By Merv Hendricks
TERRE HAUTE —
From a trickle at its headwaters in western Ohio, the Wabash River meanders for nearly 500 miles, first westward across northern Indiana through river towns such as Bluffton, Wabash, Peru and Lafayette, then southward down the west side of the state, passing Clinton, Montezuma, Terre Haute, Hutsonville, Vincennes and New Harmony. Far downstream, Indiana’s official state river spills into the Ohio.
Along its way, the Wabash passes sites where history was made, love was found, lives were lost, dreams were hatched, wildlife was glimpsed, senses were indulged. As it flows, the venerable river plays a water symphony: rhythms, melodies, harmonies and natural sounds.
So it is appropriate that a musical album dedicated to that river, its history, its legacy and its communities — an album produced in Vigo County and just recently on sale — should vary in style, pace, heritage and feeling as much as does the river itself.
In 13 cuts, an album simply titled “The Wabash” does just that, thanks to the amazing artistic work of a couple of dozen Wabash River-area singers, songwriters, instrumentalists and producers who contribute their styles — folk, pop, country, blues, jazz, rock, bluegrass, spiritual, including a group that uses, well, a glockenspiel.
Seven of the cuts are original compositions that the performers created, on short order, just for the album. Five of the songs (one recorded twice) are standards, one of which you very likely have not heard.
Proceeds from the CD, priced at just $10, will go to fund a memorial to Terre Haute’s legendary Paul Dresser, composer of “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” The memorial will be near his childhood home in Fairbanks Park, which itself is literally on the banks.
The album is part of a “Year of the River 2013” effort coordinated by Art Spaces-Wabash Valley Outdoor Sculpture Collection. All of the creative and production work was donated, including the masterful work of Don Arney, at whose Vigo County studio most of the cuts were recorded and mixed.
Here is a brief look at each of the 13 cuts (total playing time, 44.4 minutes, worth every second):
“On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” Justin Hoeppner:
Hoeppner starts his novel treatment of this oft-recorded song, written by Dresser in 1897, with a slow, gentle mandolin and acoustic guitar intro that soon picks up rhythm and develops into a religious feel with hints of old-time hymns. Hoeppner’s smooth tenor voice enunciates the lyrics of the song’s chorus, the part we best know, with a purposeful phrasing that pauses to emphasize the “far away” part of the signature lyric. After the second time through the chorus, Hoeppner’s version soars to what a colleague aptly describes as a Beatles-like “Strawberry Fields” sound with chorus, organ and percussion. The sounds on this song all came from Hoeppner — his voice (including high tenor and bass harmony), his stringed instruments and his keyboard. There is a reason this is the first cut. It’s that good.
“Wabash Bird,” Roxie Randle:
Randle, who grew up in Hutsonville, Ill., a river town, says that “Wabash Bird” has been her publishing name for years. Now it’s a country song that has potential much beyond a local appreciation album, for which Randle wrote it. This is a song that can make it on the national country charts because its message is universal in that realm of music: leaving home to chase dreams, living a fast-paced life (as Randle does as a Nashville recording artist) missing home, fondly remembering simple things like smalltown life and family dinners. The song largely combines Randle’s resonant voice in a lower register (hints of Karen Carpenter) with an acoustic guitar without much backing. Memorable lyric: “And now this Wabash bird is goin’ home, spendin’ some time goin’ slow, rememberin’ what matters most.”
“I’m Gonna Float My Boat Right Back to Terre Haute,” Will Foraker:
“Pep it up,” it says on this song’s sheet music, and Foraker does just that, pounding out the song convincingly in jazz stride piano style and a Leon Russell-like vocal. “Float” is not only about Terre Haute; it was also written here, in 1921 by Malcolm Scott, who taught music at Gerstmeyer High School for 35 years, beginning in 1929 (according to Tom Roznowski at hometown.indiana.edu/profiles.htm). Scott died in 1994 at age 93 and is buried in Roselawn Memorial Park. The address on the sheet music, by the way, is 653 Chestnut St., fittingly near the corner of Seventh and Chestnut, the sites of Indiana State University’s performing arts center and fine arts building. Memorable lyric: “Paris, France, New York, Chicago, dey ain’t got a chance, no. You can’t compare them to that Indiana town of mine.”
