The ballad of Tom Irwin
A songwriter’s long, winding road from high school rocker to Sangamon Songs
To call Tom Irwin a fixture on the Springfield music scene would be something of an understatement. Beginning in the mid-1970s as a bass player and eventual frontman for various local rock bands, straight through to his present status as an accomplished songwriter and bandleader, Irwin has been a popular draw in local clubs since before he could legally drink in them. He has performed virtually every Sunday night in Springfield since the 1980s at a series of different venues, with his current weekly residency at Brewhaus stretching back to 1993. Now, after years of personal and career highs and lows, including occasional layoffs and wholesale musical reinventions, Irwin, the longtime music columnist for Illinois Times, has just released the most ambitious and accessible music of his career.
His new CD, Sangamon Songs, was inspired by the 1893 diary of 16-year-old Harry Glen Ludlam. The journal was discovered in the Irwin family’s Pleasant Plains farmhouse, where the young Ludlam and the young Irwin had each labored at the same chores and daydreamed over the same landscapes, albeit nearly a century apart. Ludlum’s plainspoken, evocative entries immediately struck a chord with Irwin, who initially planned to use the artifact as the basis for a book, to be written as part of a master’s degree project at UIS. However, his musician’s instincts quickly took over, and Ludlum soon became a sort of muse for a cycle of songs that eventually yielded the new disc.
“I never thought of it as a concept album, but whatever you want to call it, the songs are all connected by the journal,” explains Irwin. “I’m also not a folk musician. At least, I don’t think of myself that way.” It’s true enough that at the dawn of Irwin’s long career, folk music was the last thing people would have associated with him. For years his music was unabashedly rock ’n’ roll and his instrument was the electric bass. “I always wanted a guitar when I was little and I didn’t get my own,” he remembers. “My dad had ’em but I never got one – every time he’d get a guitar, I thought I was gonna get that one but I never did.”
Beginning with a series of high school cover bands in the mid-1970s, six-string duties in Irwin’s various bands over the years were handled by his lifelong friend, local guitar hero Tom “Dooley” Woolsey. “I’ve known Tom since the fourth grade and we started playing in the summer between sixth and seventh grade,” recalls Woolsey. “I picked up the guitar and he picked up the bass. The first tune we ever learned was ‘Tequila’ and then it just went nuts from there. I can’t tell you how many bands we’ve been in together and I can’t tell you how many times the wheels just completely fell off.”
The first taste of local popularity for the pair was with their hard rock band, Zeus, formed while they were still attending Pleasant Plains High School, where Irwin had been elected class president on an extremely progressive anti-bullying platform. Highlights of Irwin’s administration included peaceful demonstrations such as walkouts aimed at discouraging violence among the student body, as well as installing a school DJ and booking numerous musical performances by popular area rock bands. These performances also allowed Irwin and Woolsey to cherry-pick the best local musicians to join them in Zeus, a strategy that soon paid dividends.
“With that band, we went from doing okay, to doing well, to doing extremely well,” Woolsey continues. “And that was a time when there weren’t any rock ’n’ roll bars in Springfield at all, so we had to come up with our own venues. Since we were the only band around that was playing rock ’n’ roll, everybody who wanted to see rock ’n’ roll wanted to see this band. We always had sellout crowds and we did very, very well.”
The runaway regional success of Zeus between 1977 and 1979 led to Irwin and Woolsey attaining what would seem to be the Holy Grail for all struggling musicians: a management and recording contract with an established company. This experience, however, turned out to be closer to a nightmare than a dream come true. “Me and Tom signed with [the company, which they declined to name] and moved to Minneapolis,” explains Woolsey. “Recording-management contracts are as thick as phonebooks, and we didn’t understand what the hell we were signing.
“Basically, they own everything that you are,” Woolsey continues ruefully. “Your signature, your image, your likeness. At one point, we ran out of money, and I had to go to management and say, ‘We have to get part-time jobs or something, ’cause we’re starving, we don’t have any money for food or anything.’ And they were like, ‘No, you don’t understand. Anything you sign your name to, whether it’s a paycheck, a mortgage, a car payment, all that is company property. Your guitars, amplifiers, anything you sign your name to.’”
