Cosy Sheridan was dreaming. She'd broken up with her partner of two decades, a songwriter and poet named TR Ritchie. And now here was Ritchie — "He was a big, strong man," Sheridan says — lifting a dead cherry tree out of the ground in front of the house they used to share in Moab, Utah. And beneath that tree, in the hole left in the ground? Gold.
Sheridan has a new album, Pretty Bird, and Ritchie had certainly been a big part of it. "People talk about this being your divorce album," she says. But that notion was dismissed in part by the dream. "Here's a dead tree that turned into something positive," Sheridan says. Just as a sad turn of life led her to visit Richie once last time. "I had to stop being mad at him," she says. "We spent two days wrapping things up. Because I knew what was happening."
So Pretty Bird, and all of the negative things it could have been, had evolved into something positive, songs to be sung Saturday at Rochester Christian Reformed Church. They are personal songs, joining a catalog of work that is often quite funny. A serious folk singer who's been played on the Dr. Demento radio show. "If you can do something that gets a laugh," she says, "you can get away with anything."
Just ask the neutered protagonist of "The True and Terrible Trials of Waldo the Dog."
Sheridan is into meditation, yoga, hiking. "Quiet things," she says, and out of those moments come songs. "It's almost mystical how these images come out of us." She passes it on as best she can, through adult music classes around the country. "It's giving adults access to creativity," she says. "People with a busy life don't have a lot of experience looking into their own interior."
She felt it at an early age. "My grandfather played piano," Sheridan says. "I would sit under the piano when he was playing. And I sensed then, the room feels different. It feels energized."
The lesson? "A song is a three-minute piece of energy that you're bringing into the world."
"I found I was writing in my 20s what a lot of people in their 20s write, longing love songs. But I stopped having the energy to sing those kinds of songs, because I was in a loving relationship." She discovered mythology as a songwriting tool. And ideas that people can connect with. Co-opting ancient mythology. The environment. Women's body image, that's been a big one for Sheridan. It started with "The Losing Game."
"I had an eating disorder as an adolescent," she says. "I thought, 'This song is way too personal, no one is going to want to hear this.' This was 1989 or '90, there wasn't much stuff out there about body image in the media."
"The Losing Game" helped her overcome her own problem, "because I noticed I wasn't the only woman who felt that way about my body. When I finished the song, three-quarters of the women in the room are looking me in eye and saying, 'Yeah, that's me, too.'
"And I thought, 'Oh, I can be useful.' "
She's since followed up with songs about anatomically correct Barbie dolls. And "The Botox Tango," a reality of aging that she came face to face with when, "One woman offered to inject me at a concert during the break."
And Sheridan found out she could be useful yet again, in December 2013, when she heard that Ritchie had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
They'd had solo careers, and had played together, she on guitar, he on bass. Ritchie had been a major part of her life, but was now completely exorcized from her existence. "That doesn't correspond to any shape I was taught as a child," she says. "Life had given me cues as to how a human being is to react in a certain situation. This sort of challenged all of that.
"I had to realize: You are really mad at somebody who is not going to be there."
So she went out to Washington state, where Ritchie had moved and was now living with another woman, rebuilding his life only to see it now ending. "He told me, 'You're in charge of my history now,' " Sheridan says. "He was a songwriter and poet, a man in his 60s with no children. And he had created this stuff. If you're a writer you say, 'My books are in the library.' If you're a songwriter, it's not obvious. People don't have a sense of what your art is. It's more nebulous."
It matters because, as Sheridan says, "Your songs are your children."
"We did a tribute concert in Moab. It was helpful for the town, we'd been public people in town until that awful ending, when we both left. I was reading his poems in concert for a while. I did the best job I could by him as a human being.
"I do end up talking about him from time to time. But there was another woman, the official widow, and I'm happily married now to another man."
She'd met Charlie Koch, a student at one of her songwriting camps. "He was the good thing that happened after this nasty breakup," Sheridan says. "My life has taken a dramatic turn, I feel like I have a vibrant life, actually. My life is actually quite different than when I was living in a little town in the Utah desert."
Now she and Koch live in New England. He'll be the bass player at Saturday's show, and the inspiration for "Charlie is My Darling" and "Sweet Animal," songs that took Pretty Bird away from being just the divorce album.
"There's nothing more passive-aggressive than living with a songwriter," Sheridan says. "You take something that is personal and write it for 100 strangers."