This story ran in the January/February 2010 issue of The Iowan and won the gold award for Culture Feature from the International Regional Magazine Association (IRMA).
IOWA BLUES COLOR THE HEARTLAND
Story by Peter Wilson; Photography by Scott Allen, Julie Staub, and Cliff Thompson
The Bob Pace Band is tearing down the house tonight.
With a swagger in his step, the front man backs away from the microphone and begins a musical conversation between his guitar and his audience. The drummer, bassist, and keyboard player lay down a backbeat as Pace takes his guitar for an improvisational stroll, squeezing out searing guitar leads. His expressive play is both call and response.
One line of chords is contemplative, stating a simple fact in civilized tones, ending with the equivalent of “What do you have to say about that?” Pace pauses for a brief second, taking his hand off the strings before answering, then attacks his fretboard, bending off piercing screams in response that have him up on his toes trying to eke out the high notes. With the slightest nod to his band, they come roaring back into the mix with a vengeance, raining a sea of blues down upon the room.
Standing a solid six feet tall with a lean build, close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and circular wire-rimmed glasses, Pace, 54, bears a passing resemblance to Eric Clapton, especially when he picks up a Fender Stratocaster. He grits his teeth and kicks his foot into the air as he deftly wields his guitar and commands the music. The crowd surrounding the stage cheers for more, and Pace returns to the microphone and finishes off the tune.
I want to rent my soul to the devil
Much of downtown Des Moines is sleepy on a Tuesday night, but not the intersection of 15th and Grand. Perched on the corner is the hardest-working blues club in Iowa. With its neon sign glowing and the unmistakable sound of wailing guitars spilling out onto the streets, Blues on Grand has been delivering the area’s best live blues performers since 1992.
Home of the legendary Blues Jam every Thursday night, where emerging artists and accomplished players alike can get their riffs off, Blues on Grand books live blues at least five nights a week and takes great pride in encouraging original music from a balanced attack of national, local, and regional players.
Inside, this ain’t no gussied-up country club; it’s dark and dingy with framed photos of famous musicians disjointedly mounted on the wall by the stage. The air is thick with history from the good times, bad times, and hard times had by all who have passed through the door. The back room houses the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame — a shrine defined by graffiti-covered walls, doors, and ceiling. This place reeks of the blues.
Behind the bar, under a sign declaring, “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder,” owner Jeff Wagner is pouring shots (a few for himself) and generous portions of his encyclopedic knowledge of blues performers. “There’s something about the blues that reaches into your heart and draws you in,” he explains. “There’s no other form of music that does that.”
Iowa’s Hybrid Sound
Discussions about blues music hot spots often revolve around the usual suspects — Chicago, Memphis, and the Mississippi Delta. Yet with Iowa’s eastern border defined by the Mississippi River (a main artery traveled by the original blues masters coming out of the South) and the state sitting at a crossroads, equidistant to several large metropolitan areas like Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Omaha, Iowa has developed its own blues tradition.
How this blackest of musical genres found its way into one of the whitest states can be explained by a combination of forces: Iowa’s proximity to major blues-migration towns like St. Louis, Chicago, and Kansas City; the state’s location on the river and railroad networks traveled by musicians; and the discoveries by local musicians of Delta-based recordings from the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.
The blues originated in the Mississippi Delta as a form of protest music developed by slaves. After their emancipation, these Delta sharecroppers headed north, resulting in large African American populations being established in Memphis, St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago.
As these people migrated, so did their music. After being exposed to urban living and industrialization, the rural-based acoustic instruments were electrified to compete with the noise of streetcars, factories, and the towering concrete landscapes that echoed the sounds of big-city living.
Iowa, like Mississippi, is a rural-based state where life can be challenging. Livelihoods depend on working land that’s susceptible to drought and flood. This pastoral countryside of farmland doesn’t necessitate an electric sound, but it’s here all the same. A slow progression of blues, rock, country, honky-tonk, and folk music has drifted into the state and commingled with the corn-fed inspiration found in Iowa, simmering into a unique hybrid of heartland blues.
The sound and lyrics tell the tale of small-town living, about one-stoplight towns with shuttered businesses, places that in the near future will cease to exist. The songs depict life on the farm, the cycle of birth and death, the hardship of a lost harvest, the relief of a good summer rain, the salvation of a strong batch of sweet corn whiskey. It’s also about people and simple pleasures, like a summer picnic with family and friends, playing some music, and shaking your tail feathers.
Tell me who’s that girl
“It’s about dancing,” says Joe Price, a veteran blues player and Iowa Blues Hall of Fame member who wrote “The Iowa Crawl.” “People love to dance out here. This ain’t no Chicago, but the scene here is alive and well.”
Rarely seen without his trusty ball cap on, or a National Resophonic steel guitar within arm’s reach, Price is a picker and slide guitar man extraordinaire. Captivated by electrified country blues, he bends a mind-numbing set of notes and accompanies his playing in near-defunct street-corner fashion by slapping his feet on the stage to create a tremendous display of sound and fury.
Now living in the northeast corner of the state, on the Mississippi River in Lansing, Price has been churning out his unique version of gutbucket country blues for over 35 years. “Chicago had a big impact here. Those blues singers from Chicago came through here in the late ’60s and all through the ’70s and ’80s.
It was such an impact on the white kids,” remembers Price. “You gotta remember there wasn’t no CDs out of these guys like Muddy Waters and such. You had to seek them out and buy their records off the stage when they played.”
Artists like John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, Hound Dog Taylor, and Koko Taylor would travel along Interstate 80 through Illinois and Iowa on their way out to California and would make stops in the Quad Cities, Iowa City, and Des Moines, exposing crowds to their homespun styles and attitude.
That’s an impact Iowa has never felt again (and probably never will because most of the original blues masters have passed away), but their influence lives on in several generations of current Iowa musicians.
Price, 58, began his career in Waterloo, where he had the fortune to meet Earl Hooker, one of the greatest slide guitar players to ever live. Hooker, whose cousin was John Lee Hooker, moved to Waterloo for a time, and Price would catch him gigging in music stores.
Once he saw the slide, there was no going back.
“Earl showed me how open tuning went and told me to get a bike handlebar to use for a slide,” says Price. “So I ran over to my neighbor’s house and pulled the plastic thing off the handle and sawed the metal end off.”
He’s been twanging ever since.
On the Margins
While there is an established blues scene in Iowa, it remains a work in progress. Joe Price is right; this isn’t Chicago. Rural-based Iowa lacks such population density and racial diversity, which makes finding gigs and drawing consistent crowds a problem.
Iowa is a conservative state, and work comes before play. Going out to hear live music is often a distant priority — even more so in the rural areas, where the night sky is stone dark along those small country roads and nothing is close by.
Much of Iowa’s current blues scene is found in Des Moines and in the eastern portion of the state, particularly in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and along the eastern border in the strong river communities of Dubuque, the Quad Cities, and Burlington. Yet here, too, are only a select number of live blues venues — clubs that cater to blues acts or that might host a weekly blues night. In the strictest sense, Blues on Grand in Des Moines is a blues club.
In Iowa City there’s the Mill; Dubuque has the Busted Lift; Davenport hosts the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival; Burlington offers the Washington/Blue Shop; out in desolate Pomeroy there’s Byron’s. It’s a patchwork quilt of audiences, pockets across the state that support and maintain the blues music scene.
Furthermore, this genre’s ability to promote itself is sometimes hampered by its biggest advocates: The blues community is not its own best promoter. The modern era of blues music dates to the 1960s, when the counterculture revolution was unfolding, and feelings of mistrust remain for a group that hasn’t always played well with authority.
It’s a group that prefers to play on the margins and is more comfortable putting in long hours to put on top-notch events than approaching corporate sponsors. Unlike a younger generation of alternative music enthusiasts who have built successful community partnerships and sponsorships, the blues scene remains underground. Conversely, some cities fail to recognize and embrace these artists as treasured assets.
