Years before the don’t call ‘em millennials named Cornelius in their trucker hats and civil war beards were old enough to shave, Rob Larson was building Legendary Wisconsin Beers in his kitchen. Eighteen years ago, he opened Tyranena Brewing Company. His ales, pales, and barrel-aged porters are masterpieces. The new-to-the-party mico, nano, and pico breweries only hope to come close.
The public space at TBC features portraits of Chief Black Hawk and the original Bitter Woman, namesakes of his flagship porter and India pale ale. You’re only a stranger on one of the dozen bar stools once, or by choice. Given the cast of characters who routinely gather to hoist a pint and exchange philosophy, the tasting room is like Fox and Friends, New Day, and Sportscenter, all rolled into one.
Tim Sprecher exudes competence. His three-quarter ton Ford is showroom-spotless, and backed into the middle of a parking spot in the back forty, with the rearview mirrors folded inward. She had 300k on the odometer before his first scratch. He dresses like Orvis meets Eddy Bauer, is well-spoken, and really tall. On Thursday, December 15th, I straddled a stool next to him and ordered a pint of Medusa Imperial IPA.
It has been said that Rob is not averse to the minutia of his business and prefers to have a say in most matters, including the background music. You will find no orchestrated re-makes of Beach Boys classics. Muzac it ain’t. Ranging from Katherine McPhee’s one hit (?) “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates,” to the Cash Box Kings’ cover of “Chicken Head Man,” eclectic comes to mind. Most selections are from artists who’ve played on TBC’s live music Saturday nights, or are someone’s favorite.
Fifteen years ago I offered Rob a copy of It Came from Nashville, the 1992 release from Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks. A couple weeks ago, Tim and I toasted the approach of a New Year just as the computer serendipitously picked cut number 10 from a middle-aged rocker in high-waters, suspenders, and a pocket protector who dubbed himself “two hundred pounds of swaggering bulk, and an electrifying performer.”
Donny “The Twangler” Roberts gave Webb a vocal break to dictate the “Poolside” rules: “No running, no jumping, no profanity and no dogs.”
As Donny jumped back into another searing rockabilly riff on his purple Fender Flying V, I cued up The Webb Wilder Credo. Tim paused to absorb this wisdom while watching the replay of Russell Wilson escape a full-grown defensive end and throw a bullet to Doug Baldwin in the end zone. Tim admitted that as much as he loved music, his taste was largely secondhand, borrowed from his niece or plucked from conversations like this.
I responded by sharing what I thought was a fairly novel notion, “You know Tim, I think we are surrounded by poetry, art, and beauty. Regrettably we’re often too busy, blind, or numb, and end up walking right by.”
I was working on a quote from “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” to make my case when Tim trumped me silent.
“You know, Bill, without art, life as we know it would cease to exist.”
Tim shows up in work gloves at 8:00am the Sunday after every Storkfest, so I consider my response specifically not to offend. I’ve got my favorite potters, painters, authors, and g’itar pickers, but altering the course of civilization seemed a stretch. I went back to the big screen, pretending to watch the Seahawks vs Rams, and gave it some thought.
It has been said, and I can confirm, that “blues music is all about feelin’ good about feelin’ bad.” Thirty years ago, I danced with abandon with my friend Barb, as the Mudhens helped us celebrate the commencement of real life, and graduation from the University of Illinois. Then, in December 2007 I was driving from a milk fever to a dystocia when the FCC broke into The Dave Mathews Band in the middle of “Crash into Me” to announce the New York Stock Exchange had been closed mid-session to halt a free-fall of the markets. For the years to follow, businesses struggled to keep their nostrils above water. Our clients had to choose between the health of their pets… and supper. During that time, the family court commissioner of Jefferson County ruled that my kids were better off an hour away.
Two beers and a Saturday night at the Crystal Corner Bar with The Cash Box Kings were one of the few pleasures that could relieve the vice that crushed my temples… by three full turns.
