Dee Wren on the History, and Temporary Absence, of Iowa Music

The host of the Iowa Music Showcase podcast reflects on local music history, her own personal journey, and adjusting to a world without live music amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo courtesy of Dee Wren

Dee Wren, also known by the online moniker Dee OlderMusicGeek, is an avid music fan and promoter in Des Moines, publisher of the Iowa Music Showcase podcast, YouTube channel and blog. Her work has explored Iowa music history with an all-encompassing approach to genre, exploring hip hop, classical, punk, jazz, country, pop, metal, and everything in between, from the early twentieth century up to the present day.

I thought of Dee recently. Local music has been on my mind a lot for the past few months. Musicians are stuck at home performing to a single phone (which is actually more audience than I’ve had at a couple shows). Venues have reduced or no programming. No one knows when this will end but it’s definitely not soon.

Dee Wren, right, with members of the band Lipstick Homicide. Photo courtesy of Dee Wren

In one sense, local music seems less important than ever, put into perspective by the pandemic and the historic movements against racism and police brutality. Yet, local music is also showing its significance and value through its temporary loss: the role it plays in creating settings for gathering and expression, as well as its undervalued contributions to local economies.

Local music isn’t a factor for many people or, if it is, it’s more or less part of the wallpaper. However, in many Iowa communities you’ll find a small but dedicated population deeply invested in local music: artists pouring time, money, and energy into their craft, arts workers who cause live events to occur, and especially music fans coming out to encourage, support, and enjoy performances.

Dee Wren is absolutely one of the most encouraging and supportive of those music fans in central Iowa and has contributed to Iowa’s musical culture. She recently corresponded with the Informer about her multifaceted approach to arts research, her musical journey, and a year without 80/35.

You’ve explored so many genres and eras of Iowa music history. Can you recommend some underappreciated bands and artists that people should check out?

Well, I’ve never hidden my love for Lipstick Homicide. Really fun, catchy stuff, but still hard rocking punk and great musicianship.

Always been a big fan of North of Grand. Great power pop stuff.

I’m a big fan of the New Orleans sound, so I like Omaha’s Cajun/zydeco band, The Prairie Gators; Des Moines’ NOLA jazz band; and Des Moines’ brass band, Grand Ave Ruckus.

I think the Steve Carlson Trio plays some awesome jazz. I think Steve is the best bassist in Iowa. And his saxophonist, Julius Brooks is incredible too!

I think Mike Sangster is way underrated. (Full disclosure: He was a childhood best friend.) In the late ’80s, the alternative rock band he played in, The Hollowmen, was highly appreciated, but never really broke through. I also like the ’90s Iowa City band he was in, Head Candy.

The Horrorshow Hoods were a lot of fun — alternative rock is as good a description as any. Never saw them live, because I was busy raising a young girl single-handedly, but I like what I heard from them.

Was also a huge fan of Peace, Love, and Stuff. Called themselves vintage rock, which is as good a description as any. They were the first band I discovered when my daughter got older and could stay home, so I was able to get out and see some shows. Lavonne McRoberts was a great songwriter and Dylan Boyle was amazing on guitar. Dylan Boyle has actually done some great blues stuff.

Bob Tyler & The Reckless Hearts, featuring Bob Tyler on a stand-up bass playing some awesome old style rockabilly.

The Law is another great ’80s band. They were called punk, but I think they were more alternative rock. Charlie Chesterman of the group later moved to Boston and made a name for himself with Scruffy the Cat, and as a roots rocker.

Also loved Ladysoal! They described themselves as soul rock, which was a good description as they rocked, but still had a lot of soul.

And people should really check Java Jews, “Iowa’s only klezmer band.” They’re a lot of fun, really talented, and playing music that no one else around is playing!

We are both people who seek out “Iowa music.” It’s a geographic category, it’s not a genre exactly, it includes all genres, and I think that’s part of the appeal. How would you define it?

It’s all part of the ongoing question: What is local music?

I remember reading in an interview where Gordon Gano questioned how much of a Wisconsin band Violent Femmes still were. Two thirds of the original band is from Wisconsin, but Gordon spent his first ten years in Connecticut, and now lives in Denver. Brian Ritchie, the only other permanent member, lives in Australia. Only percussionist John Sparrow, who started playing with them in 2005 — 25 years after the band started! — lives in Wisconsin.

Some claim big band leader, Glenn Miller, as part of Iowa music heritage, because he was born here and spent his first few years here. And some include the writer of the The Music Man, Meredith Willson, because he grew up in Mason City, but he really didn’t start his music career until he moved to New York to study at Julliard, though it wasn’t called that yet. And I believe The Music Man was about the only thing he did with an Iowa connection. And classical composer, Antonin Dvořák, wrote a symphony, string quartet, and string quintet, while visiting Iowa one summer. Do those get to be counted as Iowa music?

