Brian and I drove west along Route 9 through the wooded hills and deep ravines of Allamakee County in Northeast Iowa. It was a fantastic, clear early June morning. Our Dodge Caravan, its “check engine” light on, slowly chugged out of the valley past Churchtown and the old limestone tower that was built back in the 1840’s to protect settlers from Sioux Indian attacks. Route 9 runs along a ridge that overlooks a magnificent vista of the entire upper Mississippi River. We were on our way to visit an important person in WayGood history, none other than the cover girl of the Nancy Whiskey album.
“Is that really Nancy Whiskey?” a lot of fans ask when looking at the album cover of the Nancy Whiskey album. At first glance, Brian and I appear to be under the spell of a pretty tough looking lady who certainly appeared like she knew how to drink a shot or two. The back of the album shows her, Brian’s mandolin in hand, ready to whack us one. But no, I have to tell them that she is our good friend Maxine from Waukon, Iowa. And she is one of the gentlest souls on the face of the planet.
Maxine was one of the many characters who made up what was an almost magical time for us. Over 20 years ago, Brian had moved his family to Lansing, Iowa, and so we decided that the partnership would continue but with just an expansion of our base of operations. We ended up playing at Dar’s Place, the Harley Davidson watering hole for the county seat of Waukon.
It was a tough looking place. A shotgun bar. When you’d enter there was a screen door that would slam hard enough to make everyone stop and turn around to look. A thick haze of smoke filled the narrow room, and the lighting was dim, with the back of the bar barely lit enough to make out the bottles of liquor on the back wall. A Pabst Blue Ribbon lamp hung over the pool table. The yellowed linoleum floor had a skid mark from a motorcycle that had been ridden in many years before we played there.
A Confederate flag hung along the ceiling, and over in the corner was a great jukebox that had almost every kind of song you would ever want to have playing at such a bar, everything from David Alan Cole to Patsy Cline. Along the walls were cowboy pictures from a 1970s Coors Beer ad campaign. Several biker pictures were also on the wall. One showed a Harley rider along some western stretch of road, speeding alongside the ghost of a Pony Express rider. In short, it was a modern saloon in a land that still tightly gripped the frontier spirit. And the cowboys all rode Harleys.
Most of the bikers were a good bunch of folks. Everyone wore leather, including the parish priest who owned a Harley and would occasionally stop in for a drink and to shoot pool. There were some oddballs of course. They were never really tolerated that long, but eventually it was one such oddball who decided to burn the bar down to the ground in 2007 and end an era.
As a rule, a band was treated with a bit of respect or, at the very least, ignored. And if someone did manage to get in our faces, Brenda, the owner of the bar, would be over in a second to escort them out the door. You didn’t mess with the musicians in Allamakee County.
Nothing would be taken for granted. The chance for a fight or at least a good heated argument was always possible. On the other hand, there could be the chance that Lizard might get up on the bar and moon the entire saloon. It was that kind of place. We would play our hearts out, and by midnight the place would be jumping with dancing and all sorts of wild times.
Everyone in the town knew Maxine. And everyone had a different story about her and how she became who she was. Regardless of which story was told, it always ended with a tragic twist. Whatever had happened to Maxine was not the point. Maxine was a survivor. The wonderful thing about her was that she had transformed herself into this living piece of art. For the tough bikers as well as most folks in town, that was understood. She was more than tolerated, she was looked after.
Getting to know Maxine took a bit of time. She was not one to talk too much, and when she did, her own stories would leave me with a raised eyebrow from time to time. But we came to know each other and as we continued to play at Dar’s Place, Brian and I would eagerly anticipate Maxine’s arrival.
A sort of ritual would commence. We would watch her glide into the bar, the slamming of the screen door not ruffling her in the least. Maxine would make her way to a booth. If a biker was sitting in her spot, he usually got up for her. She would be given a drink, hold that in one hand and the ever present cigarette in the other, keeping them suspended in the air. That was our cue to strike up “Ain’t Misbehavin'” which became her song. At some point, Maxine started to stand up and do a small series of dance steps in acknowledgment of our playing “her song.” That became the interplay between her and us. It also was a reassurance that all was right with the world.
Another of the characters who would frequent Dar’s Place was a photographer by the name of Larsh Bristol. Larsh won accolades for his photos of Iowa, especially Allamakee County. He also shot some pretty famous pictures, including some back in the day for Marlboro cigarettes. Larsh spent a lot of time out in Wyoming, particularly around Jackson Hole. He recognized that the land of Allamakee County also held a wildness to it that was alluring. It was as if the land was merely biding its time with the farmers, waiting to go back to what it once was.
Larsh appreciated art when he saw it. And he saw it in Maxine. He had been hoping to do a photo shoot of her for the longest time, but the problem was that Maxine was very reluctant for any sort of attention like that. We were eager to have Larsh as our photographer because he was one the most highly respected photographers around. What would clinch the deal for Larsh was if we were to have Maxine as our cover girl. And so the only variable was whether or not Maxine would be willing to be photographed. As it turned out once we explained to Maxine that she would be Nancy Whiskey in the photo shoot and not just Maxine, it was clear sailing.
We had the shoot with Larsh and Maxine right there on the pool table at Dar’s Place. Maxine played the part perfectly, taking suggestions from Brian on how to hold the mandolin and having a good time as the shoot unfolded. The end result was one of our most creative album covers and her being known by a lot of people as Nancy Whiskey. The album itself captured the spirit of those days, when the whiskey would be flowing, the bar thick with energy, and big bikers would get up and dance to a stomp board band.