Friday, May 15, 2015

B.B. King

In November 1997, I saw B.B. King at the Des Moines Civic Center.

Lessons learned from seeing the King (these are not limited to playing guitar and singing):

1) Start with a smile and a kind word;
2) Everyone on stage is important - publicly recognize that;
3) Listen to each other;
4) Only contribute in a way that makes everything better;
5) Silence can be as powerful as, and maybe more powerful than, emphatic noise; and
6) Nothing important should be rushed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Maybe The Best Article On Small Towns

 Today's "Daily Iowan" has a tremendous article about a small Iowa town. But, it's really about hundreds of small Midwestern towns. It should be required reading for all Americans:

Monday, September 22, 2014

Greene County, 9-22-2014

It's been too long since I set aside time to write. Today I had business in Jefferson, at the Greene County Courthouse. I won't write much. the pictures speak to the beauty of the day, and the town. 

It's humbling to walk into a courthouse under the watchful eye of the role model for all country lawyers.


I offered a silent prayer, and gratitude.

Of course, electronic media "news" people have no interest in keeping us inseparable.

The rotunda.

Two of four murals.

Jefferson's square still has the stores I knew in my youth; an Ace Hardware is not pictured. My old Watseka friend Brian would appreciate the blues music pumped from the speakers on the roof of the Ben Franklin.

Someday I need to write about Carnegie Libraries. My friend Nancy got me interested in them. I've photographed a dozen or so, throughout Illinois and Iowa. Years ago we realized knowledge made our Nation stronger. There were neither soundbites nor memes in these buildings.

The North Raccoon, looking east (above) and west (below). It's high for September.

I've driven by this old farmstead a half dozen times. Today, for the first time, I spotted this root cellar. That apple tree was productive.

There's no house but somebody is tending to the place. The grass was clipped and there was a nice garden.

I wonder if it will have another roof someday?

Old red barns. No further comment required.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Deathbed Albums

“American Songwriter” Magazine has a cool contest. Every two months readers can submit the ten albums they’d listen to on their deathbeds. Somebody wins. The prize is a Martin guitar. The winner’s, and several other people’s, selections are listed in each issue. It’s a great way to find out about cool albums, and get reacquainted with old classics.

The criteria for winning are not set forth – at least not anywhere I can find. Although I submitted my selections for the most recent issue, I didn’t win. 

On any given day, my deathbed albums could change. These are the top 10 deathbed albums I had in mind a month or so ago:

Little Feat, "Waiting for Columbus"

This is one of my all-time favorite records. I’ve listened to regularly it since I was in high school. I have led a rich life; the only thing I missed was not seeing Little Feat with Lowell George. Accordingly, this live album is a treasure. I know "Americana" is an overused hipster term but this is clearly at the forefront of whatever Americana is. The songs work well together despite not having been written by the same person. The musicianship is excellent. This album exemplifies genius.  “Time Loves A Hero” and time loves this album too.

John Prine, "John Prine"

What can I say that the liner notes, particularly Kristofferson's comments, do not? These songs, written while Prine was young, run from tongue-in-cheek ditties to tearjerker laments. They remind us of what’s important. Doesn't everyone know of a "Paradise?" Prine lets us know: simplicity is perfection; we should write about what we know, and what we don’t; and that it’s okay to take on serious subjects with humor.  Finally, try to listen to “Hello In There” and not call your mother – you’ll pick up the phone. 

Grateful Dead, "American Beauty"

This album is splendid. It’s a collection of roots-based, harmony laden, catchy songs. “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple,” etc.  I dare you to try not to hum any of these songs after you hear them. Robert Hunter was at his best. The Grateful Dead sounds folky and melodic. This album, unlike many others by the Dead, is appealing to a cross-audience. My grandmother would've liked these songs.  

Greg Brown, "Slant Six Mind"

All the songs on this album have earthy lyrics and down-home musicianship. Bo Ramsey's guitar work is understated and brilliant. There is not a weak song in this collection. From the title track to the whimsical yet melancholy “Spring and All” this collection is a premier example of Midwestern music at its finest.

