The Iowa license plate on the big grey GMC van rolling into the parking lot at Culver’s on 8th Street in Monroe says “SHOWTIME”. At the wheel of the rig is Becky Livermore, a talented, smart lady known to tens of thousands of fans as “Barefoot Becky”. Her husband Terry Ard is riding shotgun; also in the van, which is laden with hundreds of pounds of stuff it takes to put on a performance (music, stands, instruments, speakers, amps, etc.) are Dale Baker, and my friend Tom Plummer.
It’s just past noon on Sunday. The quartet in the van have been on the road since just after breakfast, which, in this case, was in Trempealeau, 184 miles to the northwest of Monroe. Becky parks the rig, bounces out of the van, and with a broad smile shakes my hand. Terry does the same, and then, Dale and Tom join in. A quick round of “good to see you again” is exchanged; Becky says “so, are you going to sit in with us for a set today?” – and my quick reply is “no indeed, not when you’ve got a pro like Tom with you. I’d embarrass myself!”
Three decades ago, I was a tuba player, fortunate to have worked with some of the better polka bands that crisscrossed the upper Midwest, and I played tuba on a lot of polka records. Those old records, from the 60’s,70’s, and early 80’s are, in fact, the genesis of this day with the Dutchmen. A couple years ago I got a Facebook message from a tuba player named Tom Plummer, asking if I was the guy who played tuba with Ray Dorschner’s band and John Check’s band back in the day. After I confirmed it, he told me he grew up listening to me on those old LP’s, and he lightheartedly referred to me as one of his tuba idols! That was the beginning of a great friendship. A month ago, I spent a day with Tom at his home in Lake City, Iowa, where he’s the long-time band director at South Central Calhoun High School in Lake City. His bands have won enough statewide awards and competitions to fill several shelves with trophies and plaques. It’s a rare year that Tom’s high school jazz band doesn’t win the Iowa state Division 2 championship.
Tom often plays tuba and e-bass with Becky’s band, and I’d been looking forward to this stop in Monroe for months, for another chance to visit in person with Tom. It’s often said that tuba players have similar personalities – good sense of humor, happier in the back row of the band than the front row, gregarious, and with a zest for life. I guess part of it comes from lugging that huge horn around – you gotta have a sense of humor! Tom arranged with Becky to have me meet them for lunch in Monroe, before they set up for their gig at Turner Hall, and I can’t thank him enough for making it happen.
We ordered lunch and the conversation began. The band had started this road trip Friday late afternoon in Toledo, Iowa, playing from 4:30 to 6 PM at the village’s annual Stoplight Festival. (Yes, it celebrates a traffic light in Toledo, but the story behind it is too lengthy to relate here.) It was about a hundred degrees at that time of the afternoon and they were playing on a platform in the direct sun, with no cover. Then they packed up and headed for Saturday’s gig in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, which has for decades hosted a big polka festival in July with lots of bands. I’ve played at that festival many times, back in the 60’s. We talked about mutual acquaintances working with the bands at Ellsworth, and how there are fewer bands now, but the crowds are still good.
The lunch-table conversation is light and lively. I’m struck by how similar it is to conversations I had with fellow musicians back in the day. Lots of witty by-play and laughter; good-natured ribbing. It’s obvious these folks are comfortable with each other and get along well. It’s Becky’s band, and there’s no doubt she’s the boss. After her husband, Terry, gave her some lighthearted grief about being the boss, she says “I wish I’d met Harold Loeffelmacher (the late, legendary leader of the famous Six Fat Dutchmen band) – I heard he was sort of gruff, too!” I assured her he was, and that she was a long way from having Harold’s temperament.
Becky started playing professionally as a young lady back in 1988. Why the bare feet? She claims it was just more comfortable playing that way, and, savvy marketer that she is, she knew every band needs a marketing hook, and “Barefoot Becky” became her identity. She’s extremely personable, is a virtuoso on the accordion, sings like an angel, and knows how to get the crowd up on its feet. You don’t survive in the band business for as long as Becky has, without being very good at what you do, and, to do it full-time, like Becky does, you’ve got to put a lot of miles on the van. You have to take what’s available, so Becky books as a two-piece band, a three-piece band, a four-piece band, and, like this weekend’s gigs, as a five-piece band. The administrative load of booking and managing a band is not for the faint of heart.
