Saturday, October 9, 1986: the Townsend 2-South “Rhinos” gathered en masse.
We marched past the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. As we crossed Goodwin and Mathews we trended towards the Natural History Building and Harker Hall. After three years at the University of Illinois, we had learned to give Noyes Lab a wide berth in the fall. In its illustrious 84-year history, Noyes had produced no fewer than 10 Nobel Laureates, and polyester. A well-intentioned, yet under-informed grounds crew in the sixties had surrounded the granite temple of chemical engineering with a spectacular grove of ginkgo trees. Likely a gesture to a generous alum, the golden beauty of “the maidenhair tree” has surely kept them around for 3000 years. Like many things, their splendor is best appreciated from afar: on a rainy fall night, the odor of fallen fruit from the female ginkgo tree renders the gauntlet between the ancient chemistry lab and the Student Union less inhabitable than the penalty box at a pubescent boy’s hockey game.
Like a university promo video for diversity, our 10-man contingent cut through the south end of the Student Union and cashed $25 checks to get our cover charge, a few beers, and Sunday night pizza. At the corner of Green and Wright, we superstitiously rubbed a shiny copper spot on the robe of the patina green statue of the “Alma Madre”, each quietly hoping not to be responsible for her sitting down.
We glanced at the marquis and trotted up the 30 flat black stairs, presenting our student IDs and $3.50. The mountainous doorman grunted and marked the top of our hands with a sharpie, proving we were 21, or had at least borrowed an ID from someone of the same gender and ethnicity.
We backed away from the door and stood stock-still half across the dance floor. On stage, the Rubenesque lead singer of The Earth Mothers was channeling Janis Joplin and permanently expanding our definition of sexuality.
She worked every inch of the stage, like the hippie couple crossing the country “from the Kentucky coalmines to the California sun”. Her band and the crowd were just along for the ride.
She softened her shoulders as the bass and guitar decrescendoed. After a 12-bar break, she fell to the floor and rolled on her back. “Bobby shared the secrets of my soul, standin’ right beside me through everything I done, and every night he kept me from the cold. Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues, And buddy, that was good enough for me.”
She held the bar in the palm of her hand, then hit us between the eyes. As the band rose, she leapt to her feet, growling and crying, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose, and nothin’ was all he left to me.”
And so the evening, Began.
The Earth Mothers were the evening’s opening act, followed by a Texas Swing outfit that ended rehearsals in time to watch re-runs of M*A*S*H. When pressed for a band name, they borrowed from Corporal Maxwell Q Klinger’s hometown minor league baseball team, and “The Mudhens” were born. Kevin Deforrest was the lead-singer by virtue of his instrumental skills, a gut-bucket baritone, and gift of wit. He was as quick and quotable as Yogi, 6’6”, an Olympic-class swimmer, and permanently tan. Ricky and Scott laid down a Texas shuffle “like surfin’”, but the University of Illinois women’s swim team dancing and swooning in faded Levis and body suits increased their “draw” faster than an Amway pyramid scheme.
We left the dorm that night fully intending to celebrate our friend named after a pedestrian traffic violation. On his 21st birthday, Jay Walker didn’t look a day over 12. From the three-point line, he was the original “Baby Faced Assassin”.
We succeeded. The next morning all that remained was an aching head, and a ringing in my ears. The head was cured with two glasses of orange juice, three chicken Kievs, and a 10-minute nap.
The ringing has lasted 29 years, and grown into a full-blown affliction.
The posted capacity of Mabel’s is 365. There must have been 364½, every one of us dancing with abandon. The Bruiser Man seared through his Jimmie Vaughn licks dang near note-for-note, and Barb and I invented the mid-west swing on the fly.
Headlining the evening was an over-educated and insanely talented group of original roots rockers called “Otis and the Elevators”.
After a half hour set change, Jim Bury, “Natural” Jay Rosenstein, Mark “Toupee” Zehr, and Darris Hess took us all on a ride. Feet planted and eyes just a slit, we pumped our fists to the rafters. “Dominate” was a reggae-infused anthem to those bent on hindering our independence.
Jim once told me, “Bill, always leave ‘em wantin’ just a little bit more.” Just when you thought there was nothing left, he kicked off a 4-bar guitar intro, and a pregnant pause. When the card-carrying disciple of SRV busted out his take on Mother Goose, the crowd lost what was left of their collective mind. “Mary had a little lamb,” Jim whispered, then croaked, “its fleece was black as coal, yeah!” Midway through the guitar solo, he squared up, turned his back to the crowd, threw his pearl top Strat’ behind his head, and let ‘er rip.
Oblivious to bar time, we weren’t going home without “One More Song!” I clapped and stomped my Red Wings and the dance floor thundered like an empty hay mow.