After a parting of ways with their corporate overlords that resembled the movie The Great Escape more than any typical contract negotiations, Irwin returned to the Springfield area, while Woolsey high-tailed it south to New Orleans. However, it wasn’t long before the two were making music together again. “Around ’81 or ’82, Tom called me up in Louisiana and said, ‘I’m putting a band together, come on up if you wanna play,’” says Woolsey. “And at the time I was laid off from ironworking, so I came up and that’s when we started The Strand.”
Whereas Zeus’s style had been pure 1970s rock, The Strand embodied the ’80s ideal of punchy new wave power pop, with Tom stepping up to the microphone as lead singer as well as bass player. The new style owed a considerable debt to then-new influences along the lines of Elvis Costello, and the result was a repertoire of snarling, catchy songs like “Piece by Piece,” with tough-minded lyrics written by local scribe Terry Hupp. It gave Irwin and Woolsey a new lease on musical life. Once again they found themselves ascending the slippery slope of local success.
“I don’t know how this happens,” says Woolsey, “but just like with Zeus, all of a sudden we got to a point where The Strand got popular, and we didn’t just have a good following, we had a great following, and we were starting to get invited to play really nice venues on a regular basis, farther and farther away from town.”
The Strand continued for several years and through nearly constant changes in personnel, eventually comprising a virtual Who’s Who of Springfield talent, and Woolsey was in and out of the band several times. The group eventually changed its name to Condition 90 and broke up for good in 1987.
“That was kind of the big year for me,” affirms Irwin, “because that was when the band broke up, and that was the year that my friends Marty and John and I took the guitar, got in a car that didn’t run very well, and went to New Orleans, ended up in Nashville. That trip saved me, in a sense, just by getting me out and going.”
This salvation took a roundabout course, and indeed the years following the demise of Condition 90 found the musician in something of a paradoxical state. The trip south may have acted as a sort of “reset button,” but in many ways, Irwin was at a low ebb. He settled into a series of itinerant, low-profile jobs, such as hosting open mic nights at a series of now-defunct Springfield venues. At the time he seemed perfectly content charting an anonymous course toward entropy, stasis and eventual oblivion.
Things had become bleak, indeed. But here’s where the paradox comes in: this chaotic, dissipated post-Condition 90 period also found Tom operating at a high water mark of creativity. No longer constrained by the requirements of aspiring rock stardom, his writing seemed to naturally drift away from the angular, post-punk style of Condition 90 towards something closer to the country music of his rural upbringing. These new, acoustic songs were an honest reflection of Tom’s most profound musical roots, however much they may have alienated or confused fans of his previous style.
By mid-1988, Tom’s quickly-growing repertoire of excellent material could only be heard by visitors to his weekly open mic sets, effectively raising the bar for the other open mic participants to an almost impossibly high level. One such participant was Springfield-based guitarist and songwriter Jim Schniepp, who in 1988 was laying the groundwork for his own band, Backwards Day. He became a regular performer at the Sunday night open mic at Union Pub, where Tom’s weekly sets contained offhand but spellbinding performances of now-perennial Irwin compositions such as “Fundamental Differences” and “The Crystal Palace.” When repeated suggestions that Tom book studio time to record the songs for posterity fell on deaf ears, Schniepp decided to take matters into his own hands.
One night in February of 1989, Schniepp invited Irwin to bring his acoustic guitar to a small apartment on the west side of Springfield, with the express intention of recording an album worth of songs. Two microphones, a Tascam brand 4-track cassette recorder, and a bottle of wine were the only additional accoutrements required, and a few hours later, basic tracks were in the can. Soon, eleven of those songs were released as the cassette-only Cornucopia, via Backwards Day’s Rickety Rackety Records imprint. With his first solo release in hand, Tom was fully re-energized and 1990 found him breaking out of his rut.
He started playing higher profile gigs and formed the first of many backing bands. The Cornpickers were practically an all-star outfit for Springfield, featuring NIL8 bass player Bruce Williams and ace drummer Tony Berkman from Condition 90 along with Brad Floreth on keyboards. The combo soon released Under a Maybe Moon, a rocking and expansive follow-up cassette to the stripped-down Cornucopia. On Moon, the band format allowed Tom to extend his range considerably, adding the upbeat “Stood Up,” the darkly topical “Markadee Kelly” and the avant-garde proletarian wackiness that is “Workin’ Jerk” to his already dependable stock-in-trade of alternately wry and heartrending ballads.
