It's Wednesday night at the Record Bar in Kansas City's Westport entertainment district. As two notes on his guitar's E string alternate in the background, singer-songwriter Bob Walkenhorst is introducing his next number: "I didn't play this song for a long time. It just didn't feel right. Recently I've had several people come up and say, 'This song fit into my life this way.' That's what you want to know, how it fit into somebody's life. It makes you feel like you made a good chair. You wove a good rug. You made something useful." Then he launches into a verse that is as relevant today as it was when it first turned up on the radio in 1986:
"Give a man a free house and he'll bust out the windows / Put his family on food stamps, now he's a big spender / No food on the table and the bills ain't paid / 'cause he spent it on cigarettes and PGA / They'll turn us all into beggars 'cause they're easier to please / They're feeding our people that government cheese / It's the man in the White House, the man under the steeple / Passing out drugs to the American people."
As the front man for the Rainmakers in the 1980s Walkenhorst teetered on the verge of rock 'n' roll stardom. Rolling Stone gushed that "Walkenhorst may be rock and roll's answer to Emerson." Newsday called the Rainmakers "America's next great band." Music Connection honored Walkenhorst for writing the "Lyric of the Year": "The generation that would change the world is still looking for its car keys." The Los Angeles Times told music fans to "index the Rainmakers high in the 'to watch' file." Best-selling horror author Stephen King quoted lines from Rainmakers songs in his novels.
Despite that early acclaim, the Rainmakers failed to make it big. Whether their subject matter was too controversial, their songs too smart, or their luck too poor, they disbanded in 1997. Walkenhorst took a six-year break from releasing new music, during which time he started a family, began another career in video production, and quietly continued to write and record songs. Then, in 2003, he released a well-received acoustic CD titled The Beginner.
Since then, his "Tour That Goes Nowhere" in Kansas City has attracted fans from around the world. Even if you can't catch his Wednesday performances with Jeff Porter and Norm Dahlor in person, you can get free downloads of the shows, which include classic Rainmakers songs as well as new ones.
Walkenhorst's Rainmakers songs gleefully poked fingers in the eyes of authority figures. Recently he took a break from working on his newest CD—a largely acoustic album with Jeff Porter, tentatively titled No Abandon—to talk about his music.
reason: What were you thinking when you wrote "Government Cheese"?
Bob Walkenhorst: Back in the 1980s, cheese that was passed out in the government's food commodities program seemed to symbolize a society that just tried to do the minimum to keep people quiet and pacified, rather than actually help people overcome poverty and adversity. Whether it was cheese, or drugs, or religion, or mindless entertainment, the message was, "Resist that; get busy and move forward."
reason: Did you ever run into any kind of record-label or critical blacklist for addressing controversial topics?
Walkenhorst: No. We had a very positive experience in the record business, other than not becoming successful enough to carry on. They encouraged us to get out there and be the opinionated Midwesterners that we were.
reason: In "Wages of Sin," you wrote, "The church and the state / Your God and country-kind / One gets your body / The other gets your mind." What are your thoughts on that song today?
Walkenhorst: Even though I consider myself a spiritual person, I tend to be disillusioned with organized religion. The line between government and church started to get blurry quite a while ago, when people seeking power started using religion as a way to dictate and motivate people to vote a particular way.
reason: What's it like when someone comes up with an off-the-wall view of what one of your songs might be about?
Walkenhorst: That's one of the best things about songs: The listener brings in the interpretation. A song can mean vastly different things to different people. If you want to control how people interpret your work, you probably should write books.
reason: In 2003 reason's Nick Gillespie wrote, "If artists and labels would spend more time making music and less time moaning about free downloads, fans would doubtless spend more on CDs." You seem to take this philosophy to the extreme by giving away new music online.
Walkenhorst: My first career in music, 1982 to 1997, was mostly driven by ambition. My second wave, 2003 to present, I consciously try to avoid anything ambition-driven. Free downloads? Sure, why not? Make good music; the rest will take care of itself. Maybe.
Bryan Riley writes from Kansas.