With a Song In His Heart

Danny Mitchell has turned his passion for music into a successful career

Jeanne Nagle | On the Job | January 26, 2022

It’s December of 2016, and self-proclaimed “homebody” Danny Mitchell ’06 is back in Stevens Point for the holidays. He has been in Nashville for the previous eight years, building a solid career as a musical hyphenate (keyboardist-singer-composer-songwriter). Home and hearth are not the only reasons for this visit, however. Mitchell also has a gift to deliver to the hometown folks—his annual Music on a Mission concert, benefitting Frame Memorial Presbyterian Church’s Community Grants Program.

Lo and behold, the universe is about to give Mitchell a special gift of his own. While enjoying a slice or two with his family at Bill’s Pizza on Main Street, he gets a phone call informing him that, after a successful audition and interview, he’s landed a plum gig playing piano and singing backup for country superstar Miranda Lambert.

As far as Mitchell is concerned, that little gem has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving.

“Working with Miranda has been a great joy of my career,” he says. “Over the past five-plus years she has been a wonderful boss, musical collaborator/partner and friend.”

Strictly speaking, the job with Lambert wasn’t so much given to Mitchell as it was well-earned by him.

Virtually every professional musician has stories to tell about paying their dues when first starting out, and Mitchell is no exception. Technically he began performing while still in high school, but it was as a student at UWSP, majoring in jazz studies and composition, that he started to hit his stride. He played on campus and around town, often in bands with other students. Turns out he was no slouch in the composition realm either. Written during his junior year at the university, his wind band composition, “The Dawning of a Soul,” won the 2005 ASCAP H. Robert Reynolds Composer’s Competition, and was subsequently performed at Carnegie Hall by the National Wind Ensemble. He also garnered statewide and national honors in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

After graduation, Mitchell continued honing his chops by performing in and around Wisconsin at festivals and just about every other venue imaginable. “Bars mostly,” he recalls. “And grocery stores, coffee shops, churches, hotels, theaters, flatbed trailers in muddy fields.

“We did a lot of performing and ‘real world’ stuff while at school, but always with some sort of safety net,” he says. “Getting out of the controlled environment and learning the ropes on my own was invaluable.”

As, apparently, was his move to Nashville in 2008. Certain cities are considered hubs within the music industry, based on things such as concentration of musical artists and performance opportunities, as well as proximity to established agents, recording studios and music publishers. Mitchell figured he’d struggle monetarily if he was based in New York City or Los Angeles, and while close to home and reasonably affordable, Chicago was too familiar; he “wanted something different.”

“Once I made the decision to visit Nashville, I was sold,” he says. “It felt like home. It’s one choice in my life I’ve never looked back on with any sort of questioning. It was the right call.”

Photo by John Hartman

While in Tennessee, Mitchell continued on the same career-building path he had been on in Wisconsin—getting his name, face and music out in the public eye and ear. In addition to playing the usual bar gigs, he was able to take advantage of Nashville’s famous songwriter showcases, known as writers rounds. These events highlight a handful of singer-songwriters performing their own songs, each in turn, before a live audience. Among such shows in which Mitchell has been featured was a stint at the legendary Bluebird Café, which is credited with being the home of the writers round concept.

Although the basics of launching and boosting a music career are essentially the same no matter where one lives, Mitchell soon discovered that what had worked in Wisconsin might not be quite as effective within the Nashville music scene.

“In a small market, you can just be really good at what you do,” he says. “But in a major music market, you have to be different. A town like Nashville is bursting at the seams with talent, so how am I any more hirable than the next guy?”

The answer to that riddle, he says, proved to be highlighting his diverse musical skill set, “instead of being a one-trick pony.” Mitchell has been able to market himself as a pianist who can also play horns and sing background vocals, as well as conduct, arrange and produce material.

“The more angles I was hirable from, the more I worked,” he says.

This multifaceted approach has resulted in a steady and reliable workflow over the years, and has filled Mitchell’s bio with impressive career achievements. In addition to touring with Lambert, he has released four albums—self-produced in his Nashville home studio—and remains in demand as a composer and arranger. He has appeared at prestige hot spots such as Chicago’s House of Blues, the Hotel Café in Hollywood and the aforementioned Bluebird; trod the boards of the legendary Grand Ole Opry House; and performed at the 2021 Grammys.

Mitchell is equally proud of other career undertakings that may not have the same “wow” factor as those items, which he calls his “marquee successes.”

“I’ve been fortunate to have some things/names that look good on paper,” he says. “But some of my favorite musical accomplishments are so under the radar. Unknown artists I’ve gotten to work with that are just amazing. Pieces I’ve written for younger school bands. Things I’ve written that have yet to see the light of day. I’ve learned that it’s okay for the really powerful stuff to be more private, and to remain there.”

All in all, not bad for a guy who had originally planned to become an engineer. Mitchell had been accepted at another college, but declined that offer in favor of securing late admission to UWSP, where he joined the music department.

Asked to explain the last-minute switch, he says, “I love math and science. Still do. But I was at least partially making decisions based on being practical, getting a degree in a field where I knew I could get a job. I was passionate about music, and needed to at least give that a shot or I’d regret it.”

Turns out that was a wise move … and Mitchell knows it.

“I’m very lucky to have a ‘job’ that is such an extension of who I am.”


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