Joni Mitchell, "Hits"

The open tunings, her lovely voice, her superbly crafted songs; the only hesitation I have in naming this as a "my deathbed" record is that I might hear it and think I have died because a real angel is singing to me. Joni Mitchell is a songwriter’s songwriter. However, she’s not just for songwriters, “Hits” should be in everyone’s record collection.

Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"

This needs no explanation. This album is forty-four years old and the songs sound brand new. They are still relevant. The big three songs: “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Me (Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues” are so well structured, and so meaningful, every songwriter should study them.  The rest of the album’s songs are in line – it’s meditatively beautiful.

 Woody Guthrie, "100"

What fifty-year-old didn’t sing “This Land Is Your Land” in school? Every American who has strummed a guitar while singing is mimicking Woody Guthrie. This collection, maybe not technically an album, has songs about it all - poverty, farming, work, politics, love . . . . This stuff is quintessentially American. I want to die with these songs in recent memory.

Johnny Cash, "At Folsom Prison"

I love this album. It has a great back-story – not necessarily the one portrayed in the movie “Walk the Line.” It has songs written by Jack Clement and Harlan Howard. It has a ditty by Shel Silverstein. Glen Sherley’s song, “Greystone Chapel,” is very good.  That Sherley’s song was included on the album lends credibility to stories about the generosity of Johnny Cash. Finally, read about the players in the band on this record – then  listen to “Cocaine Blues.” Only those musicians, and Johnny Cash, could have created the raw intensity that comes through on that cut.

Craig Carothers, "Nothing Fancy"

A few years ago a friend called me on a Friday evening. He asked if I wanted to attend a house concert. The catch was that the concert was starting in an hour. I’m a homebody - I didn’t know the hosts, hadn’t heard of the performer (Craig Carothers), and had just settled in at home after a long work week. Regardless, I broke character and agreed to go.  I wasn’t expecting much and hoped the concert would only go for an hour or so.  However, from the first line of Craig Carothers’ first song I knew I was in the presence of a great songwriter. Craig is very clever and compassionate, and those traits come through in his songs. I have several of his records but “Nothing Fancy” (it’s just Craig and his guitar) is my favorite. From the introductory track “That’s How Easy Goes,” to the final song, the album is emotive and brilliant. “Schenectady” registered with me more than any song I’ve ever heard. If I could only listen to two albums on my deathbed, this would be one of them.

Guy Clark, "The Essential Guy Clark"

I could, on another day, have listed any of Guy Clark’s albums as nine of the ten records I’d want to hear on my deathbed. This album’s only flaw is that there are several of Clark’s songs, including his songs from after this album’s 1997 release, that aren’t on it. I won’t knock Bob Dylan, but when I’m knocking on heaven’s door I’d rather have Guy Clark in my ear-buds. If I take my last breath to the last note of “L.A. Freeway” my obituary can accurately state I died peacefully.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Actions v. Words

I recently suggested that people seem to dismiss the importance of words. A friend suggested words are not as important as actions.  

Actions are more important than words. Anyone on my email list knows I am fond of the quote (often attributed to St Francis): “preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.” Pee Wee Reece’s stance next to Jackie Robinson is a classic example.  

My favorite recent example, of actions speaking louder than words, involved a friend who brought a cold beverage to a person with whom he disagreed – while that person was protesting outside a church. The person was protesting because the church had taken the position with which my friend was then aligned.

Words, however, don’t exist in a vacuum. They incite actions. The words in Patrick Henry’s speeches, and Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, emboldened colonists. Our Constitution is brief, but its words bind us. The words in Matthew 25:31-45 unite (otherwise divided) Christians in service to the least of their brothers and sisters.

Words are dangerous too, and incite evil. Hitler’s and Goebbels’ words stirred a significant portion of a populace to hate and commit, or stand silent in the face of, mass murder. The “Turner Diaries” stirred a miscreant to plant a bomb outside a federal building; resulting in the murder of innocent people and children. The reckless revisionist history spewed by get-rich-quick pseudo-ideological pundits stirs us to shout at (and think less of) each other – it is deliberately designed to divide us.

