"There is a universal feeling that comes from this music. It does not matter where a person lives, or what language they speak, the power of blues music can speak to everyone. Blues/Roots music is the musical foundation from which all popular American music stems, it is part of our culture and brings people together."
Cedar County Cobras: Homesick Blues
Cedar County Cobras play American roots and blues music from the last century. The music takes on an “old time” blues feel that would most likely be found in a juke-joint down a gravel road in rural Iowa. Tom Spielbauer is behind the boot-stompin blues sound produced by the duo and has over twenty years of playing blues and rock across Iowa and the Midwest. The authentic sound of his music comes from a career of pouring concrete and working construction. In 2005, Tom was diagnosed with advanced macular degeneration at a young age and declared legally blind. Following in the footsteps of blind blues musicians such as Blind Willie McTell & Alan Wilson, he eventually traded his concrete tools for a guitar and a foot drum to play the blues full time. Also an Iowa native, his music partner April Dirks started playing mandolin with the Cedar County Cobras in 2014. Before working with Tom, she often performed as a bluegrass musician with a unique “gypsy” sound that she brought to any performance or music jam. Early in the project, April discovered she had a talent for playing the upright bass and the duo naturally gravitated to playing American Roots and Delta Blues Music. April now plays the doghouse bass that gives the duo the boot-stompin boogie sound that makes the music really move. (Cedar County Cobras / Sandy Dyas Photography)
Their new album "Homesick Blues" (2023) has been a long time coming. The Cobras Duo have been playing together for nine years and have played hundreds of shows from the local brewery to the festival stage. As a working band, had not set aside the time or the funds to get into a professional studio to make a recording. Last year Tom won the solo competition at the 2022 Central Iowa Blues Challenge and went on to play at the International Blues Challenge. It was an awesome experience and he was awarded a recording session with Jon Locker, the owner of Sonic Factory Studios. This gave us the opportunity (and the kick in the butt) to go ahead and start on the much anticipated Cedar County Cobras album. All songs on the album are played exclusively by Tom and April, with no guest musicians. It is not that we do not know excellent musicians to record with, it is that we wanted the album to sound like the Cobras.
How has the Blues/Roots music influenced your views of the world? What does the blues mean to you?
Tom: I have been playing the blues for so long, it's hard to identify the moment it influenced my worldview. Studying and playing blues music is part of my identity. For me, it's been a journey to finding myself. In the way people devote their lives to a cause, I suppose, I have devoted my life to playing the blues. I am not a religious person by any means, but blues music has become my focus for so long. Blues & Roots music is a creative outlet for me and my main form of expression. It has influenced the way I communicate with the world.
April: Blues and Roots music has been part of my childhood for as long as I can remember. I come from a musical family, my parents are folk musicians and there were always records going on the turntable. I remember photographs my mother took of Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters hanging in the living room and there was often a music jam centered around the 5-bar blues. I have always gravitated towards roots, blues, and bluegrass. My worldview was shaped largely by music and by the community that comes together to play music. In a nutshell, I would say roots music is part of the fabric of the Hippie culture that shaped my childhood. I believe music brings people together and blues/roots is a universal language that can cross barriers.
How do you describe Cedar County Cobras sound and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?
Tom: I listen to American Roots music from the late 1920'-1970's. That really is the cut-off for American Roots & Blues music that resonates with me. I wanted to make a record that sounds like it came from that era. I wanted to make an album that is an authentic piece of folk art. We did not hire other musicians to make the album. We worked hard to make an album that does not stray too far from our live sound.
When you ask about my creative drive, I assume you are asking about my guitar playing and songwriting. I have always had this desire to play music as a young kid. Even in the early days, I would draw out a stage plot and pictures of guitars. The way many American kids fantasize about being a pro athlete someday, I spent my childhood dreaming about being a musician and practicing every instrument I could get my hands on. I was one of six kids who grew up in the mid-80's during a time of crushing poverty in midwestern America. My family was solid, music was part of everyday life, and my father gave us a place to play music. I first learned to play in a rock-n-roll band with my two younger brothers. Those early days shaped my desire to have a career playing guitar.
"Iowa is a desert for culture and music compared to many other places in the United States, such as Chicago or Nashville. The Central Iowa Blues Foundation is a cornerstone of the blues community here in Iowa for musicians and fans alike. Music tends to be a way to bring people together and the Iowa Blues Scene is great at supporting artists and creating opportunities." (Cedar County Cobras: Tom Spielbauer & April Dirks, American Roots and Delta Blues Music/ Sandy Dyas Photography)
What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?
Tom: Losing my eyesight and getting diagnosed with advanced macular degeneration made me realize I had to switch gears and put my energy toward playing music. I have always played the blues from a young age, but the diagnosis of being Legally Blind changed my outlook on my career. I stopped trying to do concrete work & construction work, struggling with my vision loss and put all of my energy towards my guitar and sharing music with the world. Highlights have been going to Memphis to play at the International Blues Challenge, playing in Clarksdale Mississippi, and sharing the stage with amazing blues players from all over the world. The connections I have made along the way, and the opportunity to travel with my partner April has opened many doors in the last couple of years.
