Tradition and legacy. With each passing day, those two profound words seem more and more lost on our generation.
But they’re not lost on Ben Danaher.
The Huffman, Texas native has spent his life following in the footsteps of the men in his family, all gifted musicians. But what started as a personal mission evolved into something much deeper in the wake of family tragedy. Six years ago, Danaher lost his father, songwriter Bob Danaher, to a battle with cancer only two years after his brother Kelly was senselessly murdered.
That mission is now a life’s purpose and calling, to fulfill not only a dream but a legacy, and his latest release “My Father’s Blood” is just the start of that journey. The single is both a heartbreaking and heartfelt ode to the influence of the elder Danaher that leaves the listener of the song bursting with pride and also holding back tears.
“I just remember being very proud of the man that my dad was,” Danaher told CMT.com of writing the single. Though his father never had a publishing or record deal, he pursued music until his last days, all while teaching guitar and songwriting to local elementary school kids along the way.
“There are moments in your life where you feel that you’re not doing good enough be on the level that he was, and maybe I was in one of those slumps at the time,” Danaher said. “But I was reflecting on the man that he was or the man that he raised me to be.”
In our town, as well as other small towns near where we grew up, my dad was a well known figure. Not because of having gold records or any big music notoriety, but because he would put on songwriting assemblies at local elementary schools. He called the program "Young Authors Day" and the class would eat it up as they got to sing along and at the end of the program they would pull out the big white paper easel and the class would co-write a song together. One of the songs my dad was well known for was called "the chicken song" about a chicken that refused to lay eggs. I still get requests for it anytime I play within a 100 mile radius of Huffman, TX.
That “man” is one who works hard, never loses faith and never gives up though the life of a musician is one chock full of hurdles, hard times and unpredictability.
“My dad worked really hard doing side jobs or whatever he had to do to supplement living that lifestyle,” he said. “With him being a musician, you don’t exactly know where every paycheck is coming from or how you’re going to eat or feed the family.”
He’s quick to point out another unsung hero in this narrative: his mother, whom Danaher said was the ultimate supporter of his father, always sticking by his side.
“One of the stories that she tells us is—whenever things were really bad, she’d sell furniture to buy groceries for us. And that’s not an easy thing,” Danaher said.
Pictures tell a thousand words. My mom was obviously very supportive of my father's career, but this one makes me laugh as it reminds me of her reaction to me telling her about any gig that I get, usually accompanied with the question: "does it pay anything?" #singersongwriter #grind #myfathersblood #stillfeellucky #nashville
But that was life for the family: a house full of gear and equipment, rehearsals in the living room or dining room, and random bursts of music at any time. His older brother Brett Danaher was already on the road playing guitar for Texas legend Pat Green, and his late brother Kelly was a drummer. So, picking up the guitar at age seventeen was Danaher’s chance to assume his place in the family band.
“That helped me and my dad bond a little bit,” he said. “Once I started picking up the guitar, we would actually turn CMT on watch the music videos, and he’d get out his guitar out and try to figure out what key the song was in and how to play it before the video was over.”
When Danaher got to college, Kelly stepped into the role of drummer during the club sets. “He was free or cheap,” Danaher said with a laugh. “I learned a lot from him, about the music business. I learned how to be a songwriter from my dad, but I learned how to be a professional musician from Kelly. He came along at a time where I was dealing with club owners, hiring band members—how to translate songs into a full-band thing. Those things were invaluable to learn from him.”
But he also has another amazing teacher: Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Allen Shamblin (“The House That Built Me,” “He Walked on Water”) who was pals with Bob Danaher, and like the younger Danaher, saw Bob as a model man and musician.
Shamblin, also raised in Huffman, often tells Danaher of the wisdom his father bestowed when he was just starting out. In turn, Shamblin has become a fount of wisdom and mentor to his late friend’s son, which Danaher says has been invaluable to him as a writer and as a man.
“The main thing I’ve learned from Allen is how pure he is when he approaches a song or a co-write, and how hard he’s willing to work to get the best song he can possibly get. We wrote one day for eight hours and got fifteen verses on a song we were never going to use, just for the sake of writing.”
One of Danaher’s first memories after moving to Nashville is attending Shamblin’s Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Gala.
“He bought a ticket for me to attend the event, a $200 ticket because someone had done that for him,” Danaher recalled. “I was sitting a table with him, his wife, his first publisher, his kids and his best friend who’d moved up there with him. Five feet away from us was Wynonna Judd who sang, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me.’ And Taylor Swift walked in and sang Alan Jackson’s song because he was getting inducted, as was Garth Brooks that night. I was just floored by that experience, because who gets to do that on your first couple months in town?”
It’s a journey and a ride that’s bittersweet for Danaher, because at every turn, memories and thoughts of his father and brother flood his mind.
“Every time I get a chance to do something in music, I think about opportunities that they might have missed,” Danaher said. “I’m kind of the frontrunner of the family—the very lucky frontrunner who’s getting to go do it. I feel very lucky to carry the torch.”
To still feel lucky after a series of life-changing events such as these is seemingly unfathomable. But Danaher does, and hope and perseverance lie at the heart of his aptly-titled album Still Feel Lucky. They’re also the very things that would no doubt make his father and brother very proud.
Danaher’s Still Feel Lucky is currently available for pre-order on iTunes. This weekend, he’ll play Black Deer Americana and Country Music Festival in the UK alongside Jason Isbell, Iron & Wine, Sam Palladio, Ashley Campbell and Kiefer Sutherland before returning to the states to open for Lori McKenna.