Words matter because they unite and/or divide. Words matter because our choice of words often exposes our propensity to act appropriately, or not. Words matter because we use them to express our opinion of the value of those with whom we co-exist.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Captain Waskow and Military Misconduct

Recently, I've seen several articles about misconduct in the military.  There is, I am sure, misconduct. There is, however, also misconduct everywhere there are human beings.

Perhaps because of those articles - I woke up thinking about an Ernie Pyle (the famous, soldier oriented, WWII correspondent) article I read thirty years ago.  I googled the article, about  "Captain Waskow."

When I was in the Army I knew many Captain Waskows.

Most of the people I know who served in the military (like my WCHS classmates) exemplify the words Captain Waskow wrote in a letter to his family:

"Try to live a life of service—to help someone where you are or whatever you may be—take it from me; you can get happiness out of that, more than anything in life.

Ernie Pyle's article is here:

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I can get discouraged by the spite in the world.

Yesterday, our Rotary group delivered dictionaries to third grade students at a rural school.  One little boy, the moment I walked in the door, made a beeline for me. He stood directly in front of me, very close, and stared at my tie. He asked me if I was a “professor.”  He was accompanied by a young woman who explained that the boy is fascinated by ties. I assumed, from his demeanor and the fact he seemed to have an adult assigned to him, the boy has special needs.

As we met where the third graders were gathered (seated on the floor) the boy lingered, obviously reluctant to join his peers. There was an awkward moment. Without prompting - one little girl stood, walked to the boy, reached out her hand, took the boy’s hand in hers, and led him to the group.

After the dictionaries were distributed we took a group picture. I looked down. The little girl’s arm was around the boy’s waist.  Her kindness and intuitive acceptance was amazing.   

What a great thing to see before Christmas.  I wish more adults had seen it.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Derrill McMorris, Watseka Hero

Most Watsekans remember that Derrill C. McMorris was an elementary school principal.  He was also much more than that.  I knew who Mr. McMorris was. However, I didn’t know him. My mother once told me he was quiet and very good at his job.

Mr. McMorris was born on January 8, 1921. He grew up in Charleston, Illinois and graduated from Charleston High School in 1939. From what I can tell, he took a job after school. Perhaps, like many young Americans, he was biding his time. War in Europe and Asia was picking up speed and most people knew the United States was going to be drawn into it.

In March 1942, at Chanute Field in Illinois, Mr. McMorris enlisted in the Army Air Corps. By December 1944, he’d received flight training, a commission as a second lieutenant, and he was flying B-25 Bombers on missions over Italy. He was assigned to the 428th Squadron of the 310th Bomb Group, flying out of a village on the east coast of Corsica. 

On December 10, 1944, Second Lietutenant McMorris was co-piloting a B-25 named the “Donna Marie II” on a mission to bomb a bridge over the River Adige. On the bombing run, the Donna Marie II was hit by flak (anti-aircraft fire). The crew managed to drop bombs on target but the aircraft lost power to an engine. The Pilot, First Lieutenant Lee McAllister, Jr., ordered the crew (including Second Lieutenant McMorris) to bail out of the aircraft. McAllister kept the aircraft aloft until everyone was out and then managed to bail out too.  The plane crashed into a mountain.

Second Lieutenant McMorris was captured the day after the B-25 was shot down. Everyone, except for First Lieutenant McAllister, was captured quickly.  McAllister was aided by Italian partisans for three weeks until he was captured. Then, McAllister was murdered by the SS. 

McMorris was sent to a POW Camp, Stalag Luft I, in Germany.

Mr. McMorris was liberated in June 1945. He was discharged from the Army as a First Lieutenant. He graduated from Eastern Illinois University, in his hometown, in 1948. He probably used the GI Bill to attend college.

Mr. McMorris taught and coached basketball in Crescent City for several years. In his final season as coach (’55-56) his team was 23-6. He received a Masters Degree and, as far as I know, finished his career as a school administrator in Watseka.  He passed away in October 1985; he was 64 years old. He is buried at Oak Hill - with many other heroes.

