Thanksgiving for northeast Iowa
by Brian FitzGerald
People have been asking me for a while what “Kanoka” means. Is it a Native American chief? Some town in Minnesota or Kansas? Kanoka, the title and first track from our latest studio release, describes a destination of the soul, what the great mythologist Joseph Campbell called “finding your bliss.”
Playing northeast Iowa over the years has always been chock full of Kanoka moments for Marty and me, each experience showing us we were on our path. The influence of the Driftless Region on our music is everywhere for those who want to get a sense of the Switchback Sound. For example, the cover of our second release, Check on Out, has a photo of my then 8 year-old son straddling his bike on the Blackhawk Bridge. That album has the song “Stranded, Ragged and Poor” about the flooding of the Mississippi.
The first time we played the City Club in Waukon, the brass who ran the legendary Dar’s Place caught our show and we were immediately herded over to that club for a mind-altering experience. We soon became the house band with a following hungry for traditional Celtic, rock and country originals and our own take on some scorching covers. There was a local expression, waygood, which was used to describe an exceptionally fun time. WayGood became the name of our company and independent label. Many a night when we were finished playing Dar’s we would sit with the bar maids and listen to the unbelievable eclectic jukebox. That eventually led us to release Dar’s Place, an equally eclectic mix of original tunes. The cover shot featured the proprietor, Brenda. The disc had everyone who was in the bar on it. Lenny and Big Gary brought their Harley’s out and we took shots of them with us in front of the club. Playing Dar’s was always a Kanoka moment for us.
Nancy Whiskey, our second Irish album, was recorded after several nights playing for the crazy folks at the Haymarket in Decorah. Engineer Bruce Larsen was sometimes kept awake turning knobs until the birds were chirping. The late, great photographer Larsh Bristol always wanted to photograph Maxine, a celebrated Waukon character, and we knew that we wanted Larsh to shoot the cover for Nancy Whiskey. When Larsh learned that Maxine was to be the subject, he was in like Flynn, and a mutual Kanoka moment for Switchback and Larsh was born. To this day, people still ask about our cover girl on Nancy Whiskey and we love to tell the story. As they say in Waukon, it was waygood.
Less than two years ago, the Steyer Opera House hosted a benefit for KPVL, a local independent public radio station that people loved to call “the voice of Postville, Iowa.” It was the first time we publicly released our 12th collaboration, Ghosts of the River Folk, to a full capacity northeast Iowa audience. The inspirational stomping grounds for Ghosts was again the Driftless Region. The centerpiece of that collection was the song “The Mayfly Dance” that captured another Kanoka moment. In it we recalled opening for the legendary musician and riverboat captain, John Hartford, at the Iowa State Sesquicentennial celebration that was held in Lansing.
And those are just a few of the memories of playing for the folks of the Driftless Region. So many more have shaped our music through the years. This November 16, we will celebrate two new albums, Kanoka and our new LIVE Volume One collection, with a dance at the Steyer Opera House in Decorah. It will be our way of giving thanks for and to a place where the land and people have given so much to our sound. Though you can’t manufacture a Kanoka moment, there’s no better place to set the table for one than Decorah. My bet is that Nick, Marty and I, as well as our Iowa fans, will have one. And it will be waygood.