Becky’s husband, Terry Ard, is the tech and electronics guru of the band. In addition to completely handling the audio set-up for each performance – which is absolutely critical – Terry has mastered several instruments, and it’s his versatility that’s key to the overall sound of Becky’s band. On Sunday’s gig, Terry will play guitar, banjo, trumpet, and baritone horn – in addition to doing vocals on many of the tunes. He switches between the instruments seamlessly, never missing a note, and is a tremendous showman. Because of his flexibility, the band can present several distinct “sounds” to the audience.
Dale Baker, the drummer, is a veteran of many years on the road. He mentions in conversation that his dad had a band, and he still has the music library stored at his home. His musical roots run deep. He’s soft-spoken, but not shy, and quick to join in a practical joke. In a band like Becky’s, the drummer is the foundation of everything. After all, this gig, like nearly every other one that Becky books, involves playing songs that people dance to. And you can’t have fun dancing if the beat wanders all over the place. Dale’s kick drum sets the tempo, and Dale keeps tempo like a metronome. His fills and accents drive the band, while providing the rhythmic foundation that the band – and the dancers – can’t operate without.
As we’re finishing up our burgers and fries, Don Elmer walks into the restaurant. He’s driven down from his home in Omro to be the reed man (clarinet and saxophone) for Becky on this gig. Don and I are both alums of Ray Dorschner’s Rainbow Valley Dutchmen. Don played with Ray in the 50’s. There’s not an old-time tune that Don can’t play, and play well. And he’s a real character. After a round of handshakes and greetings, Becky asks Don how he’s doing, and Don says “I’m able to perform menial tasks under constant supervision”, which draws a round of loud laughter. There’s a style of old-time music called “hoolerie” (HOO--la-rye), which features a clarinet lead, and Don is a master of it. Becky takes full advantage of Don’s talent in this style by lining up several hoolerie tunes in the set-list today.
The boss says it’s time to head for the gig, so we do. Tom hitches a ride with me over to Turner Hall, so we can spend a few extra minutes visiting. It’s amazing how much we discovered we have in common via our online friendship – we’re both strong family men; big baseball fans (Tom is a die-hard Cubs fan); both of us spend a lot of time with our dogs; and of course, there’s the universal brotherhood of all old-time tuba players.
The setup (or, “load-in”, as the younger set now calls it) is a well-practiced and highly choreographed ballet, first lugging all the instruments and equipment onto the stage through a very narrow and twisting passageway at Turner Hall in Monroe, a venue I’ve played scores of times back in the day. I try to stay out of the way, and contribute to the effort only by carrying a couple of small cases from the van to the stage. My artificial joints don’t do stairs well.
Above is a shot of Dale setting up the drum kit, Tom grabbing the bass library, and Becky and Don visiting. Meanwhile, Terry is busy stringing the bird’s nest of wires and connectors for the mikes, setting up and balancing the sound system, and attending to all the details that go into making a professional sound presentation for the band.
Tom takes a few minutes to warm up on his e-bass. Aficionados of the electric bass will note that Tom plays a classic Fender Precision Bass. He uses it on fox trots and other non-polka dance tunes that Becky has lined up for this afternoon’s gig. For those uninitiated in the classic Midwest dance-hall format, songs are played in “sets” – and usually, a set consists of three songs. It’s typical to alternate between polka and waltz sets, and about every fifth set is a fox-trot or “modern” dance set. A successful bandleader like Becky will have a real sense for what the crowd is responding to, and will alter the presentation to give them what they like; and, will also have done enough gigs to know what to do the get a complacent crowd off its butts and dancing.
