Shredding the Pea Patch with Music Critic Jim Musser

thIn January of 1997 Pat Boone released a comeback recording of sorts.  With God in his heart and leather on his mind Boone paid homage to several heavy metal classics on, In A Metal Mood – No More Mr. Nice Guy.

Jim Musser responded to this natural disaster on behalf of music lovers everywhere in his February ICON magazine review entitled, That Giant Sucking Sound.  Cutting to the heart of the matter Musser declared, “Only an asshole would buy this record, just as only an asshole could have made it.”

Boone responded tersely comparing Musser to a ‘dung beetle.’  Having drawn such malevolent praise from the likes of Boone, Musser felt a career as a rock music critic might have possibilities after all.

Jim resides in a cramped ground floor apartment on the east side of Iowa City.  It’s a simple life and he likes it that way.  Compact discs cover most every open surface.  Two stacks of CD’s sit atop the television still awaiting review.  Behind the CD’s are albums.  Not as many as before.  There had been over 6,000, but moving them became too difficult and most were discarded.

Flanked by framed pictures of Miles Davis and Johnny Cash, Musser assumes the mantle of music guru.  At 55-years-old he’s put on a pound or two, the beard is graying, and his knees have seen better days, but a rebellious glint remains in his eye.

Next year will be Musser’s tenth anniversary of providing musical commentary for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.  It’s been responsible for paying his rent ever since he took the job in April of 1998.  He’s also been a contributing writer to No Depression, a bimonthly music magazine out of Seattle, for about the same length of time.  These are jobs he holds in addition to being a school bus driver and a full-time dad.

Although known for his insightful commentary Musser is a music fan first.  The writing is a manifestation of his passion for the music.

Raised in Hampton, IA, Musser began writing album reviews as a form of entertainment when he was a young teen.  His father exposed him to the likes of Cab Calloway, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra.  His sister and her teenybopper girlfriends took care of the popular music angle, spinning Chuck Berry singles whenever they babysat him.

After initially attending Central College in Pella, Musser followed his eventual first wife to the University of Iowa.  The college thing didn’t work out, nor did the marriage, but Iowa City had a solid underground music scene and this allowed for further expansion of Musser’s musical horizons.

He took a job with BJ Records, a well-regarded local music store, and had a slot in the rotation at the university’s radio station, which together provided him sufficient musical nourishment.

“We were always doing lists on what or who was best, you know best guitarist, drummer or band,” said Musser.  “It’s not meaningful, but it makes you listen closer.”

It was about finding that undiscovered band, that golden nugget in the rough that few others knew existed that moved Musser.  When NRBQ’s first album came out in 1969 they had an eclectic sound completely different from what the mainstream was pushing.  This focused Musser’s attention onto smaller bands that were being overlooked by the trend conscious music industry.

“They’re not good because they’re famous, they should be famous because they are so good,” said Musser.  “It’s easy to like Pearl Jam, we were looking for the obscure, to bring them up to the surface.”

His career reviewing albums started simply enough.  He would type them out on carbon paper to send to his friends.  Musser’s real start came in 1981 after reading a review in the Daily Iowan of a Steve Cropper record.  This prompted a five page letter to the editor about how terribly misinformed the reviewer had been.  Soon after Musser had his first job as a music critic.

There have been some detours along the way.  The Daily Iowan job only lasted two years.  There were a couple stints with Craig Kessler’s Chicago record store, Swingville Jazz, and That’s Rentertainment in Champaign, IL and Iowa City.  But it was during these detours that Jim met Deb, his wife now of 23 years.

When they decided to start a family his days of writing for college newspapers and working in record stores was over.  Musser needed a more substantial paycheck so he decided to return to a trade he began back in high school, cutting meat.

At New Pioneer Food Coop Musser found the stability he required and a way to keep his hand in writing.  Jim provided music and political commentary for the Coop’s in-house newsletter.  He also took a side job with ICON magazine as a musical editor.  It only paid $10 a week but ICON would publish his reviews and he needed clips for a press book.

Musser’s break came in 1997 when he wrote a bio sheet for Bo Ramsey’s new disc In The Weeds.  Ramsey’s Nashville publicist, Kay Clary, saw this and sought him out to rewrite the nomination bio of Ron Sexsmith, which Elvis Costello would be presenting at the annual United Nations Music for Peace awards at Carnegie Hall.  The success of that bio led to a string of jobs, including Musser’s current one with the Press-Citizen.

Jim Musser continues to cut his own path and tell it like he hears it.  He has to file his Thursday column by 9:00 a.m. on Wednesdays.  He checks who is playing in town to help guide him in what to review.  Preference is given to local CD releases.  If a national act is passing through town that can make it into the mix, otherwise he chooses to review whatever strikes him.

He’s also still out there pulling for the little guy.  Iowa City has a number of established local bands that may put out a CD every four or five years.  These bands primarily include adult members who have wives, kids and jobs, but they manage to carve out enough time to slam some beers and practice twice a week.

“These guys have been playing for dirt forever but when they get out there in front of people they’re so majestic,” said Musser.  “That’s what gets me going.”

Musser is starting to think about winding down his writing career.  Between his health needs and those of his family the time left over for music reviews has dwindled.  Besides he’s tired of finding adjectives.

The CD’s endlessly roll into Musser’s mailbox.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to listen to them all, and 90 percent weren’t worth listening to in the first place.

“Take The Bangles Live, it’s like an envelope with anthrax inside.  If I open it I might breath it in,” said Musser.  “Time is precious, too precious for the Bangles.”

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