Answering our call, Jim and Jay pulled together the members of all three bands. Hoping that collectively they could cobble together all five verses, Kevin started it off. Closing his eyes and creasing his bottom lip he surrounded the microphone like a toddler around a Q-tip: “I pulled in to Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead, just lookin’ for a place, where I could lay my head…”
Jim knew “I picked up my bag, and went lookin’ for a place to hide…”
After the chorus, Jay took “Go down miss Moses, they ain’t nothin’ you can say…”
We all sang the chorus, “Take a load off Annie, take a load for free,” and all 10 on stage broke down into harmony for “You put the load right on me…”
After two consecutive refrains looking for the elusive 4th verse, “Toupee” Zehr stepped up like a barefoot Kokopelli with a bass guitar: “Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog…”
My friend Jennifer Rodriguez once told me “every interaction changes the course of our life”.
I’m not sure, but this one damn sure did.
The theory of parallel instances suggests that there is no such thing as a “point source”. No fewer than 23 people had independently produced a version of the incandescent light bulb by the time Edison threw the switch.
Being as it may, Dr. Bill believes two things:
- October 9, 1986, began my infatuation with all that is art and music, well-written songs and finely crafted imagery.
- And, Bill Monroe is the Father of Bluegrass.
The Mudhens would become the soundtrack of my eight years at the University of Illinois.
For our undergraduation, I asked Dad to bring his 21-foot trailer and every extension cord he owned. The Mudhens could be heard 12 blocks away on Green Street. Seven police officers dropped by to say hi, and for years I met people who were drawn like the Pied Piper. Looking to be good neighbors, we went door-to-door making personal invitations. The old lady across the alley had no ears for blues or taste for barbecue. She was either incorrigible or clever as a politician in a cheap suit: after Buzzard and Quirk had mowed her grass, painted fences, and cleaned the gutters, she conceded to midnight. At 12:00AM on the dot, the ‘Hens were in full-throat and the gravel dance floor full. Dressed in her nightcap and bathrobe, she shined her Maglight in Kevin’s eyes, and waved her finger under his nose. They paused like a blown fuse in middle of a song: “We have a request, and that is to quit!” Deal’s a deal.
The music ended, the Party did not.
Three months later, we walked into the University of Illinois - College of Veterinary Medicine. At approximately 4’8”, sporting dark plastic goggles, and a little bit jaundiced, Dr. Mark Simon was a dead ringer for a two-eyed Minion. He greeted the terrified class of 1992: “Students who are tired perform 27% poorer on cognitive tests, 32% worse on memory tests, and 25% worse on physical tests,” he read from a “Haavad” research study.
“So, they-a-four,” the tenured professor and Cornell graduate offered his solution, “my advice to you ladies and gentlemen, is don’t get tired.”
A few weeks into our freshman year of vet school, I was scanning the entertainment section of the Thursday Daily Illini. There had been “team-building and orientation” speeches and receptions by the dean, yet my classmates largely staggered into the lecture hall, heads down, solemn and solo. Thinking this was no way to spend four years, I borrowed a sheet of acetate and a marker. When Dr. Simon returned from the mid-lecture break, there was a notice on the screen:
Dr. Stork’s research study shows: those who dance together, learn together.
Nearing the home-stretch of that first year, I asked Arlin, Rand, and Barb what everyone did after finals? After shoving nine months of drug dosages, muscles, tendons, arteries, and veins into our feeble brains, their response of “go home and go to work” did not cut it.
When a puppy sits, stays, or poops in the backyard, we give ‘em a freeze dried liver treat, jump up and down and baby talk until the neighbors think we’re crazy.
$400 and a gig in a large animal surgery lab was all the incentive The Mudhens needed. A pair of cull sows from swine research wrapped in chicken wire, a dozen bags of Kingsford, and six gallons of Little Porgy’s Barbecue sauce gave birth to a tradition. After a semester of lectures and labs, and a week of cramming, we staggered into the parking lot, blood-shot, under-bathed and buzzed on cheap coffee and chewing tobacco.
Big Pat and Little Pat (left) were our chief moral officers and anatomy lab instructors. They tended the coals and sold “day of show” tickets faster than wristbands at the county fair. Setting up the repurposed oil tank smokers 10 feet from the intake to the AC for the Basic Science Building was the best advertising since “Where’s the beef?” By 10:00AM, the fat was dripping onto the coals. Secretaries and grad students were salivating like Pavlov and the research dogs were howlin’ like Big Momma Thornton.
My Amazon “buddy” Sarah has been openly critical of what she considers to be the overtly Christian tone of In Herriot’s Shadow. I apologize for offending her, but I won’t back down from my faith.
