said the first concert he attended was Journey.
“But then I saw Queen after that,” he added. “It was pretty awesome. Take a seventh grader who plays guitar and bring them to a Queen concert – it’s over,” he added. “I had tenth row – I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do, I want to run around on stage in tights screaming my head off.’ Then I saw Iron Maiden on the same night I saw Arlo Guthrie play. I didn’t know which one I wanted to see more.”
Now, he’s the one on stage, opening for bands such as Asleep at the Wheel, Robert Earl Keen and the Drew Emmitt Band.
“I like that moment where you walk onstage and you’re the opener and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’ve got to win them over in 45 seconds or you’re done. I love that, that is such an exciting feeling. And sometimes I feel like everybody in the band takes that on and takes the responsibility for doing that. My guys work really hard, they really show up for it,” he said.
“I opened up a show for Stanely Jordan and I think the audience was bored after two songs, maybe half a song. They wanted something a little more complicated than me,” he laughed. “But I was bored after two songs of Stanley Jordan so we’re even.”
When the band isn’t playing in Boulder, they set out on the road making a circle around the western half of the United States.
“The main circuit is Salt Lake, Denver to sometimes Chicago and then Jackson to Santa Fe. We do a lot of stuff in the area. And we keep on making the circles bigger, keep on reaching out a little bit more. Someone will call us from Kansas, so it reaches out a little bit farther all the time. We’ve played a lot on the West Coast, but it’s been a little while so we’ve probably got a bunch of shows coming up there in the not too far off future.
“We all pile in the van and head out, we have a comfortable vehicle, it’s not big but it’s comfortable. At least everyone has their nice big seat and a TV, you know, good tunes so it’s not bad. A window – all I require is a window.
“I have a little suitcase that has all my emergency stuff in it. It’s this little green briefcase and it has external speakers, because I like to have music in hotel rooms and a coffee maker and some candles in there and a few books that I feel like I can’t live with out.”
As for recording a CD, the band has put it off, instead choosing to allow audience recordings of their live shows. And Shafer prefers it that way, though he has recorded a solo album available on CDBaby.
“I’m not a big fan of going into the studio, sometimes it can be magic, a lot of times it can be really dull. I thrive off the audience, the risk. The risk of either having a really good night or totally sucking. That’s where the excitement is.
“Even some of my favorite people have bad nights, I don’t think Willie Nelson puts on a good show at Red Rocks. I don’t know why, I just don’t think he ever plays well at Red Rocks. I’ve seen him play at the Cheyenne Rodeo, that was the best show I ever saw him do. Funny, funny thing, it’s an oddball thing.”
In an industry where growth and expansion are part of the game, Shafer feels that he’s reached just the right level of success.
“We don’t have many people telling us what to do, which is really good. We’re just at the level where people come and see us and just below the level where people tell us what to do. We’re pretty lucky. You know, we still get to play a lot and make a living off of playing. If things go a little bit better maybe we’ll have people telling us what to do.”
When asked about what he’d like to have change in the next ten years he responded with small adjustments to the band’s situation.
“I could take a bit more room in the van, maybe add another person to the band, I don’t know what I’d like to change. Very small things. I don’t think I need to change all that much I think it’s just fine the way it is in a lot of ways. Sure, I’d like for more people to know our music but that doesn’t mean we have to change what we’re doing all that much. In a lot of ways I think the band has a do-it-yourself punk attitude towards a lot of that stuff, which I love. I hope we keep on doing it that way.
“The Unknown Americans are a really simple thing, what you see is what you get. We’re not trying to change the world, we’re just trying to change the night – add to the night. we’re just as changed by the night as they are. Every night’s a little bit different and I know what we are right now but I don’t know what we’re gonna be like in six months. It keeps on changing, I really like it. We’re a very simple band. Rowdy and just right.”