THE ROWDY PRAIRIE DOGS – Barland
2021 (Big World Records)
Robert J has a series of shows coming up in the last part of July:
24th: Come Back Inn 4-7pm
26th: Concert in the Park – WI Dells 7-9pm
27th: Buck & Honey’s Sun Prairie 6-9pm
28th: 1855 Saloon 5-8:30pm
31st: Laborial Day Bash with the Moon Gypsies – Christy’s Landing 2-6pm
It’s not entirely clear that the collective music scene and its fans have come to grips with what it surrendered when Robert J. Conaway and his family relocated to Connecticut in 2021. The man has been a mainstay in Madison since the early 80’s with his solo work, his various bands, his unprecedented run of 518 consecutive Sunday Jams at Morgan’s (now the Alchemy), his popular band Boys Town, his affiliation with Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines in the highly successful Moon Gypsies and this band – the Rowdy Prairie Dogs. It’s such a legacy which was somewhat summed up on his retrospective (and tape salvaging project) Rewind, released in 2004 but he’s been going strong for nearly twenty years since.
The number of musicians that have been brought together, either to revel in the joy of playing together at the Jams or to form collaborations is countless. We’re talking the best in town here. It’s hard to quantify the significance of the run at Morgan’s some thirty-plus years ago. Everybody went. And nearly everyone played at one time or another. The musicians that form the lineup of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs is one indication: Tom Dehlinger and Michael Tully on guitars – an awesome one-two punch on top of Robert J.’s own exceptional guitar talent. Joey McClosky on bass and Ron Granberg on drums. And that’s just the core of the group. Additional musicians include Dave Adler, Pauli Ryan, Michael Massey, Eddie Rivers, Mary Gaines, Chris Wagoner, Kenny Koeppler, Mauro Magellan, Karen Hein, John Wartenweiler and Matt Rogers.
The RPD’s debut album, the Revenge of the Rowdy Prairie Dogs, was released in 2008 on the same day that Robert J. released his own Beautiful Blur solo album. It was a banner year. Robert J. was Male Vocalist of the Year and between the two releases a total of five more MAMA Awards were added to an already burgeoning collection of awards and accolades.
If there’s any one of his songs that could be considered biographical it would have to be “Hanging Out in Barland.” The title practically sums up a major portion of his life after all. A rollicking intro with a rock/western feel gives way to an acoustic guitar dominated set of verses of confessional and colorful storytelling. The song builds to a climax with some outstanding steel guitar from Dehlinger.
“57 Chevy” is representative of the album; a combination of country-rock, folk storytelling and exceptional musicianship that can only be described as American. Like the car, it’s a classic. The band lives up to their name on “Let’s Get Rowdy,” accentuating their rockier side with hot slide guitar playing. Adler’s piano trades licks and his playing throughout the album, especially organ, keeps the soulful heat cooking on the back burner. “Storm Watcher” is a powerhouse; Mauro Magellan’s sawdust-producing energy can be felt in the drum track, the keyboards swell while Robert J’s vocals emote like the best angry Dylan. The most effective song lyrics leave room for interpretation. I’ll take this one as social commentary. Aside from the closing “Hanging Out in Barland (reprise)” that closes the album, tying up the barland theme nicely, the penultimate track “A New Place to Start” couldn’t be more fitting.
Even with all the tasteful musicianship the cream that rises to the top is the songwriting skill of Robert J. When you get down to it, style isn’t the most determining factor of great music, it’s the level of songwriting. Anyone who’s attempted to write – whether it’s novelists, journalists, musicians or poets – recognizes this. It’s why a great song can be reinterpreted across musical genres. In 2015 Robert J. won the Songwriter’s Recognition Award. This was truly deserving. When the annals of Madison’s music history are recorded – and I hope they are – Robert J. deserves to feature prominently. Though he is likely to make frequent treks back to Madison there is nevertheless a gaping vacancy. I’m sure there are many who will gratefully resolve that they were along for the ride and the joy, unity and authenticity of that is his lasting gift.