Dorothy Daniel is a singer-songwriter who along with her husband Ben DeBerry comprises the critically acclaimed Americana duo The Danberrys. An engaging and inspirational figure, recently Daniel and I spoke by phone about her struggles to overcome childhood sexual abuse, stage fright, and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and about The Danberrys’ exceptional new album Shine and the healing power of music. Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, is below.
Americana Highways: You have been very open about having stage fright as a child. How did you overcome it and is it something that you still deal with?
Dorothy Daniel: I think I deal with it a lot better now than I used to. I think all artists have a little bit of stage fright because it’s just part of human nature. Mine was a really debilitating kind, which I found out later was really a result of the PTSD that was caused by me being sexually abused as a child. I overcame it by forcing myself to do something that scared me every day. Even though getting on stage was the scariest thing I could do, I still joined the choir and sang when people asked me to sing at different functions.
When my husband and I got married I was still struggling with it. When we got married he was a very busy local musician around Nashville and he would always ask me to get up on stage and sing with him, which I did, even though it terrified me. And when we started our band and started playing gigs at festivals and other places, even though it mortified me, I still just kept doing it. I think what also helped me overcome it was one day realizing that I am still here, that I am still alive and that people are actually liking my singing. My healing from the abuse has helped me too because as I have healed and grown as an individual, my confidence on stage has grown as well.
I realize now that I have this strength inside of me that I didn’t recognize or appreciate for a really long time. I also think I didn’t appreciate the fact, until years later, that I had pushed myself so hard for so long to face my fears. I think that sometimes when you are in the middle of fighting something heavy and horrible like that it’s easy to not give yourself enough credit for what it takes to wage your daily battles.
AH: When you were 24, you were also diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Can you talk about the events leading up to that diagnosis and how alternative medicine and alternative therapies became your healing strategy?
DD: I had experienced really bad muscle tension in my body my entire life. I didn’t really realize how bad it was, because you know when you are a kid, you really only have your own experience to go by, so I didn’t know that everybody didn’t feel the way I did. Like my stage fright, it was also brought on by my PTSD.
It is a common thing that when you suffer a lot of trauma that your body tends to want to guard your heart by pulling your shoulders in and forward. With your brain constantly being in fight or flight mode because of PTSD, it is constantly pumping cortisol and other stress hormones into your body, which eventually makes your muscles freeze in what they call trigger point patterns.
My muscles were pulling my bones together so hard that they were crushing my brachial plexus, which is a group of nerves that come from the spinal cord in the neck and travel down the arm. These nerves control the muscles of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand, as well as provide feeling in the arm. Or to put it another way, the brachial plexus is what controls the blood flow to your arms that fills up in your nerves.
Because my nerves were being crushed like this, the pain got so bad that I couldn’t work at my day job of being an accountant or do simple things like washing my hair or buttoning my pants. It was a really dark time in my life and I was only 24 like you said.
At the time, thinking that it was a purely physical problem, I went to the Vanderbilt Orthopedic clinic to see if they could diagnose what was wrong with me. They couldn’t. After running a bunch of tests on me which were inconclusive and putting me through physical therapy, which my body didn’t respond to, they basically told me that there was nothing else they could do for me.
They basically recommended that I find a doctor who could start prescribing pain medication to me because I was probably going to be disabled for the rest of my life.
I didn’t handle that news very well. I was very angry at the world and very depressed and feeling incredibly suicidal. It was at this point, my husband Ben, who I consider a guardian angel of mine, told me that I needed to quit my job as an accountant and that we needed to figure out what was wrong with me and that we needed to do whatever it took to get me well again. He would not let me give up and on days when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed because of my depression, he would come into our bedroom and start playing some Al Green and start dancing around the bed, and yank me up out of bed and dance with me.
He really pulled me up by my bootstraps at that time and together we decided we were not going to take my condition or my diagnosis as final. He was adamant in telling me that we were going to figure it out and fix it.
With his love and guidance, I started reading a lot of Wayne Dyer and other mind over matter type books and even though I was initially skeptical about alternative medicine and therapies, I eventually started doing massage therapy, acupuncture, and acupressure, all which helped alleviate some of the physical pain that I was feeling.
Eventually, after a meeting with a therapist, I was able to take what she said to me, do my own research and determine that my physical ailments were indeed a direct result of the PTSD, which of course, as I said earlier, was a direct result of the sexual abuse I had suffered as a child.