I came by it honestly.
The Mudhens disbanded before we could finish vet school. Scott went to Seattle to design stuff with “swooshes” and Kevin moved West for inspiration and Love. Bruiser loaded Hedley into the cab and his Strats in the bed of his trademark Toyota, and moved to Austin.
For the week of graduation in 1992, we’d planned to rent the community room at Winfield Village, invite the grandparents and roast another poor hog. Which may have been fine for the CPAs, MBAs or the PhDs, but for this DVM it felt like boneless, skinless, chicken breasts in the microwave for Thanksgiving dinner.
I returned from finals on Thursday, May 13, to a message on the machine: “Hey Willie, this is Arlin”, who coincidentally was also in Austin. Like a proud papa, he had planned to come up for the graduation of the class he had so meticulously “mentored”. Bruiser decided to ride up with him. En route he found out Kevin was going to be in town as well.
“Bruiser was wondering if you had a place they could get together for a gig?”
They hadn’t played together for a few years. Kevin and I scrounged up a PA system. Before I could pull out of the drive, Kevin stuck his skull through the passenger window, “You wouldn’t happen to have an old tape in your truck?”
“Sure,” I rifled through the glove-box and produced a cassette of ‘Waxin’ the Cat’, in a cracked case, “or would you rather wing it?”
He only got stuck once, shrugging his shoulders and pointing his palms toward the ceiling tile. I mouthed, “I like guns and butter, I like potatoes too,” by which time he was back in the groove: “I like thinkin’ I’m a lovin’ man, but I don’t much care for you.”
Everybody in the room knew the words to Bruiser’s anthem to the lonely man:
I got a pain as big as Texas
I had the blues in San-an-tone
I, once, had a girl, who said she’d always love me,
(rimshot and pause)
The Mudhens’ Swan Song would become the ultimate manifestation of art imitating and predicting life.
Four years previous they had played for our undergraduation. We drank, danced and partied, then receded into security of academia.
There would be no more professors over our shoulders. Decisions were no longer graded on a bell-curve, but in increments of life and death, love and divorce.
Now it looks like I’m back out on my own.
Sunday morning, we turned out tassels. Sunday afternoon, I loaded Cooder and my stereo in the Bronco, had one more rack of ribs at Porgy’s, and headed north. Three hours and two tolls later I crossed the Cheddar Curtain, renounced my Illinois citizenship, and bid the Land of Lincoln adieu.
I pride myself in largely maintaining a steady demeanor. Early July 2009, a text from my brother Gary Edmunds had me all geeked out: “Hey Willy, Mudhens are doing a Nature’s Table reunion on Saturday.”
A series of thoughts followed: whoah that’s a long drive, what if they aren’t any good, I really should mow the grass, I was planning to go on a bike ride.
Sheila gave me the look.
The Nature’s Table was about the size of Shack’s shoebox. It was the organic, veggie, liberal-hippie hangout a block from my dorm. I was taking a study break during finals week late one Saturday night. Sitting elbow-to-elbow on metal folding chairs, I got to tapping my toe a bit too hard and unplugged the vocal monitor as “workman” Wayne Carter unleased his Ray Charles on the Hammond B-3.
Gluten-free has come a way since 1983. Their bread may have been organic and all-natural, but it took a quart of Olive Oil (extra-virgin) to pass safely. I kept a loaf next to the front door, in case of intruders.
Musicians, poets and bohemians couldn’t deny the inevitable march of academic progress. In 1994, The Table was the victim of the wrecking ball. In its footprint stands the Chemical and Life Sciences Lab, but the spirit of the Nature’s Table lives on in the hearts of those who performed, and those who listened. Each year grizzled Gen-X musicians gather to play and remember.
Struggling to stifle my memories against expectations, Sheila and I made the sojourn. Had she not fallen asleep, I’m sure I could have filled the four hours with Mudhens stories.
A foot taller than Clooney, but having aged just as gracefully, Kevin took the stage. “Don’t worry folks, we’ve got this under control,” he eased our “fears”. “We rehearsed last night,” he barked. “Since we had more beer than time, we only practiced the beginning and the end,” smiling hard with his crow’s feet more exposed with the years, and the corner of his goatee, “We cannot be held responsible for what happens in the middle.”
The boys staggered through the first few songs, but by the time Kevin boasted, “Lord I’m the man all the young girls dream about,” they had fallen together like a four-man breakaway in the Tour de France. The Mudhens had not played as a band since smoking was legal on airplanes or “the pale blue dot”, but they had all gotten 16 years better as musicians. Honorary ‘Hen “Hollywood” Bruce Bethel added a touch of class, wailin’ away on the alto sax.