“My idea back then was, I’m gonna put an album out every year, whatever happens,” says Irwin. “But after a couple years, it got to the point where I realized I didn’t have the money to do this, they’re not selling, so it slowed down some. Randy Royce helped me do Roots in the Earth in ’93 and I still was writing a lot then.”
Tom’s skills as a songwriter and performer have only deepened in the intervening 20 years or so, and he has also experienced a considerable amount of personal growth, earning his master’s degree at UIS and raising his three sons, John, Sam and Owen, all while supporting himself primarily via his music, a remarkable feat in itself. Still, in many ways he has settled into a comfortably repetitive routine since the mid-’90s, with his dependable weekly gigs and presence in IT causing many in Springfield to take him for granted, as much a part of the music scene as the Hilton in the local skyline.
This state of affairs is starting to change with the ambitious Sangamon Songs. The new project has garnered a considerable amount of attention outside of the immediate area. He has been interviewed about the record by the American Public Media radio show. (The Story) In fact, the recording of Sangamon Songs itself was funded via kickstarter.com, a self-described “funding platform focused on a broad spectrum of creative projects.” Through the website, Sangamon Songs received $4,602 in donations from individual music fans, more than $1,000 more than the projected $3,500 budget needed to record it.
“The most success I’ve had with this, already, has been from people who never even heard the record yet,” Irwin points out. “It’s getting more attention than I’ve ever gotten in my life, and it’s the story about the diary that gets people interested. But I do think the music will bring them in, too, once they’ve heard it.”
Indeed, much has already been made of the fact that the bulk of Sangamon Songs is essentially a collaboration between Irwin and long-deceased Harry Glen Ludlum, the young farm boy whose 19th century diary was discovered on the Irwin family property. At times the process is almost abstract, such as the song inspired by a journal entry where young Ludlum offhandedly observes, after a visit to church, that “it is moonlight now.” “That song kind of came out of nowhere,” says Irwin. “It started with that one line and I just kind of let it come out. In all of the songs, some of Ludlum’s words I used directly and other ones I didn’t but it was always that idea.”
Irwin continues with his Sunday gigs at Brewhaus, where he is normally backed up by the no-nonsense Raouligans, named after Irwin’s longtime bandmate and running partner, the late Scott “Raoul” Neese, a character so much larger than life he practically demands his own article. The band consists of Bruce Williams on bass, Timothy “Grumpy” Harte (ex-Backwards Day) on drums and Irwin’s oldest son, Owen, providing fiery lead guitar. In contrast, Sangamon Songs has presented a variety of fresh promotional and performing opportunities, including some uniquely theatrical ideas. “We’re doing a thing out at New Salem on July 7 where we’re gonna maybe let John [Irwin’s teenage son] sing some of the Harry songs and even do some staging for it,” he explains excitedly. “Somebody even said, ‘You could make this into a musical,’ and maybe that’ll happen someday, I don’t know. Or Sangamon Songs II could come out sometime.”
“I guess it’s possible that I could have done something like this 25 years ago,” says Irwin, “but it does feel like I’ve been waiting for my ability to write songs to improve enough to tackle this material. This is not the end of my songwriting by any means. I’ve already started some other songs, but it does seem to me that I ended up in a really good place, where I could use everything I worked on for years as far as writing songs, and all the topics that I’d always wanted to write about, and put them in a different sphere, where it’s not so self-involved. In a sense Sangamon Songs is closer to a novel, because so much singer-songwriter stuff is so focused on yourself, kind of ‘Oh I stubbed my toe, I’m gonna write a song about it,’” he snickers.
Woolsey is even more circumspect when it comes to his friend’s career. “One of the contentions I always had with Tom was, and is, that he has never been a very good self-promoter,” he says, bluntly. “I think he’s right on the cusp of that now. I mean, just from being in a town this size for so long, he does have that contingency of, well, you can’t call ’em fans, but onlookers, who seem to relish the fact that he hasn’t struggled farther along than where he is. So many times it seems like he’s right there, over the pool, standing on the diving board. And sometimes he has taken that leap of faith and there’s been no water. I don’t think he’s been given his just due, just yet.”
Scott Faingold has known Tom Irwin since 1984, and first wrote about music for IT in 1987. He was a co-founder of the band Backwards Day, and is the author of the novel Kennel Cough, a fictionalized portrayal of the Springfield music scene.
Tom Irwin and the Raouligans at Brewhaus: