Craft brews and Buddy Holly: A new frontier for Iowa musicians

Back in June 2018, I played a solo show at Fat Hill Brewing in downtown Mason City. I keep a fairly consistent set list for shows like that, which usually require several hours of music. Somewhere near the middle of my performance, I launched into “Well All Right,” a Buddy Holly classic that I first heard as a kid, without giving the song much thought ahead of time. It was simply the next entry on my set list.

And then a strange feeling hit me, right before the first chorus, as I realized I was playing a Buddy Holly number in Mason City, just a stone’s throw the last town Holly ever played before the tragic plane crash that ended his life at 22. It’s a famous story, and you probably know most of it, but here are the pertinent facts: Buddy Holly took part in the 1959 Winter Dance Party, a tour of the upper Midwest that also included a handful of other early rock ‘n’ roll performers. Following a Feb. 2 concert at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, a chartered airplane carrying Holly, Ritchie Vallens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed into a field near Clear Lake. None of the passengers survived, and the tragedy has taken on a mythic status as “The Day the Music Died.”

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Fat Hill Brewing in Mason City, IA

And there I was, playing “Well All Right” in Mason City about 10 miles from where Holly’s last show took place nearly 60 years later. It left me feeling as if I were some kind of small link in a great chain connecting guitar-toting songwriters through the ages. It was certainly a highlight of my gigging schedule last year.

And I likely would not have gotten that opportunity were it not for Fat Hill Brewing and the growth of Iowa’s craft brewing industry in recent years. Locally brewed craft beer contributed $100 million to the state’s economy in 2014, according to a study from the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board. The 2015 study, the most recent I could find, also predicted Iowa’s brewing industry to triple its production between 2014 and 2019. Those numbers are maybe out of date now, but they clearly show a rapidly growing industry. And the best part for DIY musicians like me is that many of these local breweries like to host live music in their taprooms. This has created something of a new frontier for Iowa music.

Because what goes together better than good beer and good music? I can’t think of many things.

Last year, I played Firetrucker Brewery in Ankeny and two shows at Shiny Top Brewing in Fort Dodge in addition to two gigs at Fat Hill. This year, I’ve got gigs lined up at Shiny Top and Fat Hill, as well as the Iowa Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids. These aren’t dedicated music venues; they’re breweries that decided, correctly, that live music enhances the enjoyment of their products. Accordingly, few of them own sound systems. That means the acts they book have to provide their own sound. That reality has taken a serious toll on my back, since I have to lug my two 15” main speakers out of the basement every time I play one of these shows. But the extra effort is worth it. I really enjoy getting out to explore new towns, taking in the local atmosphere and, of course, sampling some locally brewed beer.

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The taproom at Fat Hill

Seeing these local businesses innovating and providing new spaces for Iowans to get together as communities really excites me. These breweries are igniting new economic and cultural opportunities in rural stretches of the state, and many are booking talented musicians who might not come to your town otherwise. It’s my sincere hope that everyone involved – from the brewery owners to the musicians to the local music fans – will continue to embrace that.

So here’s my modest request. To the brewery owners, keep booking live music, and, whenever possible, try to find local Iowa artists to feature alongside your local Iowa beer. To the musicians, get out there and try to play a new city or two in 2019. You can find new audiences and make connections in new communities. And to the customers who like hanging out in the local taproom, let the musicians know you appreciate their talent. Buy some merch the next time a musician plays your local brewery. Welcome them to your town, and tell them you enjoyed their music. It’s a lot of work loading up a bunch of gear, driving a couple hours and then putting on a quality show. Sometimes a word of encouragement makes all the difference.

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Shiny Top Brewing in Fort Dodge, another area favorite of mine

Some of my favorite musical experiences in recent years, including that one last summer at Fat Hill Brewing, have occurred in local taprooms. There were 54 craft breweries operating in the state in 2014, according to that Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board study. Today, Iowa boasts more than 80 brewery locations. As a local musician and Buddy Holly fan, I hope that trend will not fade away any time soon.

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