Still Playing After All These Years

  • Posted on Sep 19, 2013

Bob and Scott, Winter Ridge Handy, Robert James Waller and Making Music from 1961 to 2013.  

It’s September, 1961.  I’m eighteen, out of high school four months, climbing out of Waller’s VW Beetle he calls “Henry” as we haul our cases—guitar and banjo—into “Joe’s 218 Tap” on University Avenue between Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

He’s a junior at UNI, I’m a freshman, and we’ve been hired to sing for Joe’s bar crowd, every Thursday night.   Waller’s a starter on the UNI basketball team, and knows everyone.  A Big Man on Campus.   I’m nobody, except I can play and sing harmonies, and Waller and I know several songs that we both love to sing.  

We had met that summer while I was rehearsing with the Ramrods, a rock band I had formed with three other guys, one of whom had a brother who in fact was a great jazz organist:  Ronnie Olsen.  Ronnie played nights at the Colony Club in Waterloo, and asked Waller to join him.  Waller—yes, this is Robert James Waller, author of “Bridges of Madison County,”  Dean of the UNI School of Business, writer of a half-dozen novels, books of essays, scholarly works—had a fine natural tenor.

He absolutely loved music and felt driven to sing and play, both guitar and banjo.   So he joined Ronnie at the Colony club, sang jazz standards, playing both snare drum and banjo. Ronnie could play anything, so whatever Waller wanted to try, he had an accompanist.

When we met, I found him funny, and loved his clear tenor singing voice. He listened to the Ramrods rehearse,  amused at our earnestness, and seemed to appreciate my singing in tune. Otherwise he was unimpressed with our songs—“Be Bop a Lula,”  “Boney Maronie,” and the like.  We were kids performing songs of the day. 

Waller wondered aloud if I knew any folk songs—like the Weavers and Pete Seeger sang at the time—“Goodnight Irene,”  “So Long, It’s Been Good To know You,” and maybe a few Kingston Trio tunes, “Tom Dooley” “Worried Man, ”  “Sloop John B.”  I knew them all. 

He pulled up his banjo, I grabbed my Fender--and damned if we didn’t get through a whole song or two right away.   We were both surprised.   Than I began harmonizing, and our voices blended like honey and butter.  I had a medium high baritone, and he was a high tenor with a perfect vibrato.   The songs were simple, the harmonies obvious, but the blend was unusual, and Waller sang his heart out.    

So began our career as a duo.   

We were “Bob and Scott” for years—playing bars, parties, clubs, celebrations, special events of all kinds.  After he went to graduate school in Indiana, I was finishing my undergraduate degree (in vocal music) and he return to Cedar Falls during summers to perform.  We performed as “Bob and Scott” in 1964 and 65 at the Holiday Inn to huge crowds, five nights a week.  During the day, we gave lessons to kids eager to join the folk boom.  

In the later sixties, we added Wayne Schuman, a truly skillful guitarist and five-string banjo player, who joined us as in instrumentalist. Wayne, whom we nicknamed "Peatbog" because it was plain funny--began attracting fans simply because he could play Scruggs-style banjo that left audiences coming back for more.   So we were 'Bob and Scott with Wayne" at the Waterloo Holiday Inn for a couple of summers.   

It was the hootenanny era.  The Kingston Trio, Limelighters, Brother’s Four, Ian and Sylva, The Clancy Brothers, Peter, Paul and Mary, were cranking out hits and spawning dozens of imitators on campuses nationwide.  In short, we started harmonizing at the right time—America’s decade-long folk revival.  Christopher Guest satirized those times mercilessly in his 2003 mockumentary, “A Mighty Wind.”   When I saw that film, I realized that the folkies amounted to quirky egos taking three-chord ballads very seriously indeed—Joan Baez and Dylan come to mind.   However, to be fair, a few kept on and wrote extraordinary songs, and still do, performing to appreciative audiences worldwide—Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen.

Then “Bob and Scott” took a decade break—he to finish his doctorate at Indiana, I to get a Master’s and eventually PhD in English.  I was sure we’d probably never revive the old songs and harmonizing.     We became academicians—we were both hired at UNI in the late sixties—he to teach management courses, me to teach writing.  

We remained friends through some hard times and good times—births of our daughters and my son, a divorce, and of course the usual academic struggles with on-campus politics,  tenure and promotion. 

We couldn’t leave music alone, though.   I had joined forces with Martha Waterman,  a wonderful natural soprano, and I asked Waller if we might try singing a few songs as a trio.  He had written some memorable songs that I thought deserved to be performed, and we gave it a shot. 

It worked, almost immediately.

We performed fairly steadily beginning in the late 1970s, first as a trio with Martha, who could also improvise harmonies effortlessly.  We soon became a quartet, adding a cellist, Marilyn Schultz, whose playing gave our sound a welcome lower register.   

