By Blaine Schultz + Photos by Kat Berger
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”
Popular music, semi-popular music and even obscure music all seem to run in cycles.
Immigrants first arriving in this country from the British Isles brought folk ballads with them. African slaves carried their own musical traditions, which included the distinctly characterizing Americana sound of the banjo. From these various foundations grew the structures of Americana music today.
In 1927, Ralph Peer set up recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee and hit not one, but two grand slams by recording The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Dubbed the “Big Bang” of country, Peer’s sessions with these future music superstars put hillbilly music on the map. Meanwhile in New Orleans, cornet player Buddy Bolden was never recorded. His legend alone lives on.
Milwaukee itself supports a vibrant roots scene, with music from all over that spectrum available for your listening pleasure just about any night of the week. From smoky blues clubs in the central city to bars in Riverwest and coffee houses everywhere, folkies, thrift store hillbillies, suit-sporting wailers and flannel-shirted rockers throw down the music that defines the American sound. Each band or artist brings their own interpretation and vision to the music they play. For this story, VITAL spoke with over a dozen players and asked them each the same four questions. What follows is a glimpse into the music that’s helped to shape the Milwaukee music scene for over 20 years.
DEFINE YOUR MUSIC.
I’m trying to locate that line that runs halfway along the American racial divide about 50 years ago. I’ve avoided steel guitars and fiddles like the plague because that tips the balance. Horns are acceptable but hard to find. Slide guitar is wrong for me, because it’s easy to cheat. I’m pretty specific about things. Ray Charles and Buddy, I mean Charlie, Rich had it exactly right.
Jason Mohr – Juniper Tar
Folk-influenced rock with punk, country and noise backbones.
Bobby Rivera – Bobby Rivera and the Rivieras
I’ve played a lot of different material in many different bands. My primary stuff right now is the rock & roll instrumental stuff, western swing/ hillbilly boogie and rockabilly.
Mark Miller – Chop Top Toronados
Rock & roll with a country twang at the end of every power chord
Boy Howdy – The Mighty Lumberhorn
Homemade electric hillbilly music: Fred Sanford meets the Stanley Brothers.
Matt “The Ratt” Davis – Uptown Savages
American R&B, rock & roll, rockabilly meets Monty Python and Michael Caine. This stuff has been bopping back and forth across the Atlantic for 150 years or more.
Chris DeMay – West of Rome
I think of it as post-punk folk, which sometimes gets a rock treatment and a wedge of lime.
Dan Patscot – The Carolinas
Loud, folk-tinged rock.
Jeff Lauwasser – Dead Man’s Shoes
It’s a mix of rockabilly, country and edgy roots rock with some 60s twang.
Jon Ziegler – Uptown Savages
Greasy rockin’ rhythm and blues.
My music is a blend of blues, ragtime, folk and early jazz, songs that are forgotten or were never known by most people. My original material comes from my own experiences mixed with music styles of the 1920s and 30s.
Guy Fiorentini – Gadjo 3 and Salt Creek
Sweet pop like the Beatles, the raw emotion of Memphis soul, the storytelling of folk music, the rhythms and texture of jazz and funk.
Dave Thomas – Dead Man’s Shoes
My original songs, with some favorite covers.
Terry Vittone – The Nelsonics
It finds a niche somewhere between Harry Partch and Hee Haw’s All Jug Band.
“The Colonel” – Chop Top Toronados
There are a lot of different elements to our music, but it’s based in surf/roots rock/country, with a fast pace and over-driven instruments.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO WHERE YOU ARE, MUSICALLY?
JS: I think this is a trick question or very hard to answer without striking unbecoming mystical poses. Everyone receives music, with the exception of some hardcore Republicans, and a few are foolish enough to want to try to create or recreate the beauty they hear. I’m one. I started around age 12, when I went trick-or-treating as a beatnik with a cardboard guitar. Now my guitar is made of Masonite. The main development in my adult musical career was a brief brush with the majors, in the guise of Warner Brothers. I swore afterwards that I would enjoy music, because I forgot to when the budget and the stakes were ridiculously high. If you can’t enjoy playing, why on earth would you do it? There’s better money in factories.
