Indigo Rhythms: Iowa Blues Color the Heartland

Bent notes pour from a vintage Fender Stratocaster under Bob Pace's command. | Photo by Scott Allen

Bent notes pour from a vintage Fender Stratocaster under Bob Pace’s command. | Photo by Scott Allen

Bob Pace & the Blues Groove are tearing down the house tonight. With a swagger in his step, the frontman 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 high-pitched screams in response that have him up on his toes trying to eek out the 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, singing “I want to rent my soul to the Devil, and eat pancakes everyday.”

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 railing guitars spilling out onto the streets, Blues on Grand has been delivering the area’s best live blues performers since 1992.

Bob Pace slinging his groove at Blues on Grand in Des Moines.

Bob Pace slinging his groove at Blues on Grand in Des Moines.

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 their 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. In the back, where the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame is housed, graffiti covers the 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 hotspots 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 cities 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 network 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.

Joe Price is a traditionalist and like a blues classic, he favors a National Reso-Phonic guitar.

Joe Price favors the traditional sound of a National Resophonic guitar. | Photo by Julie Staub

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 stretches beyond the eye and 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 have all 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; Standing six feet tall; She’s out on that dance floor; Doing that Iowa Crawl” ~ Joe Price, from The Iowa Crawl.

“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.”

With feet stomping and fingers sliding, Joe Price has been bending notes for over 35 years. | Photo by Julie Staub

With feet stomping and fingers sliding, Joe Price has been bending notes for over 35 years. | Photo by Julie Staub

Rarely seen without his trusty ball cap on, or a National Resophonic steel guitar within arms 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 since most of the original blues masters have passed away), but their influence lives on in several generations of current Iowa musicians.

Earl Hooker

Earl Hooker

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, if not a work in recession. Joe Price is right; this isn’t Chicago. With its rural-based landscape, Iowa lacks such population density and racial diversity, which makes finding gigs and drawing consistent crowds a problem.

Joe & Vicki Price jamming at the Mill in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

Joe & Vicki Price jamming at the Mill in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

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 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, where strong river communities exist in Dubuque, the Quad Cities, and Burlington.

Yet here, too, is found 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; and 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.

Further hampering this genres ability to maintain an audience is that many of the blues community’s biggest advocates are not its best promoters. The modern era of blues music dates to the 1960s, when the counterculture revolution was unfolding, and feelings of mistrust remain for this generation towards corporate America.

It’s a group that prefers to play on the margins, and is more comfortable putting in long hours and organizing the best events possible instead of 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, cities fail to recognize, nor embrace these artists as treasured assets.

David Zollo behind his keyboard where he is most comfortable weaving his aural tapestry of Iowa life.

David Zollo dispensing his brand of heartland blues.

“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, Joe Price, Bo Ramsey, William Elliott Whitmore, and David Zollo, 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. “Use to be everyone played country, country rock, or folk music. Now they’re mostly all blues players.”

On the Horizon

Dustin Busch hits the right chord at the Mill in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

Dustin Busch hits the right chord at the Mill in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

“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, R. L. Burnside’s family, and Kevin “B.F.” 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 alter, don’t desecrate my shrine; My church is the water, and my home is underneath the shady pines; Don’t underestimate the spine in a poor man’s back; When it’s against the wall and his future’s black

One man’s story is another man’s shame; I ain’t bound for glory, I’m bound for flames; Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks; Go away child, go away child and don’t look back”

~ William Elliott Whitmore, from One Man’s Shame.

William Elliott Whitmore playing the Picador in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

William Elliott Whitmore playing the Picador in Iowa City. | Photo by Julie Staub

He represents the alternative wing of the heartland blues community. His roots are in punk rock, but after losing both his parents at an early age 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 hardcore 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,” Whitmore said.

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 hardcore scene, and with the traditionalists’ notion of an edgy folk singer. Often playing solo, with only his 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.

Whitmore and his banjo. | Photo by Julie Staub

Whitmore and his banjo. | Photo by Julie Staub

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 his Iowa Blues Hall of Fame partner 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.”

Sidebar: Getting the Word Out 

Bluesman Kevin "B.F." Burt of Iowa City.

Bluesman Kevin “B.F.” Burt of Iowa City.

Helping bridge the spectrum of the state’s blues players are Iowa’s blues and folk societies. With a limited population that isn’t prone to nightly travel, Iowa depends on its blues societies to 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 native 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, with the society delivering news and information through The Blues Crier newsletter, sponsoring the winners of the Iowa Blues Challenge to compete in the Memphis International Blues Challenge, and hosting its winter and fall festivals. Members also work in conjunction with Jeff Wagner at Blues on Grand to run the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.

Matt Woods & The Thunderbolts from Des Moines.

Matt Woods & The Thunderbolts from Des Moines.

“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 or 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.”

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Published by:  The Iowan | Vol. 58, No. 3, p. 38 | January/February 2010

* Indigo Rhythms: Iowa Blues Color the Heartland, won the Gold Award in the “Culture Feature” category at the 2011 International Regional Magazine Association (IRMA) Awards.

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