Being given a nickname by Kevin was like being anointed with a trail name on the Appalachian. He said it once, and it stuck. The permanence I’ve come to realize was in his ability to encapsulate a man’s entire body of work, in 1 word.
Bruce Rummenie got two.
As “Natural” Jay Rosenstein changed a string, Bruiser stepped up, snugged his fedora, and closed his eyes. He whipped out his Michael Henderson and took the paint off the walls:
“My baby she left me ‘cuz I wouldn’t put my guitar down”…
When the dust on the dance floor settled, Bruiser gave the crowd a First Communion altar boy nod. Like an over-grown baby brother, Kevin pointed his way and waited for the crowd to silence…"The Boss."
After the show I introduced Sheila. “What you been up to, Big*?” Kevin asked.
This was a time when “stayin’ out of trouble” and “same old, same old” wouldn’t do.
“Working for farmers and trying to raise a couple kids,” I answered, “You?”
“Kevin, you may think I’m crazy, but I’ve been working on this parallel for several years…” I got all excited. If there was anyone who might get it, we were standing eye to eye.
"Starting with you and Bruiser twenty-some years ago, I’ve developed a healthy measure of respect for, and a number of friends who are musicians, painters, potters, and poets. I get to work for farmers nearly every day. I think there are amazing similarities between the two."
At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.
Most of the farmers watch the sunrise from the backside. They’ve got 10-grit calluses and handshakes that’ll lighten your heels. They work with impact wrenches, breaker bars, and inch-and-a-half sockets. They take a 1-ton diesel pickup truck, or a quarter horse to work every day. Their offices are hip-roof dairy barns, free stalls, and the cab of a 500-horse John Deere plowing a 120-acre plot.
They can measure a day’s work in bushels, tons, acres, and gallons.
I’ve grown to be self-conscious about the duration of my professions, but Kevin was with me, hook-line-and-sinker.
Artists work hours that are equal, if opposite. They craft images in notebooks, sketchpads, laptops and in tons of Paoli clay pressed through a pug mill. They transport on bike, by foot, or Honda CRV, and their offices are spare bedrooms, coffee shops or efficiency apartments in Chicago.
They write songs that make us dance, cry or think. Others craft images in oil of loves lost that will leave you stone-cold and silent.
Kevin drew from a pint of pale ale that looked like a shot glass in his right hand. Then he squared up to me.
Any farmer I know could go to town and work concrete, construction, service, or sales. In half as many hours, they could make twice as much money, and retire at 60 with benefits.
They’d rather be castrated with a dull Newberry knife.
The artists are no different. Mark Skudlarek built his studio, and his wood-fired kiln. Joel Paterson and Joe Ely once worked construction. Brad Wells taught chemistry, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and trained dogs.
Guys in a barn largely talk about weather, women, and the Green Bay Packers. To ask “why do you farm?” feels like inviting them to a Scentsy party or sharing hair (singular) care tips. By now I’ve spent enough man cards with the writing gig, they’re used to me.
Joe Spoke sold real estate before he came back to the farm over 40 years ago. He came back to the farm for the love of the land and the marriage of rolling green splendor, and productivity.
Erich Wollin had his feet to the fire as a college sophomore. A 110mph derecho leveled his family farm, for the second time in a decade. If he was going to come back to farm, his father Ed would build it back. He chose to work 14-hour days, driven by the variety and the freedom; rewarded by the productivity.
For Ryan Haack, the thought of dairy barns sitting empty with a summer breeze blowing through is depressing. He is rewarded by the physical labor and constant challenge. The idea of not farming is enticing, but frightening. A surprising response for a man who runs 26.2 miles, without training an inch.
Ned Healy has 4 reasons to farm: Sarah, Sam, Keagan, and Vincent.
Productivity, freedom, being outdoors and family were the recurrent buzzwords when guys looked down at their shoes and kicked the gravel. Yet the knee-jerk, bottom line and the last word is always the same: “It’s just in me.”
Mark Skudlarek has probably made 10,000 coffee mugs in his career. My daughter sent a picture of her notebooks, computer, and one of his mugs. The caption: “This mug is my trusted study buddy.” When I shared with Mark: “You just made it a particularly wonderful morning. Thanks for sharing that, Bill, and my best to Paige.”
Bruce Johnson loves to see his work displayed in his friend’s home.
I asked Joel Paterson what is his finest reward. “I love to start with a concept, and create a perfect recording.”
Cat-calls and applause are the tailwind, but ask an artist why they are and their answer is concise:
“It’s who I am.”
I’d held these thoughts close. I still haven’t shared them with a farmer. Somehow I think it requires less ‘splainin t