It Started with a Song on the Radio
I discovered original, local and regional music quite by happenstance. About a year into my current relationship (we’re engaged, and we’ve been making life work out well for 10 years now), I heard a Freddy Jones Band song on Indianapolis’ WTTS. Most folks know that “In a Daydream” is a classic. I didn’t. I consumed 80’s synth-rock as a teen, got married, had kids, and spent the next two decades in my own very small fishbowl of a world. Now out of that marriage, my kids grown, my professional life somewhat altered, I have been rediscovering two decades’ worth of missing music. I suppose some people might be jealous of me, getting to hear a song like “Daydream” for the first time. Okay…I’ll accept that envy. The song mesmerized me.
by Donovan Wheeler
After cross-referencing the radio station’s online playlist, learning what I had listened to, I tuned into Pandora. It was 2012…Pandora was cool back then. The other bands–all of them obscure by my reckoning–flooded in. Red Wanting Blue, The Alternate Routes, nelo, The Dirty Guv’nahs, Jackopierce, The Damnwells… In three or four months I developed a reputation among my friends as the dude with the “weird” playlist. While everyone in my group geared up for Bob Seger and Def Leppard at the old Deer Creek Music Center, I was dragging my fiancée to Radio-Radio, the Bluebird, or the Hi-Fi to see Stephen Kellogg or Bronze Radio Return. Eventually I developed a term for this level of nationally-touring, super talented artists which NONE of my friend had ever heard of: I called them the “Triple-A Ball Clubs.”
When I started writing about musicians…well…that’s when I discovered what was happening even closer to home. I call these folks (if you’ll allow me to extend the baseball metaphor) the “Double-A and Single-A Leagues.” And before anyone gets offended, I mean that with love and respect. You can’t convince me that these artists work less hard or are somehow less talented than the groups in the upper levels. Amanda Webb can out-sing Billie Eilish every day of the week. Every. Single. Day. People are where they are for all sorts of reasons. Family and work are two of the biggest. Most of these groups (especially the really talented ones) could easily have made the choices that Red Wanting Blue’s Scott Terry made.
But consider Terry’s choices: he worked for years tending bar at a place similar to Champp’s. He spent 250 days (or more) on the road. He had to rebuild his band more than a half-dozen times. Yes, he landed a label. Yes, he made it to The Late Show with David Letterman. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll make it to the “Major Leagues” (or “The Grammy League” as I also call it). But The Grammy League doesn’t seem that interested in finding authentic talent anymore. They seem to be more about creating it in their “musical” labs and their reality contest shows.
So these local, regional, and semi-national performers…? No matter if they want to climb up a level or two and live their lives on the interstate highways or stay close to home balance music with ordinary lives, we should respect them. And we should listen to them. They are worthy of acclaim, and I am proud to have formed a great team of judges, so that we could do just that. So, in conjunction with National Road Magazine’s first five years on the “inter-webs,” we wanted to honor the people who have become part of our family, too. These guys make great music. I’ll listen to them over “The Grammy” people any day. In fact…that’s what I actually do.
This was fun. We’re going to do it again, and a lot more often.
My best to all of you,
This list was assembled with the help of a lot of folks who love music from every level and angle. One of them is a college music professor, a capable musician with depth–and breadth–of knowledge and years of experience gigging around western Indiana. Another is an award-winning international recording artist. Yet another is a college music major, a guitarist since early childhood who has fronted more than one band in his young career. Others offering input range from a life-long music fan (a man who has sat in on virtually every live performance in his musically active hometown) to a pair of music writers (one who has just started playing guitar to appreciate what all these artists do…the other a life-long musician and a Wabash Valley Music Association Hall-of-Famer).
We asked everyone to pick their top 5-7 tracks. Some ranked them. Many did not. Most laid out their reasons for their choices. Others kept mum. Virtually everyone argued aggressively for their favorite song, and many discussed the challenges they faced choosing from the wide varieties of genres on the list. We were never in the same room, but if we were the conversation would have gotten intense, maybe even heated, at times. Something about that seems pretty beautiful, to be honest.