Healing from that kind of abuse is difficult because sometimes the silence and the secrecy surrounding it is just as bad if not worse, than the abuse itself because you can get attacked emotionally for just talking about it and oftentimes you feel victim’s shame. It’s just a vicious circle that never seems to end and although it is sometimes hard to talk about it, I do talk about it because I can. There are so many victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse who can’t talk about it for a variety of reasons. I talk about my abuse because I think they need to hear that you can overcome it. I am living proof.
AH: Your new album “Shine” which was originally supposed to have been released in May is now being released on July 24th. It has a different sound than your previous releases. Was that a conscious decision on yours and Ben’s part or did it just come about when you started writing the songs and saw that they were going in a certain musical direction?
DD: I would say kind of both. We knew that we wanted to kind of move away from the straight-up acoustic and string band sound because that can be very restricting. We also knew that we wanted to bring in more layers sonically speaking. When we wrote the songs there was also a realization on my part that these were big songs. They needed a lot of background singers, they needed bass, and they needed badass drums.We knew that we needed the music to step up and meet the grandiosity of a lot of these songs because a lot of them were ballads.
Our drummer Marco Giovino, who I consider to be one of the best drummers in the world and who also was our producer for the record, obviously had a lot to do with the resultant sound of the record. With the way he drapes his drums, he doesn’t play like a lot of other traditional drummers play. Rhythm has always been a big part of our sound and we wanted to keep it and combine it with the electric elements, the drums, and other stuff. We wanted a sound that would sound almost tribal and he really helped us achieve the sound we were looking for.
AH: This is the first album that you and Ben co-wrote every song together, albeit with a little bit of help from others. Can you describe what that process was like?
DD: Ben and I had always just written our songs separately and then took them to the other person and if the other person liked them, we would then take them to our band. And that’s how it would always work. So, if I was going to sing the song I wrote it. If Ben was going to sing the song, he wrote it and that’s how a lot of our older records are.
With this record, our executive producer, Brian Brinkerhoff, insisted that we co-write the songs together, which we were cool with because we had actually never done that before. We called upon an old friend, the wonderful bluegrass singer-songwriter Jon Weisberger to help us and he really taught us how to write songs with each other. He showed us how to commit to finishing a song, how to communicate with each other as songwriters, and how to speak to each other as professional songwriting partners. After working with Jon it really gave us a lot of confidence in our ability to write songs together and now going forward, Ben and I want to write all of our songs together.
AH: On the title track to the new album, you sing the wonderful lyrics “Sometimes darkness may roam / Shine, shine wherever it goes”. Would you say that this is the overall message of the album – that you have to be proactive in eradicating the darkness you experience in the world?
DD: Yes, I think that you nailed it with that assessment. It is the overriding and unmistakable message of this album. It’s really the overriding message of everything we have ever done. It’s our mantra. We are never going to write puffy, happy, or one hundred percent feel-good kind of music because that doesn’t reflect our life experiences. I think that part of our purpose as human beings on this planet is to show each other, by relating our own experiences, that you can overcome the darkness that is in the world. You have to keep going and you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and you have to be always reaching for something bigger than yourself. If you can do that, it can be done and it will be done. We are not going to heal from all of the hurt in the world as individuals or as a society if we keep turning away from the darkness. You have to walk right into the middle of it and confront it head-on.
AH: How would you best describe the power of music and its ability to help you overcome life’s obstacles?
DD: Oh my God, it’s everything. I think about this a lot. There is a mystical and metaphysical power and a certain healing quality to music. I was just thinking about this yesterday because I was in a bad mood because of all the things going on in the world and I put on Al Green’s ”Lay It Down” and I just sat there and sobbed while listening to it. It helped me release all of the emotions that I was feeling and just holding onto. I think music moves the emotion out of your body. It heals in that way and I don’t think the lyrics even matter sometimes. Sometimes it’s the words but other times it’s just the rhythm or the beat of it. Yesterday for me it was the words “Lay it down / Let it go / Fall in love”. In that song, Al Green was singing about something totally different but to me, I heard “Let it go / Lay it down / Fall back in love with life / Fall back in love with yourself / Fall back in love with this world”. I just think that music is everything and it’s like the fabric of life. I think everything in the world is built upon sound, everything is vibration and I think that is why music talks to us the way it does in its mystical, magical way. It’s in our subconscious and speaks to the part of us that goes beyond ourselves.