‘Writers in the Round’ on the ground floor of something special

Music in Muscatine

By Rod Peck

The Wildwood BBQ and Saloon in Iowa City has a terrific idea for musicians and fans alike with their new “Writers in the Round” series of shows. Fans of the television show “Nashville” will be familiar with the idea of singer-songwriters sitting in a semi-circle on stools sharing songs and stories with an intimate audience, and this is exactly what the Wildwood aims to replicate right here in Iowa. The first event in the series was on Wednesday night, Dec. 18. Terri and I felt eager anticipation as we left Muscatine with the sense that we could be getting in on the ground floor of something special.

The complete billing was Cody Hicks and Friends Wednesday Writer’s Round, with Hicks center stage acting as MC, flanked by Joshua Stanley on his right and Jef Spradley on his left. Hicks is a native Iowan, from Montezuma, Iowa, population 1,462 as of the 2010 census. I can just imagine Hicks on “Hee-Haw” and the whole cast in Cornfield County giving his hometown a big saaaaaa-luuuuuute! Stanley is originally from St. Louis but now lives here in Muscatine, while Spradley hails from Houston but now makes his home in Davenport. Each of the three has spent some time both on the road and in Nashville pursuing his dreams, honing skills and living the life of the struggling artist. It was a great experience to listen to the tales of these three young men and their experiences in the music business. Hopefully one day Stanley’s song “39 Miles to Muscatine” will become our state’s “Amarillo By Morning.”

As someone who is always rooting for young people to achieve their dreams, I was immediately caught up in the new songs each writer shared, ever mindful that these songs are like babies to their composers. I remembered a moment from more than 10 years ago when Terri and I saw Bob Dylan perform one of his first concerts after the release of his then-new album “Together Through Life.” For the first six songs, Dylan sang only classics from his back catalogue in a light-hearted manner. Then, his demeanor suddenly changed and I recognized the opening chords to one of the new songs and it was clear he was determined to get it right, and the great Dylan also betrayed some trepidation as if afraid the crowd might not respond well to his new baby. It takes a lot of guts to get onstage and sing any song, let alone a new one that you just wrote yourself, whether you’re a young artist working toward achieving your dreams or an accomplished one with nothing left to prove. Seeing these mini-dramas unfold song-by-song is part of what makes this setting unique and enjoyable.

Another enjoyable part of the inaugural evening of the Writers in the Round series was that all of these fellows are genuinely good guys anyone would be glad to see succeed. The camaraderie between the three young men, all of whom are around 30, never seemed forced or phony; they all appeared to be having a genuinely good time, and all seemed to personally like and musically respect each other. Evaluating each of their respective talents, it began to register with me that Hicks is the best songwriter of the three, while Stanley has the kind of voice you can easily imagine hearing on the radio with a hit song. Without a doubt, Spradley is the most skilled musician, supplying seemingly spontaneous, improvised and tasteful guitar support for Hicks and Stanley on their tunes, and a few times he busted out the harmonica rack to blow the harp on his own. Now, I don’t know anything about these guys except what I saw and heard onstage that night, so I can’t speak for what their individual future plans are. What I can say is that if I were a talent scout or A&R guy for a record company, I’d have a suggestion for them. I began to get a vision that if these guys could pool their individual talents and put a band behind them, they could really be something special. Who knows exactly what would happen musically, but I’m thinking of a Jason Isbell-era Drive-By Truckers type of band.

I love the concept of this new series and have high hopes that it will become popular with local music fans. The plan is to have the Writers in the Round on the third Wednesday of each month; however, with New Year’s Day falling on a Wednesday this year, the next show will be Jan. 22. Then Feb. 19, followed by March 18 and so on. A mighty enjoyable evening it was with our meals arriving just in time to eat delicious BBQ as the show began. Eastern Iowa music fans, we need to get out and support the Writers in the Round series and make it into something we’ll have to enjoy for years to come. It’s up to us to make it happen!