Please think about what Mr. McMorris did in his early twenties. He left his small town. He learned to fly bombers. He went half-way around the world. He parachuted from a disabled aircraft into territory held by an enemy - an enemy he'd just bombed. Then, he spent six months as a prisoner of war.

At some point, Mr. McMorris learned that the guy seated next to him (in the bomber) was murdered. Having survived the War, Mr. McMorris must have pondered fate.

Then, after all that, Mr. McMorris came back to small town Illinois and made a little portion of the world a better place.

Sources available on request (moderated comments).

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Marty Stuart's Telecaster (Clarence) and Esquire

These are iPhone photos from Iowa City, 8-31-2013. I believe the Esquire is tuned up a half- step. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


August was a good music month. I had two great experiences with fine musicians and really nice folks . . .

On August 3rd, my good friend Bill Melton and I traveled to the Watseka Theatre to open for the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Our buddy Bob had told us about the great guys in the TMJB (see my July 23, 2013 post). Bob wasn’t exaggerating.

All the guys in the TMJB are good men. When we met them they’d just driven from Nashville. They had been in the Carolinas a day earlier. The guys must have been tired and felt a bit rushed. Regardless, they said hello, talked to Bill and me, wished us well and cheered us on. They seemed to enjoy Watseka and the Theatre. They played and sang their hearts out to an appreciative crowd.  

The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band’s show is part comedy, part bluegrass/old time music, and part country music.  Roger Miller fans (like me) will love these guys.  Their musicianship is first rate and their singing is phenomenal. I went thinking we were going to hear a lot of great old time banjo music and was pleasantly surprised to hear the TMJB’s diverse repertoire.

After the show, the guys talked to us like we were their Nashville neighbors. And, when we complimented each of them on their parts in the show - every man praised his band-mates' talents.

A few days after the concert, when my oldest son had a medical issue, I got nice notes from two of the TMJB guys (dad-to-dad). Then, Bill and I received a compliment on Facebook from the TMJB’s guitar player.  Good guys.

On August 31st, the Bomber (my ten-year-old) and I drove to Iowa City's First Avenue Club to see Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives.  We saw this band in Watseka in February and they were fantastic. The highlights in Watseka (besides the magnificent Watseka Theatre and great show) were the band’s stage guy showing us Marty Stuart’s famous telecaster and mandolin (see entries from March 7th and 11th) and meeting the band. We couldn’t wait for the Iowa City show.

We arrived at the First Avenue Club and waited in line for a few minutes. When we entered I was surprised at the venue. It's cool. Essentially, it’s a large room in the basement of a strip mall. The ceiling was kind of low. There was a small bar.  It was intimate. 

Our general admission VIP tickets guaranteed us seats at a table in the front half of the room. The hostess looked us over and helped us find good seats; seats fit for a guy with a ten-year-old. We ended up one table removed from the stage. We were seated with a pair of non-drinking couples who seemed delighted to have us join them (how cool is a venue that forces you to make new friends?). Bomber and I went for root beer, visited with a friend, and sat back down for the show.

Following a really, really, good opening act (Iowa City’s Slew Grass) Marty and the Superlatives came out and completely floored us with musicianship, excellent harmony singing, and showmanship.  I’ve seen some great (famous) musicians over the years - - - I can honestly say this band is in the top two-percent; a “must see."

When the lights came on, we talked to the same stage guy with whom we visited in Watseka. He gave Bomber a copy of the set list and one of Marty’s guitar picks. In Watseka, and again in Iowa City, he went above and beyond the call of niceness.  I am kicking myself because I didn’t get his name. I hope, if he sees this, he knows how special he made the concerts.

After their shows, Marty and the Superlatives greet fans.  We said our thanks and goodbyes to the stage crewman, grabbed Bomber’s guitar, and took our place in line to meet the band. In Watseka, the guys seemed nice. In Iowa City, while we waited, I watched Marty Stuart interact with the concert-goers. When a woman mentioned she couldn’t get tickets to the Marty Stuart Show’s Nashville taping, Marty and his tour manager talked to her. I'm not sure exactly what was said but I heard them assure her she’d get tickets. Marty could have blown her off. He didn’t; she'll get to see the show.