We have learned a lot about how to do this the next time. The nomination process must (and will) improve, and doing this on an annual or biennial time-frame will most certainly clean up the frayed chronological edges which this effort encountered.
But as cliched as it sounds to say “everyone is a winner”…? Well…everyone is. When we started this magazine a few of us dreamed of growing it out of the local scene and sending it into the musical stratosphere. In time, the wiser heads won the debate: NRM works when it tells the story of the folks who make music and art right here in our pubs, in our local studios, in our own homes, even.
So congratulations goes out to everyone. To those who made this list. To those who scored a nomination. To all those talented musicians who didn’t make this particular radar (yet), but have been winning fans and loyal friends one gig at a time.
#10 “It Ain’t Gonna Rain” by Will Scott
In the midst of his direct list of favorite tunes, one judge said of Will Scott’s performance of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain”: “Cool guitar chops.”
They are indeed. Watch Scott work his six-string, and you’ll double, and triple-take as he slaps and picks every note, bouncing his claws off the chiseled surface of his pick-guard. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to him bang out the song alone in live performance or listening to the slower-tempo of the recorded version on 2011’s Keystone Crossing, the other thing about “It Ain’t Gonna Rain” that pulls you in is the speaker’s narrative arc. Long held grudges. A thirst for justice. A life lived nursing a well-earned hard edge. Will Scott’s storytelling lives off those dusty roads where our grandparents grew up, in places where folks who had very little control over their destiny learned how to keep their heads low, stay out of the rain, and still be there sitting on their front porches. Scott’s stories are about people who do the hardest thing anyone can do in this world: survive.
#9 “Love’s Anthem” by War Radio
War Radio is not the same band it was when it recorded “Love’s Anthem.” Save for the fronting duo of Joel and Tosh Everson, the rest of the group has shifted and reorganized. After early incarnations featuring guitarists such as Steve St. Pierre, Josh Query, and Steve Michael, the band found its footing with a stable four-person lineup that carried them through much of the last decade.
Following the departure of long time mainstays such as Drew Cooper at the drum set and Dennis Furr on bass, the Eversons shuffled different faces, often scrapping together a full complement in pinch. Today, War Radio has settled into a new, stable line up typically featuring Lorin Lemme on the drums and Kevin Killeen (who began with the band as a DePauw student). In that interim, War Radio did what bands who want to stay alive had to do. It’s a reality for groups at any level, but it is perhaps the most essential skill on the local and regional stages.
And through each of the band’s transformations, “Love’s Anthem” has been there. Despite its sentimental and sometimes sorrowful tone–one evocatively sung by Tosh Everson’s powerful mezzo-soprano–“Anthem’s” strongest feature is its rocking tempo and signature guitar sequences. As the band evolved and matured so did the songwriting, and later tracks, such as “Driving Darkness,” “The Great Escape,” and “Pages,” serve as perfect examples of that evolution.
“Anthem,” however, was one of those early songs that won War Radio its first batch of fans. It’s a strong tune. Great vocals, catchy melody, head-bobbing rhythm. It’s a rock-and-roll song. One of the first tunes which made those of us new to the concept of locally produced music take note that real, organic music wasn’t going to come from LA or New York any longer. The real stuff was going to happen in our own home towns.
#8 “Double Take” by Fort Frances
Of Fort Frances’ “Double Take,” here is what one of our judges had to say:
“This one feels like [a modern song]. Incredibly consistent production quality, simple yet effective lyricism, and instrumental cohesiveness easily make this the standout single. Consistency and catchiness are what makes a great single. This tune accomplishes it all with a fresh sound. This one drives the whole time; you feel it from the beginning. I might be giving this song too much credit but you could easily slap this over a modern James Bond intro sequence. If you can either do that with a song or drive down the road with your windows down to it, [then] it’s a damn good single.”
Indiana native and DePauw alumnus David McMillen propelled the Chicago-based band to prominence with their sophomore album Alio, which featured another nominated song, “Building a Wall.” But as our judge explains above, “Double Take” illustrates how both polished production values and solid musical chops results in the perfect song to listen to a relaxing afternoon.
