The sun begins to slip away on a warm Friday evening in Marathon. At Skipjack’s Resort, a friendly woman at a poolside table offers bug spray to someone doing battle with the no-see-ums at the tiki bar.
Next to the bar, four musicians set up microphones and instruments: an acoustic guitar, a dobro, a pouch full of harmonicas – and a gigantic standup bass.
Four Sheets to the Wind begins to play. The sun sets. The bugs go away.
Before the first set is over, the woman tending bar is very busy. Most of the seats around the tiki bar are full. There are few empty chairs at the tables between the pool and the band.
Four Sheets to the Wind, like most successful acts in the Keys, offers something unique. You get three-part harmony, dobro – and that homemade bass – and a set list that includes the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Chris Stapleton and Jimmy Buffett.
“You have to be a little different,” said Donnie McDaniel, who plays guitar and sings lead with the band. “You’ve got a lot of bands that play rock. You don’t have a lot of three-part harmony.”
Members have come and gone, but the band has had the same lineup for three seasons: McDaniel, Dan Newhall, Penny Newhall and Tony Palmer.
“We’re all friends,” said McDaniel. “That’s contagious. When people see us up there having fun, they have fun.”
“Fun is Number 1,” agreed Penny Newhall, who wears a flower in her hair, sings harmony, sometimes plays keyboard, and takes over playing bass when her husband Dan plays harmonica.
“Interaction with the audience is the biggest thing,” said Palmer. “No matter how good or how bad, no matter how much money, there’s nothing better than at the end of the night someone comes up and says, ‘You know, I really enjoyed your playing.’ Even if it’s just one person.”
The band’s gigs generally start around the first of the year, when the Newhalls arrive in Marathon from their home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Palmer, who plays guitar, dobro and pedal steel guitar, spends most of the year on Big Pine Key, with the warm months in his native Rhode Island. McDaniel, who lives on his boat based at Bonefish Marine on Coco Plum, is from central Indiana.
Even though he handles the patter between songs and takes lead vocals, McDaniel had “never been in a band” before Four Sheets. He’d sung in a gospel quartet and played with folks for fun.
“It doesn’t get old to me,” he said. “But I also make rookie mistakes.” If he’s not focused on the song he’s singing, “I tend to let my mind wander and I can miss lyrics.
“I feel like I’m a better entertainer than I am a singer or musician.”
He gets help from the harmonies supplied by the Newhalls. Married since 1975, they’ve been performing together for decades.
Both have been making music in some way virtually since childhood.
“I would personally be just as happy (singing) in my living room, as long as I had the other two parts,” said Penny. “I would sing a cappella.”
Dan echoed his wife: “I do it for my own pleasure,” he said. His sister happens to be visiting the Keys and, with a nod to her, he said, “We started singing with our mother.”
Both Penny and Dan have performed extensively in Virginia.
With Four Sheets, Penny said, “we have developed this elaborate choreography” when they trade the bass back and forth when Dan is going to play harmonica.
Palmer switches instruments, too, between dobro and electric guitar. (He also plays pedal steel guitar, an instrument he taught himself to play – and learned so well that in 2006 he was inducted into the Rhode Island Country Music Hall of Fame on that instrument.)
“I consider myself an average guitar player and an average dobro player,” he said, “and a very good musician,” noting he can learn songs quickly and understands their structure.
“I’ve played a couple thousand gigs in my lifetime,” Palmer said, “but through this band I really learned that it’s all about the vocals. I really adjusted my playing.”
The band can also adjust on the fly, quickly inserting a requested song into a set or changing things up if the crowd warrants it.
“Virtually every song we play at one time was either a number one hit or a top 10 hit,” said Palmer, “so these are songs that people really enjoy.”
“We play to our crowd,” said McDaniel. “When the crowd’s really into the music, then that’s just magic to me.”
Four Sheets to the Wind plays Fridays at Sparky’s Landing and Saturdays at Skipjack’s; for other gigs, check out the group’s Facebook page.