Actress Has Her Sights Set on a Musical Career

Lots of people would like to trade places with Mare Winningham. The Emmy-winning actress has appeared in a long string of successful TV and theatrical movies and has no trouble finding work.

Still, she would be tempted by a career trade--if the offer came from an established recording artist.

Winningham and her band will play two sets Wednesday at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks. The appearance is part of her determined, if slow-developing, effort to move away from acting.

“I’m dreaming of having it take up all my time that my family doesn’t,” Winningham, 31, said of music.

A singer, guitarist and songwriter, she said her style is “folk, as much as it’s anything.”


Matt Kramer, talent coordinator for At My Place, has a long acquaintance with Winningham’s music. She has performed intermittently at the Santa Monica nightclub for nine years and will return April 16.

“She’s kind of in the folk-pop vein,” Kramer said. “She’s not as folky as your classic Judy Collins and not as dark as Suzanne Vega, but she’s very contemporary.”

Mary Winningham--Mare is a nickname--grew up in the San Fernando Valley and lives with her husband and five children in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. She began learning guitar in the fourth grade, often played in bands with friends and sang in the Chatsworth High School choir.

“I was always in the folk sensibility, even when it was very unhip,” she said.

Her mother has taught English and counseled at various Valley junior high schools. Her father has taught at Cal State Northridge, where he headed the physical education department for 10 years. Winningham started acting during three summers in CSUN’s Teen-Age Drama Workshop.

Her first TV movie was “Special Olympics” with Charles Durning in 1978. She won an Emmy for best supporting actress for “Amber Waves” in 1980. Her first big-screen appearance, also in 1980, was in “One Trick Pony,” starring Paul Simon.

Winningham continues to work often. This month, she completed two TV movies. One of them, “She Stands Alone,” about an 1830s school for blacks in Connecticut, is set to air April 15 on NBC. But Winningham’s heart is in her music, not acting.

“I try not to think about it as either/or, but I do wish the balance was going more to music,” she said.

Her all-acoustic group is made up of Dan Ferguson on guitar, Joel Hamilton on bass, M. B. Gordy on drums and Murielle Hodler-Hamilton on piano. The group plans to cut a 12-song demo album in San Francisco this year and look for a recording contract. All the songs were written by Winningham.

Kramer thinks Winningham has a good shot at building a musical career.

“When you book someone who is a very successful actress, you’re afraid of getting someone who’s taken voice lessons and does a boring lounge show,” he said. “But the neat thing about Mare is she’s a very real person. She plays guitar well enough to support her songs, and as a writer, her songs have depth and meaning.”

Mare Winningham and her band will play at 9 and 11 p.m. Wednesday at the Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Cover charge $8; two-drink minimum. Information: (818) 986-2662.