#7 “Centralia” by Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters
“A lot of tracks on the [nomination] list aren’t very uptempo. There are several country and blues options, some of which are very slow and have already been done and heard. ‘Centralia’ is uptempo and sounds like something I’d hear on 92.3 in 2015. It is catchy, representative of the music of the Midwest, and sounds like [a modern song]. The instruments aren’t overbearing and compliment one another well. The vocal lines are simple yet effective, and the background harmonies really pop making this single standout even more. Among the competition, ‘Centralia’ holds its own.”
So says one of our judges, making an adamant claim for “Centralia’s” place among the top-ten. Like a lot of the artists making this list, Dittmeier is respected as much for his determination as he is for his musical talent. Of the latter there is no doubt. Both 2016’s Midwest Heart/Southern Blues and his follow up release, 2019’s All Damn Day, are packed with songs that both elicit rapid toe-tapping while evoking sympathies for the struggles that average folks endure in this part of the world. But of the former…? Dittmeier never quits working. Always scheduling gigs, always hawking merchandise on social media, always reminding us that he’s there. If we ever let our minds slip on that, all we have to is lay his vinyl on the turntable. In a few seconds we’ll be reminded why he and the Sawdusters matter.
#6 “Jerusalem” by Paul Holdman
Our sleeper hit among the list is Paul Holdman’s deeply personal song, “Jerusalem.” As one of our judges explains in her/his argument for selecting it:
“There are a lot of Blues picks on this list. This to me is the best done blues tune by far. Holdman’s voice and guitar work is reminiscent of blues well before his time. He manages to give it his own flare that cuts very nicely. His lower register is very smooth, and when he works his way up into the higher vocal lines they bring the dynamic up handsomely making this track a well rounded one.”
Considered by many of his peers as one of the best guitarists in central Indiana (a claim we support and stand by 100%), those of us rooting for Holdman are especially happy to see him make the list because he is a legit, genuine guy. Those who’ve followed Holdman’s story or know him well, know that this song was intensely personal, showcasing both is deep-rooted faith and his emotional ties to his late mother. The fact that, as our judge above noted, that it’s a technically precise masterpiece only adds to the joy that such song brings. Some of us lobbied for a top five finish for this track. Mostly though, we’re thrilled that others who hadn’t heard it before fell in love with it on a first listen.
#5 “Bad and Better Angels” by Cari Ray and the Shaky Legs
In very short order, Cari Ray and the Shaky Legs have become one of THE premiere acts in the Hoosier state. Mixing her soft contralto with some mid-range octaves, Ray and long-time partner Dionne Ward have managed to take their two-person ensemble and produce sounds made by five and six-piece bands.
What wins over so many of us when it comes to “Bad and Better Angels,” however, is the song’s perfect balance of melody and lyricism. As we tap along to that deceptively happy beat, we listen carefully to a message that reminds us that we are all heathens. All of us flawed souls desperately looking for even more flawed souls so that we can call them out, and somehow feel better about ourselves.
If ever a song summed up the state of our times right now, it’s this one.
#4 “You Belong to Me” by Jennie DeVoe
How do you do a best of the decade and not include Jennie DeVoe? The answer is: you don’t. While it’s true that DeVoe’s studio activity has been relatively quiet since 2014’s Radiator: The Bristol Sessions, what remains undisputed that is DeVoe has defined a very high standard for what passes muster in the local music scene.
Whether she’s putting out something with a heavy blues influence or one of her many pop-oriented tunes which won over fans in the late ’90’s, what’s important is that Jennie DeVoe has done it by being Jennie DeVoe on her terms. And her terms have always been defined by strong vocals, powerful melodies, and a dynamic and engaging personality.
“You Belong to Me” ripples of all things DeVoe: a smooth and melodic tempo, the protagonists powerful and belting voice, and a mood and vibe that make everyone bobbing their heads to her music confidently feel that they are in the best place in the world. It’s crazy to think that DeVoe has been away from the recording booth as long as she has. It’s not crazy, however, to say that central Indiana is hungry for another batch of DeVoe tunes. She is the matriarch of the music scene in these parts. She is everything in terms of talent and personality that nearly every band wants to be.
