Wednesday, July 15, 2015

TMFW 97 - Dreamin' Wild on the Farm

Today's TMFW comes to you from Whitefish, Montana, just west of Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of the state.  We are here on our summer vacation, having driven 1600 miles from our home outside of Chicago.  The last several hundred were on US Route 2, a mostly 2-lane, mostly empty old road that runs east-to-west across the top of the country.  Driving it, I was struck by all of the tiny little blink-and-you-miss-them towns that we passed through on our way out.  I guess in the pre-interstate, pre-Wal-Mart, pre-Amazon, pre-chain hotel, pre-mega gas station, pre-corporate farming, pre-modern days, the towns supported themselves.  These days they are mostly empty buildings and brief speed limit slowdowns as you buzz through on your way to the next "real" stop.

I tried to think of a Montana-themed TMFW for today, but couldn't settle on anything fun.  So instead I moved a little further west down US-2, where 60 miles northwest of Spokane you will find the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Fruitland, Washington, and the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson.

As told well in articles from the L.A. Times, the New York Times, and The Guardian, Donnie and Joe Emerson grew up in the 1960s and 70s on the family farm in Fruitland, where their dad (and their granddad before him) worked as a farmer and a logger.  Fruitland is so small that it didn't support a school; instead, the brothers went to a K-12 public school 10 miles north.  Joe's high school class graduated 16 kids; Donnie's had just 14.    

The brothers - Donnie, especially - loved music, and each of them could play.  Donnie played guitar and piano and Joe played the drums, and the two of them spent a lot of time making music together.  But because they were out in the middle of nowhere, for most of their childhood they had no real way of hearing new stuff.  That changed in 1977, when their dad bought a new tractor that had a radio built in.  Tuning into KJRB AM 790 out of Spokane, Washington, as the brothers worked the fields they were exposed to Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson, and Hall & Oates, and Motown, and 70s prog rock.  It influenced the songs that they played and that Donnie wrote for them. 

As the brothers grew older and got better at playing together, they started to dream of a career in music.  Being nowhere near a recording studio or professional resources, they asked their dad for help.  Remarkably, he obliged, and piece-by-piece he built them a state-of-the-art (for the 1970s) home recording studio on the farm.   Donnie and Joe set to recording a record, and in 1979 they completed the album Dreamin' Wild.  The album was produced by the brothers, it was written by the brothers (Donnie wrote most songs with Joe co-writing a few), it was (but for some background vocals) performed by the brothers, and it was self-released by the brothers on their own label.  The two were in their teenage years when they pressed 1000 copies on vinyl, and after that feat one might guess that success found them.

Not so much, it turns out.  The album - a mix of rock, soul, R&B, and funk that sounds like it was recorded on a farm by two teenagers who got their music education from AM radio - fizzled and disappeared quickly.  The recording studio was never used for another album.  Joe joined his dad in the family business, and still lives on the farm where he and his brother recorded their record.  Donnie didn't give up on music, but never hit it big.  He got more help from his dad as he recorded an adult-contemporary album in the early 80s (it also fizzled) and he now makes a modest living playing music in and around Spokane. 

That's not such a great story, and there are lots of bands that recorded forgettable albums that didn't hit like the musicians hoped.  But what makes it today's TMFW is what happened 30 years later.  In 2008, a music collector named Jack Fleischer spotted a copy of Dreamin' Wild at an antiques shop in Spokane.  He bought it for $5, and upon listening he loved the album.  He spread the word and shared the record, and it became an underground hit.  The album attracted interest from the re-issue record label Light In The Attic, who contracted with the brothers and released the record in 2012.  The typically-picky reviewers at Pitchfork gave the record an 8 out of 10, calling it "a godlike symphony to teenhood" and hailing the single "Baby" as a "stunning soul ballad."  Allmusic gives it 3.5 stars, and the re-issue means that you can find it at Amazon (free, if you are a Prime member), at iTunes, and on streaming services like Rdio and Spotify.  It's a charming record.

So there's your TMFW for today: in 1979, two brothers in a homemade studio on a farm in the middle of nowhere self-produced and self-released a record that got buried.  It was unearthed in an antique shop and became a hit 30+ years later. 


BONUS FACT:  Jack Fleischer - the fellow who "discovered" Dreamin' Wild in 2008 - writes what looks like a super-cool blog where he spotlights obscure and overlooked independent music.  I spent only a few minutes there and had to bail out for fear of getting sucked into the music and the stories.

BONUS FACT 2:  The Emerson brothers' song "Baby" was covered by the California artist Ariel Pink on his record Mature Themes.  Pink's version was used in the pretty-decent movie The Spectacular Now.  

BONUS FACT 3:  This has nothing to do with music, but on Sunday my buddy and I rode bicycles up a mountain on Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Our route took us 16 miles up the hill, from Avalanche Creek to Logan Pass and the Continental Divide, and we climbed 3500 feet from where we started.  It was freaking sweet. 

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