Wren at a Violent Femmes concert. Photo courtesy of Dee Wren

So yeah, I wouldn’t count Violent Femmes’ later work really as Wisconsin music, though the argument could be made for it. And I wouldn’t consider Glenn Miller, Meredith Willson, and Dvořák as Iowa music.

So what is Iowa music? To me, Iowa music is music that was made by people based in and living in Iowa at the time they made the music. At least, that’s how I defined it for my Iowa Music Showcase website and podcast.

But even there, I cheated, and occasionally included musicians who started out in Iowa. And I had no problem including musicians from Omaha or the Illinois Quad Cities, or even Sioux Falls, because their proximity, I felt, made them influenced by and influencing Iowa music.

So I guess that’s my very roundabout way of explaining what Iowa music is to me!

How did you get into Iowa music?

I love music and grew up here?

Though neither parent played music, both did enjoy it and played it regularly around us kids. And I had a big brother that got me into different music, too. Though they didn’t listen to that much local music, that’s where my interest in music started. I actually might not have gotten into Iowa and local music if my childhood best friend and brother hadn’t become musicians and songwriters.

This was the ’80s, the very beginning of the internet. So the only way you got to know about any local music was by going to shows, word of mouth, fanzines, and very occasionally on the radio. For young’uns who don’t know, fanzines were these little self-produced magazines fans made. They were the blogs of the pre-internet days. I have to admit, I really wasn’t that supportive of the local scene back then. Most of the local music I did know was through going to shows of my friend or brother.

But after college, I joined the Peace Corps, where I was sent to Lesotho in southern Africa, and ended up living there for six and a half years. What does this have to do with local music, you ask? I’m getting to it!

In Lesotho, music was a big thing. You could take four random Basotho — the people of Lesotho are Mosotho singular and Basotho plural and Basotho is also the adjective to describe things from Lesotho — you could take four random Basotho from anywhere, give them a couple of minutes, and they could sing these a capella songs with crazy rhythms and melodies in unbelievable harmony!

Every club and group — whether they had anything to do with music or not — in a school had a choir and would compete in competitions! And any random group of Basotho could burst into a song! And for a music lover like me, it was awesome, beautiful, and amazing! But I think it also taught me how good music can be found anywhere, including right next door.

I did become more interested and started checking out local music when I got home. But I ended up poor with a kid, and the marriage turned to crap. Then I got divorced and went into a depression, while having to do most of the raising of my daughter. And I started dealing with being transgender at this time. So yeah, I wasn’t doing much of local music exploration back then. I was just trying to get by and raise my daughter as best I could.

But I started taking antidepressants, seeing a therapist, and my daughter started getting old enough she could be left home alone. And I started seeking out local bands. I remember thinking a lot of them were the best bands at 80/35! And with the internet, I had a way to explore and check them out. So in a very long-about way, that’s how I got into local and Iowa music.

Wren with her daughter. Photo courtesy of Dee Wren

Now, if I can drag out my answer to your question even further, I would like to comment on the appeal of Iowa music that you mentioned. You talked about the various genres being part of the appeal of Iowa music. And that’s part of it, but it’s more than just having a lot of genres here.

If you look at some of the most respected writers and/or performers of any genre, like say McCartney-Lennon, Willie Nelson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Queen, Bowie, Dolly Parton, Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ravi Shankar, Angélique Kidjo, one thing they all have in common is they listened to a lot of different genres when they were younger and continued to explore more genres when they got older.

A second thing they have in common is their willingness to work in different genres and work with musicians from different genres. And I think these are two important, if not the most important, things that helped them grow as artists. And if you look at any place that has a thriving, well-known music scene, they might be known for one particular style, but there are plenty of genres doing stuff there or nearby.

Take New Orleans, which is obviously mostly known for its jazz. But you also have brass bands. And Cajun and zydeco are huge in Louisiana. But they also have thriving, if smaller, hip hop/rap, R&B, heavy metal, and alternative/indie scenes. Nashville is obviously known for country music, but it has had some very and fairly successful acts come from their blues, rock, heavy metal, alternative/indie scenes, as well as others. Seattle is mostly known for Nirvana and the grunge scene, but it had a big folk and jazz scene earlier in the century. And quite the indie scene has grown out of there since. And of course, New York has a lot of great rock, punk, and alternative/indie bands, but it also has a thriving classical and jazz scene, as well as Broadway, with so many other scenes.

So these are two things that I feel Iowa, and my hometown Des Moines, have going for it. So many types are making a go of it here. Some more successfully than others, but they’re trying. And from what I hear from musicians who come from other places or have moved back, Iowa has more musicians working in different genres, and with musicians from different genres, than some other places.