That’s the way it should be. A status well-earned. None of us, however, are ready for her to quit.
#3 “We All Bleed Red” by Dacota Muckey
“Similar to that of an early Imagine Dragons and more reminiscent of Mumford and Sons, Dacota Muckey grabs the fuck out of your attention at the beginning and keeps it throughout the whole track. During that first yelling of ‘We All Bleed Red’ an ‘a-ha’ moment is triggered within the listener. I’m already enjoying the song musically, and now I can appreciate the message it is promoting. Boom badass single.”
These comments from one of our judges reflects the mood many of us felt when we listened to Dacota Muckey’s stellar tune. In fact, of all the tracks making the nomination round, Muckey’s work surprised several of us the most. For one, the production quality is strong. As another judge said, “Some of the studio recordings of the impressive artists were well [done] and clever. Way better than I expected.”
Muckey’s success starts in the studio and carries over to the stage. No question. But for listeners discovering Muckey for the first time (including some of us approaching retirement age), the quality of work on both his single and his first full album play a big role in winning over new fans.
#2 “Once in a While” by Gus Moon
“I think there are a lot of melancholy singer-song writers who want to be what Gus Moon’s ‘Once in a While’ is. What I mean by that is there are some tunes that have this sort of down on themselves tone, which never picks up, and is coupled with repetitive lyricism that isn’t too inspiring. ‘Once in a While,’ at least for me, is the opposite. ‘A lost cause may blow away with the wind but once in a while you will find it again’ Maybe my complaint is that those other tracks have too much verse and not enough pop in their chorus, but I know one thing for sure: the optimism in the chorus spawned out of the verse’s sense of sadness make ‘Once in a While’ stand out. Not to mention it’s a catchy tune. Moon’s lyricism is unrivaled locally, and you won’t convince me otherwise. Additionally, you could make a case I am a little upset that Splendid Noise didn’t make the cut for best EPs/Albums.”
So says one of our judges, and one of our judges says all we need to say.
#1 “Plain, Loud, and Clear” by Keller&Cole
It was the runaway winner. In list after list after list after list the same name popped up:
…Keller and Cole.
…Keller & Cole.
The spelling varied (for the record, the official arrangement is “Keller&Cole”), but the sentiment remained the same. Something about this tune, be it Landon Keller’s vocals, be it Kara Cole’s dynamic harmony, be it the soulful spirit in the lyrics, or be it those little vocal inflections Keller throws in the choruses…
Whatever it is, “Plain, Loud, and Clear” casts that sort of musical, lyrical, and effectual spell that every songwriter, every performer, chases.
Listen to the recorded version–complete with that power piano accompaniment filling in the spaces–and you can’t help but be mesmerized. Listen to them live–just two vocalists and Keller’s six-string–and the effect is much the same.
No matter how you listen to it, “Plain, Loud, and Clear” won us over less for its musical and vocal brilliance and more because of the way it made us feel. It’s the perfect chemistry of sound, mood, and memory. The kind of song that moves you so profoundly it affects you physically. The kind of song that feels like a perfect first date over and over. When a song does that it becomes something more than a favorite on a playlist. It become the track you hit when you need to be taken somewhere, to a place no car or plane can carry you.
That is the magic of a beautifully crafted song. That is the reason why we must all keep supporting our local and regional musicians.
Congratulations to everyone who placed, everyone who got a nomination, and everyone who has worked on a record somewhere around these parts. We can’t wait to see what everyone puts out in 2020, and we’re looking forward to the next genie that we all get to bottle up.
We should start by making it clear that the album selection process went a little differently than the “Best Single” process. For one, not everyone was involved in this stage. Time was definitely a factor. When we decided to go forward with this, we had to move quickly. Asking folks who are up to their eyeballs in family and professional lives to listen to at least five years’ worth of records was kind of a lot. For what it’s worth, as we move forward, we plan to be more immediately responsive, listening to each single, EP, and album release over the course of 2020 as they come out. So…thanks for your patience.