“We are today’s past-hippie generation. We’re anti-corporate and don’t want to sell out,” said Terry Cole, president of the Central Iowa Blues Society. “We’re not big self-promoters, and I’m not sure we ever will be good at that.”
Despite hindrances, Iowa does have its own intrinsic strengths that have built the state’s brand of music and assist in its preservation. Artists like Greg Brown, Pieta Brown, Dave Moore, the Prices, Bo Ramsey, David Zollo, Bob Black, and Al Murphy, to name a few, could relocate to Nashville, Chicago, Memphis, or Los Angeles to seek greater reward, but they don’t. Iowa’s rural dynamic works for them and keeps an audience hungry for their brand of entertainment.
“Music has changed a lot in Iowa since we began playing,” says guitarist Vicki Price, Joe Price’s musical partner and wife of 25 years. “Used to be everyone played country, country rock, or folk music. Now they’re mostly all blues players.”
On the Horizon
“You have a lot of good young players coming up like Dustin Busch and Matt Woods, along with a few of us crusty old guys still around,” says Joe Price, referring to players like fellow Iowa Blues Hall of Fame inductees Bob Dorr, Patrick Hazell, Catfish Keith, and Bo Ramsey, and veterans like R.L. Burnside’s family and Kevin “BF” Burt.
One of the fresh characters on the horizon is William Elliott Whitmore. This 30-year-old singer-songwriter lives in a cabin converted from an old corncrib down on the banks of the Mississippi outside of Montrose in southeast Iowa. Here, lacking electricity or running water, Whitmore lives a simple life, stark and functional, like his music, surrounded by the land he loves.
Don’t alter my altar, don’t desecrate my shrine
He represents the alternative wing of the heartland blues community. His roots are in punk rock, but after losing both his parents when he was young, Whitmore listened to his rustic soul and embarked on a roots music career.
He learned about music by listening to his parents, who were both players, and by mining their record collection. This allowed him to gain exposure to the likes of Ray Charles, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, and Hank Williams. These traditional influences have now combined with his passion for hard-core and punk music, creating a category-defying brand of alt-country blues.
“My roots are in country and blues, but I wanted to be in this punk band that played really fast and sang about political things, but it never felt quite right. So I decided to leave that up to the experts and I’d go back to what I know, and that’s playing roots music,” says Whitmore.
With a cast-iron voice that sounds more akin to a 60-year-old African American that’s been chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and sipping corn whiskey his whole life, Whitmore delivers his tales of sin and redemption in frenetic fashion, like a whistling freight train barreling down the tracks.
Whitmore’s folk-punk authenticity resonates within the alienated culture of the hard-core scene and with the traditionalists’ notion of an edgy folk singer. Often played solo, with only a guitar or banjo to keep him company, his live shows are electrifying in their minimalism. Such performances have garnered him a devoted following of hipsters, punks, folkies, and blues loyalists alike.
Back on the stage at Blues on Grand, Bob Pace continues to shred guitar licks. While he’s one of the premier guitar talents in Iowa, Pace is also one of the least well-known. But that may soon change. Pace and 2005 Iowa Blues Hall of Fame inductee Steve George, together performing as the Midnight Dogs, won the 2009 Iowa Blues Challenge in the solo/duo category.
The Midnight Dogs — along with the Avey Brothers, who were winners in the band category — will travel in January to Memphis to compete against acts from around the world in the International Blues Challenge. “It’s just plain cool and a validation — like a gauge of where I am as a musician,” says Pace about his win in the Iowa Blues Challenge. “We have a pretty healthy blues scene in Iowa. People from out of town are surprised by our quality of blues, but it’s everyone in the blues societies that keeps this alive — they’re here every night.”
An Iowa Sound Shaped by a Musical Heritage
Blues fans recognize the sound of Chicago blues. If they visit blues clubs in St. Louis or Kansas City, they know the sounds will be uniquely different.
