By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
When I question his allegiance to the coastless scene that just voted him one of its best new artists, he laughs nervously. "I'm a Midwesterner by choice, sometimes by determination or obligation. But the beach is nice," he says. "Right now there's a lot going on in the Twin Cities and I have a lot of friends there. But that's not to say I'm going to stop writing lyrics about the coast."
Fair enough. With his show out of the way on the first night of the conference, Koza has plenty of time to enjoy the country's east side, including its greasy sidewalk pizza ("My body feels like a bloated sponge. You don't want to shake my hand right now") and neighborhood basketball ("While waiting for a friend on the Lower West Side, I got into a couple pickup games. Since I wear glasses, I have this little elastic activity band I have to wear. I get a lot of Kurt Rambis shout-outs"). He's also excited about the Rhymesayers showcase, Atmosphere and Brother Ali in particular. Hundreds of musicians from all over the world are at his disposal, and he wants to check out the locals. Maybe he's more Midwestern than he thinks.
Zimmerman's Dry Goods, in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul, is a rather eclectic shop. Their merchandise includes rucksacks, flags, winter hats, Che Guevara T-shirts, and other items primarily aimed at Macalester College students.
On most Friday afternoons it's also the makeshift practice space for the Get Up Johns. This means that shoppers--when there are any, which doesn't seem to be often--are likely to hear knee-buckling versions of such classic country songs as "Cash on the Barrelhead" and "I'll Fly Away."
The Get Up Johns are Joshua Wenck and Jake Hyer. They've been playing gigs around the Twin Cities for about 18 months and have recently completed their first album. They are in the final stages of working out the details for a co-release by local labels 2024 Records and Mercy Recordings. Wenck plays guitar; Hyer plays mandolin and fiddle. Their repertoire is composed largely of old-time country and gospel tunes, with a heavy emphasis on songs recorded by the Louvin Brothers.
Such material could very easily descend into hackneyed territory. It would be reasonable, for instance, to assume that the world needs another version of "Blues Stay Away from Me"--a song that's been recorded at least three dozen times, most famously by the Delmore Brothers--like it needs a Billy Ray Cyrus revival. But the version performed by the Get Up Johns, with Wenck and Hyer's voices blending together as naturally as cheese-garlic grits, is so relentlessly brutal and beautiful that such thoughts are immediately discarded.
Hyer's claim to this musical turf is pretty straightforward. The 26-year-old grew up in West Virginia (albeit the college burg of Morgantown) listening to bluegrass and old-time country music. A Dwight Diller tape, which Hyer received as a present from his dad when he was a teenager, is the source of several of the band's tunes. "My dad lived outside of a town of 400," recalls Hyer, whose voice still retains a lazy mountain drawl. "He was just, like, in the general store and he picked up some tapes for me and brought them back." Hyer's been playing violin since he was a kid. He attended Wheaton College, in Illinois (where he majored in the financially dubious fields of philosophy and German), and then continued west to the Twin Cities. He works as a clerk at Zimmerman's and also at a used-book store.
Wenck's appreciation of traditional country music is a little more unlikely. The 29-year-old grew up in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities. At Bethel College (now university) in St. Paul, he studied theology. He went on to Yale Divinity School and recently was hired as a pastor at the House of Mercy church in downtown St. Paul. Wenck pinpoints his fondness for this music in the historical roots of the songs, noting that many of them were written during and immediately after the Great Depression. "There have always been and there always will be floods, but it seems like at one point more people realized that we all have to get into the same boat," he says. "But it's also a lot of songs about heartbreak. These songs get at heartbreak in a way that is just so beautiful and poignant."
For a recent Friday-night gig at the Nomad World Pub, the Get Up Johns, dressed in matching black suits, take the stage around 11:30. Despite some early scuffling on the mandolin by Hyer and a mid-set busted guitar string, it's an inspired 45 minutes of sin, salvation, and heartbreak. Hyer plays the stone-faced straight man to Wenck's garrulous carnie barker. The shtick succeeds in the sense that when Hyer announces that he's going to tell a joke, the statement on its own is quite funny. (The joke itself, naturally, is bad.)
"Cluck Old Hen"--a much-covered traditional song ostensibly about a hen that mysteriously quits laying eggs--showcases Hyer's driving fiddle and Wenck's sweet tenor. When the latter throws back his head and wails into the night on the chorus, people pause mid-sentence and set down their drinks. "I'll Fly Away," the Albert E. Brumley classic, is another standout, inspiring a trio of alcohol-happy patrons to perform a freeform jig on the dance floor.