April: It was always expected that I would play an instrument, starting with the viola at a young age and then transitioning to the mandolin and upright bass as an adult. I bring up my history of playing music because I was always encouraged to play music by my feminist family members and surrounded myself with a supportive community who really enjoyed playing. I have played as a guest in many different projects over the years from folk Americana to Bluegrass. As a mandolin player primarily, I loved playing a party just as much as I loved playing a professional gig. Things changed for me when I met Tom Spilebauer in 2013. We first came together playing as members of a folk band. He was the fiddle player and I played mandolin! After that project we started playing roots music, bluegrass, delta blues... honestly, we were just playing the kind of music that would make a room get up and dance. Over time, I transitioned to playing the upright bass to accompany his electric slide guitar playing. The last 10 years have been such a wild ride of new developments and even playing new instruments. I think the highlight of my career has been playing a theater with a listening crowd who really loves live music and making this most recent album. There are so many highlights and it is only up from here.
Why do you think that Iowa Blues Scene continues to generate such a devoted following?
Tom: There is a source of local pride because Iowans appreciate home-grown talent. There is no corporate music industry like you would see in large U.S. cities or a place like Nashville, TN. Therefore, when an Iowan blues musician gets a broader audience, it reflects well on the local music community. The Iowa Blues Scene is a tight-knit community. When a talented touring blues musician comes through our state, we come out in support. I was the winner of the 2022 Iowa Blues Challenge and I represented the State at the 2023 International Blues Challenge. I credit the Central Iowa Blues Society for getting us in the studio to record this album, "Homesick Blues". The Iowa Blues Scene has definitely opened some doors for us.
April: Iowa is a desert for culture and music compared to many other places in the United States, such as Chicago or Nashville. The Central Iowa Blues Foundation is a cornerstone of the blues community here in Iowa for musicians and fans alike. Music tends to be a way to bring people together and the Iowa Blues Scene is great at supporting artists and creating opportunities. (Cedar County Cobras / Photo by Sandy Dyas)
"I have learned that patience and kindness have been the best outlook for having successful relationships with venue owners. I have also learned that it is a long and slow road to get to where you think you ought to be and to play in the rooms you think you are ready to play. Being a self-employed musician today has been a delicate dance between developing talent, practicing humility, and being patient."
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
Tom: Music has turned into an industry over the years with recordings being manipulated and spliced to the point that modern records and production techniques make albums sound like they were recorded in a science lab. Older music had a natural feel to it and a sense of emotion that is not captured in popular music today.
Fear for the future of music is that people will stay at home and just watch a video of music instead of coming out and seeing live music. Without a live audience, the magic doesn't happen. My hope for the music scene is that live shows will not disappear. That there will always be space for the public to come out and hear live roots/blues music, not just streaming the show on their device.
April: I miss a time when venues were full before the pandemic and when people were not using their smartphones as a way to stream music, rather than going out to see live shows. I miss a time when there were more listening venues in the Midwest, United States. More and more it seems that there are sports on televisions hanging over the bar at many of the local clubs. Honestly, there are a lot of things that I miss about the music scene from even 10 years ago. But I also see some real positives and hope for the future. I see a real effort of people going out to support live music again and there are more foundations with grant money supporting the arts than ever before. I hope for a future where live music can bring people together and musicians are paid a living wage. That is dreaming big, but that is my hope!
Why is it important to preserve and spread the blues? What is the role of Blues/Roots music in today’s society?
Tom: There is a universal feeling that comes from this music. It does not matter where a person lives, or what language they speak, the power of blues music can speak to everyone. Blues/Roots music is the musical foundation from which all popular American music stems, it is part of our culture and brings people together.
April: American Blues Music is an essential cornerstone of popular music today. It is important to share the music that has been such a part of the lifeline of culture and heritage for many disadvantaged players over the years. Those who suffer the blues, tell their story in the rhythm and song of music that has been handed down for generations. Blues/Roots music has a role in today's society as a historical cornerstone to the way things were done before, and to the future expression of blues musicians to come.
"Fear for the future of music is that people will stay at home and just watch a video of music instead of coming out and seeing live music. Without a live audience, the magic doesn't happen. My hope for the music scene is that live shows will not disappear. That there will always be space for the public to come out and hear live roots/blues music, not just streaming the show on their device." (Cedar County Cobras play American roots and blues music from the last century / Sandy Dyas Photography)
What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?
April: My music partner, Tom, has been my biggest advocate as I pave the way forward as a woman upright bass player in the blues scene. It is common that I am overlooked in conversations related to booking shows, getting the tone right during sound check, or in larger jams where the Cobras are invited to play. Due to Tom's vision loss, I take a very active role and am the one to do all of the bookings for the band. I do all of the driving, and I am even the one to run sound. It is certainly a "man's world" when most people defer to Tom as the one to run the soundboard or assume that he does all of the tasks that make the project work. I have found women mentors, such as Vickie Price, who have encouraged me along the way to have a louder voice and be assertive. I see more and more women play music all of the time and it seems the blues societies are doing a better job of highlighting women musicians. I think that things are improving, but we still have a long way to go.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?
Tom: I feel fortunate to be able to use my talent and play music for a living. In the past, I was a concrete worker and always working for someone else. In my music career, I am working for myself. There is a feeling of accomplishment that I can use the skills that I have been working to hone for so many years. I have learned that the relationship with audience members is so important to the live show experience, I try to make a conscientious effort to make a connection with every member of the audience.
April: The main lesson I have learned is to be patient. When I was first booking shows I would be anxious about getting a response right away to a booking inquiry. I have learned not to take things personally and realize that everyone is working towards the same goal, to get excellent music filling their venues and on festival line-ups. I have learned that patience and kindness have been the best outlook for having successful relationships with venue owners. I have also learned that it is a long and slow road to get to where you think you ought to be and to play in the rooms you think you are ready to play. Being a self-employed musician today has been a delicate dance between developing talent, practicing humility, and being patient.
(Cedar County Cobras / Sandy Dyas Photography)
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