It’s this cross-pollination that I think makes places like New Orleans, New York, and London producers of great music. I think if Iowa worked more on that, we could have even a greater music scene. That’s part of why my Iowa Music Showcase podcast and website’s mission was to include music from any and all genres.

What are some notable artist or album discoveries you’ve made through your research?

Well, being a little bit of a history buff, I find some of the older stuff I learned about interesting. Like the fact, which I mentioned before, of Dvořák visiting Iowa one summer and writing three pieces here. And some things we think of as Iowan aren’t that Iowan, like Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.

I think it’s cool that there’s been what we think of as local music around for decades! There was local big band and swing artists performing in the ’30s and ’40s! I always wanted to play more of that older stuff on my podcast, but it was hard to find, and even if I did find it, it was next to impossible to get permission to play without posting any rights and fees. And this was a no-budget effort!

I found out that there were a few albums put out in the ’70s on vinyl of Iowa music.

I’ve always had a mild interest in Medieval and Renaissance music that wasn’t necessarily classical music. So finding Drake and ISU madrigal dinners was pretty awesome! And a number of other universities have them! And a bunch of regional artists playing at Renaissance fairs. Some more faithful than others, but all of the music influenced by Medieval and Renaissance music.

And I’ve appreciated good children’s music. I think if it’s done well enough, adults can appreciate it, too. So I was super excited when I found out about the children’s music album the Iowa public library put out with a bunch of local artists, For Kids & By Kids. And you can download it for free from the Iowa City Public Library website!

I was also pleasantly surprised by how much original Christmas and holiday music Iowa has! A lot of them are a song or two done by a band. But a LOT of bands have at least one holiday tune. A few have put out EPs and albums. Strong Like Bear’s Christmas Is Coming is one of the latest Iowa Christmas albums! [Editor’s note: Informer writer Bryon Dudley is a member of Strong Like Bear.] Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any real Iowa Christmas compilation albums, but one can always check out these episodes of the Iowa Music Showcase podcast.

And I have to give a shout-out to Caucus! The Musical by Iowan Robert John Ford! You can’t get more Iowan than that! And he’s written some other Iowa-based musicals!

You are a regular at live concerts. How has the pandemic changed your music life?

For this past week, the isolation was getting to me more than usual. I had been really grumpy and lethargic. And I was thinking that it was all just finally getting to me! While I still am annoyed and upset by everything, from the president and governor to the population at large not taking COVID-19 seriously and forcing me to stay in my apartment by myself longer, I came to realize there was more to it than that.

Then it hit me out of the blue, for some reason, that this was the 80/35 weekend!

For those that don’t know or are not from Des Moines, that’s a local music festival featuring national, regional, and local acts from various genres for a day and a half. And for someone like me, who likes to listen to many different genres of music, this is perfect! 80/35 also gives me a great chance to discover and hear new music that I might not have heard otherwise. A way to discover new acts, both national and local.

It’s hard for me to explain what 80/35 means to me. I am a musical fanatic. I live and breathe music. I once said, and pretty much meant it: Music is my religion. Live music is my religious service. And 80/35 is my holiest of holy days!

It’s hard to explain what live music does to me. But it fills me with a glow and warmth, something I’ve sorely been missing with this plague. So after a day and a half of that, I’m obviously just floating.

“Music is my religion. Live music is my religious service. And 80/35 is my holiest of holy days!”

I remember one year when money was tight and my then-wife asked if I could skip 80/35 that year. I was totally heartbroken, but understood where she was coming from. Funny enough, it was my teenage daughter who batted for me. She helped my wife understand how much it meant to me. She put it in grumpy, selfish teenage terms. She told me she didn’t want to put with a grumpy, depressed father. Plus, apparently, for the rest of July, I was a lot more agreeable and willing to let her do stuff. But I knew that she also understood how much it meant to me, and was willing to fight for it for me.

Though the music is the main part, there more to that. There’s also kind of a reunion aspect to it. I see and meet people from the local scene that I know. They may not always be people I’m super close to, but they’re always people I enjoy chatting with and seeing. And it’s just neat being around a whole bunch of other people who are also into live music from different genres, and hearing them get excited by the stuff they’ve heard and seen.

But this 80/35 was also going to have special significance for me. It would have been the first year I was going as a woman. I’m not really sure how to explain the importance of that to me. But by going to something this significant to me, as a woman, that I’ve done for years as a man, I think I was taking a big step toward accepting myself as trans and a woman. And I am depressed that I’m missing out on that opportunity.

But even with the government and population fucking things up with COVID, someday it will be safe to return to live music and do 80/35 again. I’ll just have be patient and wait it out.

Nate Logsdon is a writer, editor, and indexer from Ames. He was a founding editor of the Ames Progressive and contributing editor at the Iowa Informer.