According to Coralville blues artist Kevin “BF” Burt, Iowa is developing its own distinctive blues voice — and he’s helping to shape it. “Iowa has a solid history as part of the blues touring circuit,” says Burt. “Black blues artists who played the Chitlin’ Circuit in the South knew they’d find an audience in Waterloo, Clinton, Burlington, and back in its day, Buxton.” Blues artists out of Chicago also came to Iowa, playing the state as a hub before heading out to Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Omaha.
Early on, Burt seemed an unlikely person to influence the sound of Iowa blues. Though his brother played bass in a funkadelic group and his parents hosted after-hours blues get-togethers in their home, Burt saw his path defined by sports. It was only after injuries forced him out of professional football in Canada that he tapped his passion for music. A coworker overheard Burt singing to himself and convinced him to contribute vocals to her son’s blues band, The Instigators.
“The ability to sing and play is a gift,” says Burt. “The opportunity to do it is a blessing.”
Blues lovers who hear Burt perform, either solo or with the band, experience an emerging Iowa blues sound that blends jazz, funk, and rock with the more unique Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City blues. “Iowa blues is influenced by all the music around us,” says Burt, who performs both solo and with the Instigators, the band that won the 1994 Iowa Blues Challenge. “We’re developing an Iowa blues sound that makes the transition smooth between all the styles.”
Burt seemingly takes advantage of every opportunity; he has played an average of 325 shows every year for the past decade. Since Iowa has many blues societies and hosts one of the nation’s largest blues festivals, Burt acknowledges that he could play exclusively in the state. Instead he prefers to play all over the country.
“People are surprised when they find out I’m from Iowa. It’s just not expected here. I want to help establish that quality of blues, to set that standard of what’s expected of blues in Iowa.”
Burt’s efforts have been recognized in many ways. He represented Iowa at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., during the state’s 1996 sesquicentennial. He’s shared his strategy for self-taught harp playing in a book now used in several schools. As an artist registered with the Iowa Arts Council, Burt is known as one of the Midwest’s top blues heritage educators. — Carol Bodensteiner
Getting the Word Out
Helping bridge the spectrum of the state’s blues players are Iowa’s blues and folk societies, which promote the numerous brands of blues-, folk-, and country-influenced players and keep the music alive.
The Mississippi Valley Blues Society, located in Davenport, has the largest following and is host of the annual Mississippi Blues Festival each July. It’s considered by many national blues publications to be among the top blues festivals in the country. In addition to hosting part of the Iowa Blues Challenge, the society also provides a very active Blues in the Schools program to help expose and educate children about the art form of blues-related music.
In 1992 the Central Iowa Blues Society was founded by 200 dedicated blues enthusiasts who wanted to improve the blues scene in Des Moines. Its enrollment has swelled to over 800; the society delivers news and information through The Blues Crier newsletter, sponsors the winners of the Iowa Blues Challenge to compete in the Memphis International Blues Challenge, and hosts winter and fall festivals. Members also work in conjunction with Jeff Wagner at Blues on Grand to run the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.
“Iowa has had three artists in the last six years make the finals at the International Blues Challenge, and in 2002 Blues on Grand received the Memphis Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive award for the best blues club in the nation,” says Terry Cole, president of the Central Iowa Blues Society. “The blues are strong in Iowa, but nobody really knows about it.”
The difference for many acts out in the central and western reaches of Iowa is that artists need to have day jobs because there aren’t enough gigs to make music a career. Here’s where the blues societies can help. The Lizard Creek Blues Society in Fort Dodge and the South Skunk Blues Society in Newton can set up gigs for artists in remote locations. Earlier this year the folk-oriented Brushy Creek Friends of Traditional Music set up a couple shows for Joe and Vicki Price at independent coffee shops in Fort Dodge and Carroll.
“We’re a point of communication for members, artists, and fans,” says Cole of the various support entities. “We’re all volunteers here and have full-time jobs, but this is one big family, and we want to get the word out about the blues.”