A show at BVU tonight will honor two legendary bluesmen
A local bluesman is doing his best to establish a legendary musical style on the northwest Iowa scene.
Tom Gary, when he isn't teaching the Talented and Gifted students in the Schaller-Crestland schools, or acting as an adjunct professor in the classrooms of Buena Vista University at night, is outfitted in a jaunty porkpie hat ala "Elwood Blues" and pounding away at the keyboard anywhere that people love a high-energy, jazzy version of traditional blues music.
Gary invited two of his friends, bass player Jeff Baker and guitar player and vocalist Dennis Kain to Storm Lake to join him in a concert at BVU's Anderson Auditorium Thursday night. Although Gary was struggling with a throat ailment, the show soldiered on, and the audience was mesmerized, heads bobbing along with the beat.
"We had a better crowd than I expected. This show was kind of the best kept secret in town," said Gary, who resides near the campus, where he is teaching a Blues History class during interim.
In its second year, the class has proved so popular that BVU has had to put a limit on the number of enrollees, so that the intimate nature of the class can be preserved. "It has filled up every time," Gary says.
Blues music has unquestionably made a comeback in recent years, with younger artists joining the ranks of the classic bluesmen. Gary finds that his students quickly come to appreciate the art form.
"It doesn't take long to realize that this is pretty much the root of everything - rock 'n' roll, contemporary music, even rap is rooted in blues," Gary said.
In class, he shows the movie "Fathers and Brothers," which pairs blues performers together with today's rappers.
They find they can perform seamlessly together. "It's pretty cool stuff," Gary says.
Why is the blues a rising form of music?
"It is something pure and basic, and it speaks to everyone in some way," Gary said. "People who don't know the blues may think it is some depressing kind of music, but I think it was B.B. King who said that what blues was really invented to do is chase away the blues."
Gary and Kain are mainstays in the Central Iowa Blues Society, which works to preserve the music and promote its performance in the midwest.
Gary, then a struggling blues musician in Des Moines, was one of the founders of the organization in the early 1990s. He started passing a sign-up sheet when he played the Thursday Night Blues Jam at the Blues on Grand club in Des Moines, ground zero for the modern blues movement in the region. About 200 signed up to form the society initially.
"I knew we needed something like this in Iowa, and it just got bigger and bigger. It is now the biggest blues organization per capita in the world."
Gary took a backseat, although he continues to chair the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame through the group. "I'm not a politician, I'm a musician. I stay in the background and play my music," he says.
His story is far from one of overnight stardom. He started performing back in high school.
"A guy heard me playing piano, and saw me struggling trying to play rock and roll. He showed me a blues scale for the first time. Then, when I was 26 or 27, living in Kansas City, I finally realized that I wasn't going to be a rock star. It's become a young person's game, and I wasn't getting any younger."
He went back to his exposure with the blues years earlier. "I wanted to try something different," he says.
He returned to Iowa and in 1991, formed "The Tom Gary Blues Band," which was a staple act of central Iowa for several years. It was then that he started work on the blues society and hall of fame.
Trained as a teacher, he found he missed the classroom. When Albert City-Truesdale needed an art teacher, he moved to northwest Iowa - only to find that the district would soon merge with Sioux Central and eliminate his job. He considers himself lucky to have caught on with Schaller-Crestland so that he could remain in the area, get a foothold in collegiate teaching, and still keep a music career alive.
Gary still plays regularly around central Iowa, often pairing with Baker and Kain as "The Raccoon River Blues Boys."
"It's a long trip to do a concert in Des Moines at night and get back here to teach classes. I've had to quit doing that during the school year," Gary admits.
What he would really like to do is get live blues music established in the lakes region from Storm Lake to Spirit Lake.
"We're trying to get it going, but so far, we just haven't found the places to play yet. It's tough to get people on board sometimes when they haven't had the chance to see it played live."
Some bars and restaurants in the area expect musicians to play for only tips, he notes. "It's not really fair for me to ask musicians to travel here from Des Moines and not be able to promise them any dollars."
To Gary, the Storm Lake bandshell just a couple of blocks from his house would be the ideal place to play summer night blues concerts. He also has his eye on the theater stage in the Lakes Arts Center in Okoboji and a few spots in between.
In the meantime, he hopes to bring blues performances to BVU to build up a fan base for the musical genre.
"There are some open spots in the ACES program for next academic year, and I would love to grab them and be able to bring some top blues concerts to Storm Lake people," he said. "We can get some hall of famers in here."
As if to prove it, he's doing just that to wrap up his Blues History classes.
Blues Event Tonight at BVU
On Tuesday night, an informal concert and celebration will be held in the Centennial Room of the BVU Forum, starting at 8 p.m.
It will be a tribute to the lifetime achievements of two blues hall of famers, Jimmy Prior and Gene Jackson. Prior, about 90 years old, and Jackson, in his 60s, will both be in Storm Lake to join the show. One of Iowa's own, Fort Dodge native Erick Hovey who has been a top performer in rock, blues and jazz since his teenage years in the '70s, will also be performing.
The show tonight is open to the public, and lifetime achievement awards will be presented to Prior and Jackson.
Meanwhile, the Raccoon River Blues Boys plan to continue pursuing their own music, a joyous, driving, stripped down tribute to the music they have come to love.
"We like the Delta stuff, even some ragtime stuff. Those great old songs like 'Mr. Crump' and 'Hot Tamales,' we can never get away from. And to tell you the truth, we hope people never stop asking for them, because we still love them too."