When it was our turn to meet the band I mentioned we were at the Watseka show and that Watseka is my home-town. The guys seemed delighted and told me how much they enjoyed the Theatre. They said that they’d like to play there again. They each autographed Bomber’s guitar and encouraged him to play – really encouraged him. They acted like he did them a favor by asking them to sign it. Their affection was genuine. Bomber was beside himself with delight.  I was so happy for him and so grateful to the band - I got a little choked up.

As we left the venue, Bomber said:  "Dad, I'm NEVER selling this guitar!!! . . . I can't wait to show Gary (his guitar teacher)!"  I had to explain to Bomber that while mom would be excited, she might not want us to call and wake her up at midnight to tell her about the autographs.

The next day, I exchanged messages with Paul Martin, the band’s bass player (a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer).  In a dad-to-dad exchange he told me he and the guys in the band love to see children interested in music. He said his band-mates treat his four children the same way they all treated Bomber.  Very cool!

We could all learn a few lessons from the guys in the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band and Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives.  If you get a chance, see these bands.

* TMJB photo by Joy St Peter

Monday, August 19, 2013

Feeling at home . . . .

I feel right at home where I work here in Adel, Iowa. There's an Old Courthouse (still in use) and people recognize local heroes (and not just Nile Kinnick). Check out this 1907 photo, which hangs in a local eatery:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Great Blog

A former Watsekan's blog (great entry yesterday about the Watseka Theatre):

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Leroy Troy and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, Watseka August 3, 2013

There are still tickets available to see the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band ("TMJB") in Watseka on August 3, 2013. My friend Bill Melton and I are opening. Bill and I will receive no financial gain from it (but you might want to buy some of Bill’s CDs). I just really hope to see old friends. 

I do, however, want to tell you about the main act. I wholeheartedly encourage you to attend. The TMJB's members are a “living history lesson” and – they are nice people. They could skip Watseka on their tour but they are not – and they are bringing something special to town.

I know many of you listen to country music. Even if you don’t, I’ll bet you’ve tapped your feet to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s songs or hummed along with the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.” I’d be surprised if you’ve never sung along in your car to an Eagles' song (I hope I’ve just put “Take It Easy” into your head). That music (country, southern rock, and country rock (heck, all rock)) can trace its roots to the old-time music that echoed through the hills of Tennessee.  

The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band plays old-time Tennessee music as it was originally played. The guys do it in a family-friendly way that combines Vaudevillian showmanship with musical virtuosity.  Their show is affordable and they are nice guys.  If music moves you, skipping the TMJB is like ignoring the Mona Lisa and praising Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can.

But Tom (you ask): “How do you know the TMJB has nice guys?”  Well, my friends (fellow acoustic musicians Bob and Lori) told me so. Bob’s and Lori’s son, Connor, is autistic. Connor loves the Marty Stuart show and he adores Leroy Troy. Connor went with his folks to see Leroy Troy and the TMJB (of which Leroy is a member) in Silver Dollar City last year. Here’s what Bob told me about it:

“Connor wanted to see Leroy Troy and the TMJB so much that we attended both shows that day. After the show Leroy and the band all lined up to sell merchandise, sign autographs, and just talk to folks and take pictures. Connor was way too shy to approach them, but when we told them they were his favorite, Leroy signed a CD 'to Connor, from your friend Leroy Troy' and brought it out around the table. Leroy asked Connor if he had Leroy's new CD. Connor said 'no,' and Leroy said ‘you do now.’ They all said goodbye to Connor, and were friendly and pleasant to everyone. Great bunch of guys! All of them talked to Connor and were extremely nice, a class act. If you get a chance, thank them again for us and tell them Connor says ‘hi.’ Besides that, they are excellent musicians and play ‘real’ music.” 

How can you not want to support, see, hear, and meet people like that? Come to the show - bring your significant other, your friends, your children, your families . . . .

Here's more about the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band:

Thanks and I’ll see you at the Watseka Theatre.