We also took a different approach aesthetically as well. We made it a POINT to look at each album as a complete work, not a collection of individual singles. We considered all the factors one being thematic value. Even “non-concept” albums have such an element to them. We also considered “listener commitment level.” By that we mean: is this a record you can easily spend an hour listening to? Records defined by a lot of “skipping to my favorite tune” produced a different experience than records which felt like “full engagements” from the dropping of the needle to that clunky movement of the rocker-arm 18 minutes later.
The results may seem illogical at a glance. Wait…? some might ask. “None of this record’s songs made the ‘Best Singles’ list, but the album itself did…?” Or, “This band’s ‘Best Single’ nomination is from Album X, but you guys picked Album Z?”
Here we shrug our shoulders. Different criteria. And we’re talking about different criteria which we care about. So yeah…that happened, and we’re cool with it.
Like the “Best Singles” process, this was hard. Some records were on the list, then slipped off. Others were just under the cut, then clawed their way onto the list. The goal, of course, isn’t to say “these are the only five albums worth listening to.” The real goal is: “Here are five great records, and there are dozens more like them, totally worth your time.”
The lifeblood of the music industry isn’t happening on the Grammys, anymore. The future of music is local and regional. The talent is good. The songs are good. The recording quality is often very good. The future is your neighbor who slings a six-string, tosses out some brilliant alternating rhyme schemes, and knows how to run an extended metaphor through a hard four-count beat.
#5 Open Up Your Eyes by Brandon Tinkler
“When I sit down on a hot summer day and soak in that Hoosier humidity, I find myself repeatedly turning to Brandon Tinkler’s Open Up Your Eyes. I stare into the emptiness of the deck around me and imagine my parents and their friends, grilling burgers, drinking Blatz, and talking about Nixon. Everyone talks about how the music of the 60’s influenced them, but nobody actually tries to replicate it. Brandon Tinkler did. It’s a hell of an achievement, and the record is worth a few hundred listens.”
NRM Founder, Donovan Wheeler
Ever the taskmaster, ever the frugal budget-master, when Brandon Tinkler walked into Postal Recording’s studios he knew exactly what he wanted. It was something he had constructed painstakingly for years. So when he plunked down his hard-earned cash for that precious time behind the microphone he was ready to make it count.
As we said of the record back in the summer of 2018:
“The degree to which Tinkler’s endeavor wins over listeners will depend largely where they’re coming from when they hit ‘play.’ A Baby Boomer who grew up listening to the British Invasion catalogue in ‘real time’ may admire the work, but hold off on Beatles or Stones comparisons.
That, however, is the wrong way to look at it. For all of the album’s retro panache, Open up Your Eyes is still a 21st century production. And here…in this century…in this indie music landscape, Brandon Tinkler has decided to set aside worn down labels such as ‘Americana’ and ‘cross-genre’ and instead create that record all his musical friends urged him to do for years. By those standards, the album is a refreshing change of style, pace, mood, and content. It’s a project worthy of a $15 CD purchase, worthy of a trip to a live performance, and most definitely worthy of respect.”
Hat’s off to Brandon Tinkler. Number five on our Roadie Award, Album of the Decade.
#4 Memories Are Rolling Credits by Carmichael
Carmichael’s 2017, self-titled debut album was one of those records that won over listeners with its ability to tap into one musical trend without giving up on rock-and-roll. The result was a brilliant collection of tracks which melded smoothly from one song to the next. By the time you slipped the record back in its sleeve you knew you’d listened to a band that wasn’t finished experimenting–a band which had a hell of a lot of innovation to unfold.
That innovation reveals itself in the band’s sophomore album, Memories Are Rolling Credits. While the record’s first two tunes draw from styles established in the first album, Carmichael swaddles these new songs in a rich production value, creating a full and warm listening experience.
Then comes track three. As much as Brandon Tinkler answers the question, “What happens when a modern artist tries to mimic a 60’s sound?” Carmichael does the same thing…but add a decade. After listening “Apollo Falling” and “The Socratic Method” it’s hard not to grab that Supertramp record in your collection (pre Breakfast in America, please)–or maybe some vintage ELO, and notice the stylistic parallels in play.