Here’s a shot of Tom and me, with Tom in the “uniform of the day” (Becky likes colorful, unusual shirts). He’s holding his Conn 20J tuba, which is the gold standard for tuba players who work with polka bands. Conn stopped making the 20J model decades ago, so, like collector cars, Conn 20J tubas are in limited supply, carry a fairly high dollar value, and tuba players who own 20J’s keep them in good shape. Tom’s 20J dates back to the 1930’s, and is a very smooth-playing horn. (Yes, we love to play each other’s horns, or, as I call it, take it for a test drive.) I bought a 20J brand-new in 1966, when Conn was still making them, and sold it in 1984 when I moved to Los Angeles. Just a few months ago, the bug bit me again, and I bought another 20J, a 1968 model, from a tuba-playing friend in Appleton.
Tom is a consummate artist on both the brass bass (tuba) and the electric bass. He’s played with scores of well-known polka bands, big-band style dance orchestras, and everything in between. His bass-playing can be heard on many records (or, as they’re now called, “CD’s”.) Playing old-time bass is something I know a bit about, and the very first time Tom sent me a CD of his playing, I was blown away by his talent and skill. He’s really studied the genre, and can make that big Conn 20J “sing”!
The time for visiting and warming up was over; and right at the stroke of 2PM Becky started the gig with her band’s theme song, Ideward’s Polka – a tune written by Ray Dorschner’s son Steve when Steve was all of four years old! Becky is kind enough to allow me to sit off to the side on the stage, about ten feet from Tom, hidden from the audience by a curtain (prompting Terry to say “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”). On that very first song, Tom perfectly executes a run up to high B-flat. I chuckle to myself, because when I was playing, it would take me a good 10 or 15 minutes of playing to have the courage to attempt hitting a high B-flat.
This is what it looks like from behind the band – a perspective the audience never gets. During a break between sets, I switched sides and went to the other side of the stage, so I could capture a photo of all five band members hard at work. The band sounds great. Everybody’s got their “road chops” up, and they’re really clicking together. Set after set, Becky’s got the crowd up on their feet, dancing to the music and clapping in appreciation after each song. She’s got that innate sense of figuring out what makes any particular crowd happy, and then providing it. Of the hundreds and hundreds of tunes in the library, fewer than a hundred will be played in a four-hour gig. Knowing which tunes to play, and in which order, is one of the central tenets in establishing a following. It’s one of the many reasons that Becky draws a crowd everywhere the band plays.
For those of you reading this blog who can also read music, here’s a sample:
This is the tuba part for the Red Raven Polka, the theme song of the famous Red Ravens Orchestra of Hilbert, Wisconsin – a band known around the nation in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, founded and led by Lawrence Duchow. About 16 measures in, you can see the tuba solo made famous by Duchow’s tuba player, Larry Pagel, the “godfather” of all Wisconsin old-time tuba players. This particular arrangement has every note written out, which is often not the case for old-time bass players. Often, the tuba part is nothing but a “chord sheet”, which simply names the chord of the melody, measure-by-measure, like C,C, C, G7, C, C, F,F,C,C, and so on. Becky’s bass library has a mixture of chord sheets and tunes where every bass note is written.
One of the great joys of playing tuba in a polka band is the freedom to improvise: you get to make up your own bass line, following the chords, but adding fills and runs to accent the arrangement. It’s not a stretch to say that playing tuba in a polka band is like playing jazz: you follow the chord structure of the melody, but you make up your own part.
I have another commitment that I need to honor that evening, so about half-way through the gig, during a break, I thank Becky again, say my farewells to the band members, and head back up to Madison. The band will play another couple hours, then pack up the van, and hit the road for home after the long weekend of playing. For my friend Tom, who lives the farthest west, it means he won’t get home to Lake City until ten minutes after 1 AM Monday morning.
For Becky and Terry, getting home to Mount Vernon, Iowa, means a rare 5-day break in the schedule. But Terry has some recording jobs he’s booked, so it’s only a few hours of sleep for him and then back in the van; for Becky, it’s a time to tackle some of the administrative work that never ends, and piles up while you’re on the road: bookings to attend to, musicians to hire, phone calls and e-mails to return, and preparations to be made for the rest of July’s gigs. The band is on the road 15 days in July, 18 days in August, and 21 days in September, with travel involving five states: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. That’s a lot of gigs, and a lot of miles.
But for those who do it, it’s the only way to live.