Chicago Farmer recently released his seventh studio album, Midwest Side Stories, which debuted on September 30, 2016 on his Chicago Farmer record label. It’s the follow-up to 2013’s Backenforth, IL. Chicago Farmer is the nom de plume of Illinois-based folk artist Cody Diekhoff, who has spent the last decade barnstorming bars and theatres across his native Midwest, traveling far and wide, through dim towns and bright cities alike, to perform for a growing legion of appreciative fans. Diekhoff was born in tiny Delevan, IL, has spent significant time in Chicago, and currently calls Bloomington, IL home. It’s these localities, which are largely defined by the sordid power dynamics surrounding them, that make up the backdrop for his blue-collar ballads.
Distilled to its essence, Midwest Side Stories is a concept album, one centered around the workingclass struggles of the people of Tazewell County, Illinois. The concept, while in league with Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, is less sprawling, more localized, and reads sort of like Sherwood Anderson’s short-story collection Winesburg, Ohio, yet its themes are more aligned with those of another famous Illinoisian, the poet and folk singer, Carl Sandburg.
The opening track, “Umbrella,” a seemingly autobiographical take on the life of a folksinger with a rainy day plight and a ticket to ride, acts as an overture, setting the stage for the strugglers that Chicago Farmer will routinely call into the limelight over the course of the album. The track takes its name from a simile built into the first verse, which provides an inside look at the inspiration behind the songs, while also detailing the apparent relationship between the folksinger and his subject. The first-person narrator sings:
I went searching for some kind of meaning
Like words looking for a page
Came up empty and full of worry
That nothing could cover the pain
And these songs and stories
Began unfolding like an umbrella in the rain.
I want to write you a sad, sad song
That I hope will make you smile
And we could pass it along
We’re only here for a little while.
The track also sets in motion the album’s most resonant message: that storytelling is important, and that it’s equally important how one goes about it. Here, Chicago Farmer delivers a well-constructed acoustic guitar tune that’s tinged with electric honky-tonk guitar fills, and hinges on his shaky and crisp, rich as honey vocal performance, complete with emotional tension, brief yodeling, and a crafted message. And while there’s some slick lines in “Umbrella,” such as “we’ve been trying to find our way through the darkness of our minds,” we also see the traces of Chicago Farmer’s major weakness as a songwriter, that there’s a disturbing lack of particularity, personality, and local detail in these folk tales, while there’s an abundance of flat lines and forced rhymes that advance the story by length alone.
One song in and I’m totally going for Chicago Farmer’s voice, as it’s reminiscent of Ryan Adams during the Cardinals era, while the song itself sounds more like something from Kentuckian Stoll Vaughan’s catalogue, but I’m definitely not sold on the lyrics.
When the second song, “The Revolving Door,” hits, it’s high drama from the jump. Shrill, Neil Young inspired harmonica tears through the song like a factory whistle, while the ominous bass and drums lugs a gurney of carnage out of what seems a folk music netherland, some gruesome place from which the Byrds’ “Lover of the Bayou” once emerged, and from whence Chicago Farmer’s authoritarian boss figure comes, wielding a trembling falsetto warble like a razor, his voice haunted with the spirit of Will Oldham and bent on corporate enforcement.