Hearing Aide: Chicago Farmer “Midwest Side Stories”

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.

After the first verse, the song breaks suddenly into a bewitched surf-hued anthem that takes up the point of view of a worker caught in this exchange, who’s prideful in repeating “I’m a worker / Not a number,” yet fully aware that the boss dictates he always get “back in line.” Finally, the song increases in tempo and intensity, building up to the climactic moment, in which the blazing harmonica returns, as does the voice of the boss figure, who informs the worker, “saddened to tell you, sir / you don’t work here anymore / pack your things and your feelings / and head on towards the door.” And while the title seems to allude to “revolving door” politics, the song is essentially about the binary bind of incorporated power and its grip on a vulnerable labor force.

Two songs in and Chicago Farmer has me captivated by his voice, impressed by the careful structures inherent in his songwriting, and excited about the range so far displayed.

The next three songs, “Rocco and Susie,” “Skateboard Song,” and “Two Sides of the Story” provide the album’s most on-the-nose references to Tazewell County. “Rocco and Susie” is a stripped down, bluegrass-tinted ballad featuring acoustic guitar, tambourine, and backing vocals. There’s a slow setup as the song unfolds. The couple described, at first, “seem like your typical neighbors / [whose] children were somewhat behaved,” but, ultimately, the family succumbs to the sordid afflictions facing Tazewell County: the stock market crash, factory job loss fallout, crystal meth addiction and production, police intervention, and the dissolution of their family. While Rocco and Susie at least have names to which one can connect, they serve merely as stock pieces, with all evidence of their personalities and the sweat of their struggle erased, in what reads as basically a reductive critique of a changing economy, from which the only thesis adduced from the ordeal is simply that one should “stick to smoking grass and drinking beer.”

“Skateboard Song” gives another passing glance at some of the participants in the local goings-on in Tazewell County, this time from the view of a first person skater riding through town; however, the characters involved in the story are warped by the lighthearted, uptempo, musical-theater style satire Chicago Farmer employs in critiquing smalltown social ills and the misguided laws meant to curb them. Every authority in town, from the signs to the cops to the judge, has only this to say, “skateboarding is bad,” which is always followed with why don’t you “take up guns” or “do some harder drugs,” or some other such miscreant behavior, and only a pop-punkish jingle by which to convey it. While the idea of making a powerful metaphor out of the skateboard has great promise, the execution is tepid, and listeners are left with a less than revolutionary assault on the powers that be.

“Two Sides of the Story” is a John Prine-esque portrait of the small town heartbreak and struggle that seems to typify the experience Chicago Farmer presents to his audience. It’s another stripped down acoustic guitar tune, with piano and harmonica accompaniment, and featuring Chicago Farmer’s twangy vocals. From his point of view, middle America is a place divided exponentially in twos, where the politicians are feckless liars and misinformation abounds, where the media is a gluttonous machine and working-class reality its fodder, where living’s dying and dying living.

And here Chicago Farmer uses his highly developed sense of songcraft to portray a growing chasm dividing Americans along intangible lines. In the chorus, he sings “there’s two sides to every story, there’s two sides of every town / the side of town that tells the story and the side where the story went down,” which calls attention to the gap between product and producer that outlines the larger conflict at stake. He adds depth to this stance throughout the song, stringing together artful, impactful lyrics that diagnose the worsening situation while adding some political punch. Take for example this stanza that highlights the gulf between the words and actions of politicians:

There was a lawmaker whose laws never made any sense
So he started making promises on both sides of the fence
Double-crossed his fingers every other time he smiled
Shook hands across the country, couldn’t reach across the aisle.

Whereas, Chicago Farmer’s other story songs do well to elicit many concerning issues, they mostly fall in short driving home a moral lesson, however, “Two Sides of the Story” succeeds in convincing the audience that storytelling is important and that it’s even more important to “get your story straight.”

Halfway through and Midwest Side Stories has proven Chicago Farmer’s obvious talents, namely songcraft and singing, but, in comparison with one another, the songs are quite uneven. In fact, “Two Sides of the Story” marks the high point of Midwest Side Stories, but it also marks the point at which the album takes a turn for the worst.

“New Used Car” is an easy listening diddy with an attractive pedal steel part, but the trite subject matter and blithe singing give it the taste of Diet Springsteen in a can, while the feathery lyrics secure this tune’s place as the Americana version of those riding-around-town-in-a-pickup-truck revelries celebrated on pop country radio.

The next tune, “9PM to 5,” is a straightforward country-tinged rock song in the manner of Los Lobos, which describes the life of a graveyard shift worker, but nothing ever develops regarding his situation and it’s difficult to know what Chicago Farmer is trying to invoke here.

An uptempo fiddle-number follows with the Carter Family styled singalong “Farm and Factory,” which details the working backgrounds of the narrator’s family. Chicago Farmer’s aim here seems directed once more at a changing economy, one that used to provide satisfactory jobs for Midwesterners, either on farms or in factories, but has since rendered these institutions defunct, leaving the people in search of opportunity. He sings “thank God for the farm and the factories / thank the devil for the factory farm.” In retelling this brief, mostly detail-less history, however, it appears that Chicago Farmer’s concern is not truly complex economic despair and worn down, hardworking individuals who need a voice lifted on their behalf, but something more aligned with joining his voice in a nostalgic rank and file of troubadours singing work songs.

The album’s penultimate song, “Homework,” continues in making rather obvious social observations, partly in reference to environmental destruction and denial, while placing the blame on a wide, vague swath of the citizenry, for which a cloudily aware, altruistic, and populist “we” becomes “the kid who does everyone else’s homework,” which precludes his half-hearted rallying cry, “we have a chance if we can enhance the number of us who’ll stand.”

Midwest Side Stories concludes with a cover of John Hartford’s “I’m Still Here.” The approach to the song is reminiscent of Houser-era Widespread Panic, with whetted guitar leads, a solo section, a marching drumbeat, and savory vocals. It’s also refreshing to hear lyrics matching the high-stakes political matter at which the originals often obscure or only gesture toward, rather than point at, and it goes a long way in fleshing out the album’s narrator and vision to hear Chicago Farmer howling:

My cigarettes are gone and so’s my money
So are all my nerves and all my teeth
My hair’s falling out, I’m looking funny
My friends are either dead or on relief.

When the last note ceases and the dust settles over Midwest Side Stories, what’s left is a readily accessible and highly entertaining volume of country-fried ballads in the Americana tradition, and while the songwriting is polished and the playing refined, the final product lands somewhere shy of the ambitious summit it sets for itself in the early going. Listeners get merely a glimpse of the broke-and-busted life and times of the folks of Tazewell County, Illinois, as the gritty detail and sludgy realism is mostly omitted, and the characters who appear in these weary tales are not granted the shape of their struggles or the use of their authentic voices, as Chicago Farmer flattens them to fit the contours of his traditional songwriting and the bent of his buttery vocals.

Key Tracks 

The Revolving Door

Two Sides of the Story

I’m Still Here