Brad Wells is a bipolar blackbelt, college linebacker, prison guard, dog trainer, karate instructor, Thai Chi master, potter, and friend. Twenty-five years ago I stopped to have a sandwich in his basement studio in Cambridge. Without breaking conversation, he bellied up to his wheel and threw a hunk of mud in the middle. Like an eighth-grade boy gawking at a poster of Farrah Fawcett, I stared as he imposed his soul on the pound of Paoli clay. My whole head tingled like I’d taken off my stocking hat with a full sweat in the middle of a blizzard as he pressed his thumbs to his fingers, and a vase rose from the amorphous grey lump. I’ve served three dozen Valentine’s, Birthday, and Cheer-Up bouquets of red roses and wildflowers, from that teal-green and earth tone vase. It is featured prominently above a salt-glazed piece from my friend Bruce Johnson, and below a pitcher made for my mother by Mark Skudlarek.
As I arrange the next line of this story in my head, I sip from a mug Paige duped me into choosing for Father’s Day 2004. She told me it was for our friend, Sarah.
Over our mantle, there are three pictures. In the center hangs a portrait of a puppy, napping on a pair of cowboy boots. Purchased from the trade show at National Finals Rodeo, it ensures I’ll never forget my first Christmas with Sheila. Our second year was marked by the arrival of a Wyoming Cattle Dog, Token. To the left is a sketch by my brother, Glenn Fuller, of Token and her sister, keeping Remmi forever on our mind. A cowboy on a quarter horse riding a line-fence through a blizzard hangs in the corner. It may be the only piece in the house created by a hand I haven’t shaken. It caught Sheila’s attention at a benefit raffle for a friend. A patch of black ice cost him thousands in medical expenses, and his girl. The piece made its way to our wall Christmas 2015.
It is inarguable that art enhances our lives. But the stock market would have recovered if I’d spent those Crystal Corner Saturday nights at home playing Scrabble. I look forward to my cup of Kafe Karuba from Mark’s mug every morning, but coffee is 90mg of caffeine per cup even if I drink it from Styrofoam. The plumber who fixed our toilet wouldn’t know Benny and Luck’s portrait by my friend Rod Mellot from a velvet Elvis purchased at the Decatur Holiday Inn starving artist’s sale.
“Without art, civilization as we know it would cease to exist,” still seemed a stretch.
In order to make Tim’s case, I had planned to incur Merriam Webster’s definition of art: “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.” Thus, there is an artist in back hoe operators, welders, and HVAC technicians. There is an art to sales, conversation, plowing snow, and making friends. I planned to cite Paul Kalanithi’s take on the art of brain surgery from his best-selling posthumous memoir, When Breath Becomes Air.
Then Jamie Manix brought in her ten-year-old Miniature Schnauzer, Lilly.
Lilly is Jamie’s last living thread to the elderly neighbor who owned her first, and to her recently deceased husband, Tim.
Lilly’s going to live until she’s thirty.
Once we’d assured Jamie the lesion on Lilly’s side was a small laceration from the icebergs that lined her path and Lilly’s disdain for chipmunks, the air in the room lightened considerably. Years removed from her childhood in the Volunteer state, Jamie’s diction is soft on the ears like the first day of spring. Tim played banjo and shared her love of bluegrass music. Jamie leads a dance group that entertains at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. She spoke of how hands slap the chair rails and heads bob at the sound of Sinatra, Como, or The King.
I thought of my mom, who had passed nine years ago that day. She’d grown up in central Kentucky. Her cousin had played banjo with Bill Monroe; bluegrass was in her DNA. In July 2006, dementia had reduced her to skin, bones, and selfless core. In the ultimate expression of “’til death do us part,” Dad had singlehandedly taken care of her. I sent him with Glenn to the truck and tractor pulls at the Jefferson County Fair, for a three-hour break. Five virtuoso pickers, known collectively as “The New Pioneers” regularly gather at the Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson. My mom’s shoulders slumped like Raggedy Ann, and she stared at the floor. Though she didn’t know her own son from John Glenn, her toe came to life at the first note of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” tapping in imperfect time.
“You know, Dr. Stork, every time my folks heard the Tennessee Waltz, whether it was on a car radio, record player, or Patti Page singing it live, they’d stop what they were doing and dance. Every time I hear that song, I think of my parents.”
Without art, life as we know it would cease to exist.