JM: In terms of writing and playing music live, everything started for me in 1994 with a stoner rock band I was in called Shrine. Then I formed a pop/punk band called Grovur, which turned into a roots/country/rock band called Telectro, which slowly came to be Juniper Tar today.
BR: I started out playing punk stuff in the 80s. I was always into the “punkabilly” stuff like The Cramps and X but didn’t really know that much or care where it came from. A friend of mine turned me on to Link Wray, Flat Duo Jets, Robert Gordon and Sun-era Elvis, and I decided that that’s the kind of music I needed to be playing. I was lucky enough to be in some pretty big local acts, tour and record playing everything ranging from surf to R&B.
MM: I’ve played in metal bands (Scuzzlebut) punk bands (Floor Model) and country bands (RW Aces). I think the Chop Top Toronados take parts of all these into our songwriting.
BH: I took the bluegrass via punk rock route that all the kids seem to be doing nowadays. Heather and BJ can and play just about any kind of music, they just have the misfortune of being good at this kind. I don’t know what Jeffro’s story is; real bluegrass bands don’t even have drummers. Just kidding, we love Jeffro.
MD: I started in British early 80s neo-rockabilly/psychobilly and then started back-tracking from there. When I started going to the London rockin’ clubs as an underage kid, I found out the bands I had been listening to where covering older songs. [Then] I found that the 50s bands I now loved where covering blues and R&B bands; it just keeps going back and back.
CDM: Like a lot of folks, I was captive to my older siblings’ records and tastes. So along with all the Kiss, Scorpions and The Carpenters, I also got to hear a lot of MC5, Black Oak Arkansas, Fleetwood Mac and ZZ Top. I started out playing drums in punk bands in high school and college and soaking up as much musical knowledge as possible. Following my influences, and those who influenced them, is what led me to start trying to create my own music.
DP: Popular music from the late 60s into the 70s.
JL: I started playing rockabilly music with Dave Thomas and Mike Farrow in The Boogiemen in the late 70s. Then I ventured out to play some jangle-pop with Greg Smith from the Tambours. And of course I played with Jerome (Presley Haskell) up until his death, and Alfred Murrle and Clay Swinford in Wilderness of Pain. I played power pop with Beezer Hill, and musically came full circle to the melodic alt-country I’m doing with Dave, Mike and Blaine Schultz. Playing with guys I’ve played with for 25 years produces an energy you can’t create in any other way.
JZ: I’ve been playing American Roots music for about as long as I have been playing music professionally. The same goes for my piano player, Jack Stewart, and my bass player, Matt “The Ratt” Davis, although Matt is English. But hell, the English have been playing rockabilly and blues as good as, if not better than, Americans for decades now, and for the most part they do it with more style and respect for the history of the music.
MH: I moved to Milwaukee in ‘98 to get a degree in music at UWM and started really getting into older blues music and its musicians. In 2001, I got in a bad car accident that left me in recovery for some time. I used that time to really learn the style and get some music together.
GF: I started as an original songwriter playing punk guitar, but I really couldn’t play, sing or write. Gradually, I started to learn different covers in different styles because I liked the songs. I also went on a 10-year jazz tangent. Now I’m getting back more toward where I started.
DT: 48 years of life, 6,000 records, a good wife, a lot of mistakes, a few good friends.
TV: I stole a copy of Creem magazine from the neighborhood Piggly Wiggly when I was 14. In it was an article Lester Bangs wrote about Lou Reed. It was all downhill from there.
TC: I was always impressed with some of the odd chord and solo choices jazz musicians made when improvising, and I like creating odd chord progressions or song hooks that are a little out there. Rockabilly has always had interesting things like the “almost out of tune” choices guitarists like Cliff Gallup incorporated into solos.
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF/YOUR BAND IN THE CONTEXT OF ROOTS/AMERICAN MUSIC?
JS: Once a contender, now sort of forgotten. Recent roots music (you may read alt-country) seems to be straining in its search for authenticity. They should relax. It may have been a mistake for some people to go to college instead of pursuing a series of dead-end jobs. The old, weird America that Greil Marcus spoke of is a memory. Every kind of music I love is basically dead, but I’m OK with that. Future roots enthusiasts will be doing 50 Cent.