Memories Are Rolling Credits is a full listening experience because it knows when to give us what we want and expect from Carmichael, and it knows when throw all of that out the window and be something we didn’t think any regional band could be. Yes, this record (and several others) are testaments to exponentially growing achievements happening in studio development and post-production. But a great production has to start with a solid musical chops, an evocative conceptual vision, and the wherewithal to put those two assets in the right sound booth and make it happen.
#3 Front Page of the Modern Age by Fort Frances
Fort Frances’ second album, Alio, established the band (fronted by native Hoosier and DePauw Alumnus David McMillin) as the sort of rock-and-roll band that knows how to lay down a beat, layer it with a gripping melody, and leave us tapping our toes the rest of the day. Alio was a transitional record of sorts. In that collection we saw a trio of young single men using music to have a good time into three adults working their main shifts as husbands and fathers.
The band’s third record cements the idea that Fort Frances has grown up. Yes, the band still knows how to rock and crank out songs that exude “fun,” as our reaction to “Double Take” illustrates. But that third album, Front Page of the Modern Age, is loaded with a range of tempos, and much richer themes. The relationship challenges in Alio are now full-on LIFE challenges in the new album…as they should be.
Front Page captures not just anxieties of parenthood and growing old, but unique challenges of latching onto those anxieties in the age when the world’s future feels murky. Front Page for the Modern Age wants to let us know that everything is going to be okay, but it also doesn’t want to bullshit us. An honest record has to earn its audience by letting us know that it really has no idea how the hell anything is going to play out. The future is kind of intimidating at best. For the world, for a family, for a father, for a rock-and-roller, even. Knowing that we can share that collective stress through art matters.
This is a fantastic record. Period.
#3 Hills by Bigfoot Yancey
“[The album] is both a combination of Bigfoot Yancey’s patient development as a group of musicians as well as a testament to their appeal as a group of people. And it’s the latter, more than anything which sells the band. As good as the record is (and it’s very, very good…after about six dozen sessions on my computer I still can’t turn it off), it’s the band’s cosmic allure in person which makes becoming a fan worth the experience. Not because they cast the glitz and aura as a set of Kliptch-level superstars (but if that happens, they could pull it off), but because they stand before you as authentic human beings.”
Three years, and another full-length record, later Hills stays viable for all the reasons that beautiful moments do. It’s like a perfect date, the one you replay in your head for the rest of your life. Hills helped many of us who where indoctrinating ourselves into the local music scene conceptualize and embrace that thing that is Americana music. Keep in mind that many of us were finally putting away those plastic CD towers for good. You know…the ones that framed each side of our “big” 27″ TV sets? How we stumbled upon them isn’t the most important thing. Maybe we found them the second week we started using Spotify. Maybe we heard them when the explosion of bars and brew pubs suddenly expanded local music faster than a Coronavirus.
What matters is that for a lot of us music suddenly became something we never thought it could be. Hills offered such a range of talents, from Mike Angel’s steady vocals to Loran Bohall’s work on the saw. The album proved to many of us middle-agers that “genres” were all but dead. Good music was good music. Good music was the stuff that made you feel. Made you think. Made you want to put away the vinyl after the last song, step out your door, and try something new you had never done before. Hills did that. It still does that.
#1 Keller & Cole by Keller&Cole
The songs are well written. The songs are beautifully performed. Landon Keller’s deep-mid ranges harmonize perfectly with Kara Cole’s dynamic vocals. All of the tracks on Keller&Cole’s self-titled EP are magnificent examples of technical and musical brilliance.
But that’s not what makes Keller & Cole a great EP. Keller & Cole is a great EP because every single song makes you feel. When a record proves itself not just a collection of artistic pieces, but one of emotional episodes, then that is a record that accomplished something.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the duo is versatile. On a weekly basis they win over new fans as a stripped-down acoustic pair, relying on Keller’s strings along with both vocals. Yet, listening to the studio tracks–complete with piano, additional guitar work, and studio effects–does not diminish the magic of their work. If anything, it makes you long for the chance to hear them play live with a full band.
After listening to their newest single, 2020’s “Love Drunk Alchemy,” one can easily argue that Keller&Cole’s “moment” isn’t quite over yet. Most of us, however, would probably argue that their moment hasn’t even gotten started.