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.