JM: I think I mainly borrow from the “roots” or folk tradition in song and melody structure.
BR: The original 30s country players drew from everything from blues to Celtic and folk music to create their sound, which would have been seen as new at the time. The 50s rockabilly and honky-tonk guys drew from the 30s country guys and the new R&B, blues and gospel that they were hearing, which created a different sound. I like to draw upon everything I like from the old stuff but throw a little newer into it also.
MM: We are very much a roots-influenced band, but I think we bring a more hard rock approach that has brought roots-oriented rock music to some new listeners.
BH: We’re that bluegrass band that sings songs about gangster rappers and atheism. Or maybe we’re just that band that throws out kazoos.
MD: The forgotten music! Everyone remembers country, most know rockabilly or even bluegrass or hillbilly, but how many remember the great American R&B artists? We play the stuff your dad didn’t listen to, and if he did, he was listening to the bleached-out pop version of it.
CDM: At best, I see my music as another link in the chain of American music, stretching back over the last 130 years or so to this very minute. Although, and I’m not unique in this regard, my music is certainly American, it owes more to Ray Davies, Keith Richards and Robbie Robertson than it does to Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.
DP: Carrying on the tradition of the popular music made in the late 60s and early 70s.
JL: I see that we fit in with folks like Phil Lee – that East Nashville roots rock circle of alt-country musicians.
JZ: Without much country influence in the Uptown Savages, we are a bit off to the side. Roots music seems to have gotten real serious in recent years. I think our role is to bring out the lighter side. Our music is for drinking, dancing and carrying on. The only tears in our beers are from laughter.
MH: I see myself bringing a style of music to people’s ears again or for the first time.
GF: I use familiar songwriting forms to tell little stories. While I’m not trying to do anything dramatically new, I’m trying to do it well and avoid musical clichés. Hopefully everything is in service to the song.
DT: Always been there, just waiting for the genre.
TV: It’s built to entertain, but a new or accidental sound is welcome, sought after and occasionally occurs. It can smack of careerism, but it’s like comedic timing. You think for a moment that you’ve pandered, that through routine, craft has overtaken impulse and inspiration. Then there’s a small epiphany about disinvolvement with pretense and the muse (bring me a bag, someone).
TC: There are elements of roots/American music, but with a more “in your face” approach.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE COVER SONG TO PLAY LIVE?
JM: Juniper Tar has been playing “Rex’s Blues” by Townes Van Zandt for a few months now and we’ve pretty much adopted it as our own. I’m still a bit ashamed when people tell me it’s their favorite song of ours. Maybe I’m in the wrong line of work… there’s not enough cover bands here in the city, right?
BR: I really don’t have a favorite; that changes from show to show depending on how bad I screw up a tune. The last one I really enjoyed playing was “Funnel of Love” with Wanda Jackson.
MM: “Big Sky” by Reverend Horton Heat.
BH: “In The Pines,” “Ace of Spades” and “Last Train to Clarksville.”
MD: Well I have a soft spot for “Brand New Cadillac” by Vince Taylor, not because the Clash did it but because always loved Taylor’s version. He sings just a little flat and that just makes it better; it’s wild and from the heart. Of the American artists I would say “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. It’s solid, sexy and really fat and it sums up the band very well.
CDM: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper.
JL: “That’s How I Got to Memphis” by Tom T. Hall – the Buddy Miller version.
JS: “Hey Baby” by Bruce Chanel, Coco’s son.
JZ: Something with a fat beat you can sink your teeth into, like “Blue Monday” by Fats Domino.
MH: “I Wish You Would” by Kokomo Arnold.
GF: It changes from week to week. Recently it was “Caravan.”
DT: “6 days On the Road” and “Another Girl, Another Planet.”
TV: Currently, I’m trying to get a version of Bobby Womack’s song “Harry Hippy” into a presentable form. Songs like this one are like architecture; you can live in them. I’m just trying to build a shed behind his mansion of a song.
TC: I really enjoy Reverend Horton Heat songs. VS