Waller found a new name for our larger group: “Winter Ridge Handy.”  He lived on Winter Ridge Road in Cedar Falls, where we regularly rehearsed, and “handy” is an obsolete term for “medley,” or at least we explained it as such. Beginning in 1981 we played a hugely eclectic repertoire for dozens of events ranging from major corporate parties to small gatherings of folk music lovers.   Actually our first performance as Winter Ridge Handy occurred in 1981, for Loree Rackstraw’s 50th birthday party in Cedar Falls.   

After Marilyn graduated, we replaced her with Robert’s wife, Georgia.  She played the Yamaha DX-90, a sophisticated synthesizer, and recorded with us on our one and only recording—a cassette—yes, those were the days—made with Tom Tatman at Catamount recording in 1984.

That ancient tape sounds primitive now, and we recorded  all 12 songs in one long day, most of which were written by Waller. 

He could write songs that moved people, often to tears.  One of them was “Angela” a talking song about free-living “Angela” that was requested whenever we performed in the seventies at Pour Richard’s on the Hill.  I played guitar, he played a lonesome-wail harmonica. He spoke Angela’s story as a poem:   

Ah, lately my thoughts run to Angela
And the time we rolled out of Denver in an old beat-up Chevrole
And she and her thousand-times washed Levis,
We were headed for Chicago and points east.

Hell, we never made it past Omaha.
That old car broke down and we sold it for scrap.
I bought two bowls of Chili and a one-way ticket back to Denver for Angela.

She rode that Greyhound out through the dusty skies,
And I turned east, out to where the cities lie.
But lately, my thoughts run to Angela.  (Excerpt)

 Not great literature, but perfect for a passing stab of nostalgia and regret.   Can you hear echoes of “Bridges” in there?   The wild love affair, the sadness at its passing?  That was a constant in many of Waller’s songs. “Might have been” probably summarizes much of Waller’s writing, both fiction and songs.   

Little known fact:  We performed a song, “North Dakota Transfer,” that contained the seed character of Francesca and Kincaid, the deeply attached lovers in “Bridges.”  The narrator, a romantic drifter who drove a pickup truck “he called Diamond Joe,” wrote of the farm wife he met, “She was sweet apple blossoms in her old faded jeans, forty-five years old and shinin’ like the sun.  And the touch of her hand on your face was like a breeze, blowin’ sweet and clear, when the long day is done.”  

They can’t stay together—she has a husband, and he—well, he’s a drifter at heart.   The romantic vision—the horizon—always beckons.

We recorded that song in the early 1980s, a good decade before “Bridges.”   

I still love  many of those Waller lyrics and melodies, particularly “Texas Jack Vermillion.”  He had a way with portraying fallen characters living with regret: 

In the flower of my younger years, 
Down the Indian Nation Turnpike, 
With Texas Jack Vermillion, 
God’s only freeborn son

And all of our thoughts were memories,
And all of our thoughts were kind,
of New York girls in curtained rooms,
And rainy April afternoons.  . . .

He might have been a mountain man in the high evergreens,
Might have sailed with Captain Cook, out around the horn.
Might have been a drover, on the Goodnight Loving Trail.
But the dice were rolled, he’s fifty years old, and Mexico fades like a dream. 

The last I heard of Texas Jack, he was pumpin’ gas in Kansas.
And tellin’ all the travelers, goin’ through to Indianapolis.
=He was goin’ back to Mexico, and walk barefoot in the sand.

Ah, but late at night when the lights are out, I remember Texas Jack. 

He might have been a mountain man. . . 

Winter Ridge Handy stopped playing after our performance at the School of Music’s Scholarship Benefit Concert in September, 1986.  We rose out of the orchestra pit on a lift,  playing Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” no less, and proceeded to alternately wow and embarrass the sophisticated concertgoers with our purely pop music. 

After that I played a few solo gigs here and there, and teamed up with several different singers and musicians for whatever I thought made sense musically. Probably the highlight of my solo career was releasing “Landscape Iowa:  Sixteen James Hearst Poems, Sung” in 2010.  Those melodies and harmonies grew straight out of my years playing with Waller and Winter Ridge Handy.    

Two years ago, Waller returned for some honorific event on campus, and my wife and I were invited to the President’s House for a reception and dinner with him and a few supporters.    

After a couple pretty good wines and a truly good meal, we began laughing and reminiscing, as old guys will inevitably do. 

And we began singing—entirely unrehearsed—to the amazement of UNI’s President Allen and his wife Pat.  We harmonized through a couple of Waller’s songs, and damned if the words didn’t come back with that same blend.  It was borderline magical, calling up those many years of performing. 

To my pleasant surprise, dinner guests were more appreciative than embarrassed by our flight of unabashed nostalgia.

Starting in 1961 at Joe’s 218 Tap to playing 52 years later this Friday night  (September 20) at Elm’s Pub at NewAldaya Lifescapes three miles west of Joe’s, performing folk and folk-style music has been a constant in my life as has Waller and his songs.    

No regrets.  Well, maybe one.  

I wish Winter Ridge Handy had performed at Carnegie Hall.  





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