“River Run,” Dicky James and the Blue Flames:
Dicky James and the Blue Flames extend their Chicago-style blues a bit on this song, as Dicky Wagster (James) plays a glass slide on his Stratocaster. The style fits well the stories the song tells about someone coming down U.S. 41 from Chitown and then learning about respecting the Wabash River and its dangers. A man is lost in the river: “The Wabash drug him out to the middle, now they never seen that man no more.” And a freight train falls into the river off the Big Four Bridge: “The Wabash ate that freight train. You’ll never see that train no more.” Dicky’s guitar and vocals are well-backed by mouth harp, organ, bass and drums by this band that has for two straight years won the Indiana blues band of the year competition at Indy’s Slippery Noodle Inn (where they are scheduled to play Dec. 28-29). Hmmm, guys, how about putting this on your play list for those Noodle shows — and also on that third album you are working on? Just sayin’.
“A Day on the Wabash,” Tom Roznowski:
In a Dylan-Guthrie style accompanied by autoharp-like ring of a capo-ed acoustic guitar, this chronicler of Terre Haute’s history tells the story of day cruises on the Wabash that could be from the time that “On the Banks” was written. Around dawn, the boat Reliable heads north up the river, “pushed against the mighty current by a tug.” It passes Miami Indian burial grounds, and at one point the captain cuts the engines and blows the whistle to let the passengers watch a flock of 1,000 doves fly off and “block out the sun.” Then, at a picnic grounds in Montezuma, the passengers spend the day in laughter, games and eating. At dusk, the boat heads back to Terre Haute, as a brass band plays.
“They Gonna Wash Away,” Crow Cannons:
Here’s your electric rock song on this album, a classic garage/Southern rock sound, heavy on the bass strings. In it, the duo of Jimmy Caldwell and Matthew Edwards sing about growing up around the Wabash and how it washes away the rougher times and makes the challenges seem not so challenging. “We have gone [to the Wabash] for fun as kids, solitude and refuge when needed growing up,” the two say in a press release, “and amazement of the beauty that exists today. The river winds itself through the landscape, just as it does with people’s lives and history. That was the basis of the song we wrote.”
“The Terre Haute Waltz,” David Hanners:
Every album needs a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper man, which Hanners is. He grew up in Casey, Ill., and was an Indiana State University journalism student. He now lives in Minnesota. Accompanied by fiddle, acoustic guitar, harmonica and a female harmony voice, Hanners uses a folk-country waltz (hence the name) to tell about those oppressively hot summer days in Terre Haute: dragonflies that “hang in the air,” catfish that “tug on a 20-pound line,” while the river flows slow. There, he sings, all memories are dear. Memorable lyric: “Terre Haute, the breeze calls your name, through the leaves of the sycamore, take me back to the crossroads on the prairie, then I shall roam no more.”
“Wabash Cannonball,” Diamond Hill Station:
This is a masterful rendition of the best-known song on the album. Singer-guitarist Mike White and the guys playing banjo, mandolin and stand-up bass stay true to the song’s old-timey bluegrass roots. White’s gritty voice, with just the right drawl, leads the group through a brisk version. The song, by the way, (according to Wikipedia) was originally called “The Great Rock Island Route”; its first sheet music was dated 1892. In 1904, it was rewritten as “Wabash Cannonball” by William Kindt. The Carter family recorded it in 1929, followed by Roy Acuff in 1936.
It is, Wikipedia notes, the signature song of the Indiana State University Marching Sycamores — and of another little Hoosier school on the Wabash, the one in West Lafayette.
“Drive Me Home,” Yearbook Committee:
This is the cut with the glockenspiel, which is the novelty we have come to expect from this group that gives new meaning to the term eclectic. As it notes on its website, its style is: “A lot of folk. Some of everything else thrown in there too. A whole lot of harmony.” All of that is in this song, as vocalist Christina Blust sings an almost-whispery solo at the beginning, backed by acoustic guitar. A single female voice soon harmonizes, with glockenspiel accompaniment. The rest of the committee then joins in a Broadway-style chorus (I’m thinking “RENT”) when the song comes to the lyric: “… But of crying trains and cornfields at night and the rising Wabash River.” That’s followed by Blust and committee’s call-and-response that gives the song its title: “C’mon … C’mon, drive me … C’mon … C’mon, drive me … C’mon … C’mon, drive me home.” The song closes with an a capella surprise with a male lead and full harmony. This is one of the album’s best cuts.
“She Was Born in Indiana, Where the Wabash River Flows,” Brent McPike and Solly Burton:
McPike is a virtuoso on guitar, Burton on mandolin. Here they meld their talents in an instrumental rendering of this 1905 John Daniels song that was unearthed at the Vigo County Historical Society. This may be the first time it has ever been recorded, according to one of the album’s producers. McPike and Burton trade lead and backup roles in a song that carries traces of both “On the Banks” and “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Its influence is described as Americana jazz. The song’s lyrics, McPike said in a news release, tell of a “soldier boy” who “sings of a sweet patriotic girl from near the Wabash whom he dreams of marrying and eventually does.”
“Life Flows By (In the Wabash),” Judson Hill:
Female voices in lower register accompanied by simple acoustic guitars seem to be a trend on this album. None is better than Alexa McFadden’s voice on this song. As colleague Mark Bennett told you in last week’s ’BASH cover story, Judson Hill has a new album, “Beauty in Goodbye.” The band, which looks amazingly young for its talent, played last Saturday night at a Terre Haute club. This song tells of good memories, not unlike Randle’s on her song on this album: grandma’s grin, momma’s beauty, family being everything, old hymns being sung, catching a fish with grandpa’s help, when “time meant nothing at all.” Now, “life flows by so fast,” McFadden sings in a powerful voice on another of the best cuts on the album. Memorable lyric: “I close my eyes, it all comes back, down on the river bank. … My memories lie in the Wabash.”
“If It Wasn’t for the Wabash River,” Faron Glenn and the Midwest Playboys:
Johnny Cash would be proud of this toe-tappin’, beer-drinkin’ version of his 1977 song. As many a country tune, this one is about a man who loses a woman’s love and turns to the suds for relief, “drowning memories of her.” In a news release, the band said it “wanted to put our own twist on the song, doing it all acoustic and giving it a little bluegrass flavor.” Mission accomplished. Memorable lyric: “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River, I’d be going out of my mind.”
“On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” Extrachordinary:
The album’s final cut, as its first, is the Dresser piece that gives the collection its inspiration. It’s the perfect bookend. This version — the shortest cut at 1:34 — is in barbershop, a style of music that is very Terre Haute, given the Harmony Hall influence. Extrachordinary is a group of teenagers that started performing the song this fall. In the a capella harmony that one would expect from barbershop, including a bass slide on the word “Wa-aw-aw-bash,” the group shows it has learned well. Memorable lyric: “From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay.”
After listening to this inspiring album, maybe you could join me …
• … in hoping that the Year of the River 2013 folks could produce a stage show next year involving as many of these artists as possible. Each artist/group could play “The Wabash” cut from the album, perhaps even backing each other. For a finale, all players could be on stage to do a group version of “On the Banks” — starting with Hoeppner, giving his unique interpretation; quieting it down with Extrachordinary for an a capella spot; turning it over to Dicky James and the Blue Flames to do it blues style; giving it to the Crow Cannons for a rock rendition; asking Randle and Judson Hill to country it up together; combining Roznowski and Hanners in a folk duo; twinning up the Yearbook Committee, Brent McPike and Solly Burton for an acoustic, eclectic version; trusting it to Diamond Hill Station and Faron Glenn and the Midwest Playboys for a bluegrass/old-style country treatment, and letting Foraker give it an 88-key workout on piano. Could be memorable — and the admission charge could go to further fund the Dresser memorial.
• … in asking our local radio stations to play at least some cuts (within format) throughout 2013. All of this music is air-worthy. I’m especially looking at you, station that nicknames itself “The River.” Actually, it wouldn’t hurt any local station to play some songs off-format in the interest of community support. Bravo to any stations that have already begun playing songs from this album.
• … in hoping that local businesses could play the album over their in-store sound systems, at least occasionally in place of their canned music. We understand one is doing so already.
This is more than a musical album. This is a statement about community pride, about personal struggles, about a watery tie that binds us, about cherished memories. It is excellent and deserves our support.
It also reminds that some great music makers are in our midst here in the Wabash Valley. We need to get out into clubs and support them. We need to buy their albums. The music will be good for your soul.
Find the album
You can purchase a copy of “The Wabash” for $10 at several area businesses and organizations, including
• Arts Illiana
• Barnes & Noble at ISU
• Boo’s Crossroads Café and Corner Grind
• Coffee Grounds
• Harmonious Hedgehog
• Headstone Friends
• The Vigo County Historical Society
• Finzel’s Master Tech
In Bloomington, the CD is available at
• Howard’s Bookstore
• Landlocked Music
It is also available at the Tippecanoe Arts Federation in Lafayette and the Greencastle Music Center in Greencastle.
• The CD is also available online, including cuts from each recording, for $12 at www.CDbaby.com or as an MP3 download for $9.99.
• The official website for more information on “The Wabash” is www.wabashvalleyartspaces.com/thewabash
• The Year of the River website, which is still being updated with new events, is available at www.2013yearoftheriver.com.