David Zollo – Trailer made
Happy hour at the House of Bricks in Des Moines, Iowa. That means about four tables scootched together around a couple pitchers. A lonely keyboard dominates the stage. A drum set, guitars.
A young guy with shaggy lion’s hair, a snap-down cowboy shirt and truckstop sunglasses claps shoulders and chats up the room. With his whiskey-razed voice, boogie-woogie keyboard and solid roots-rock backup, this cornfield hepcat brings a mix of Americana, Beale Street blues, and just a little West Coast jamming.
Cell phones are dialed. Four tables bloom to eight. Pretty good for a dinner-and-a-movie town where the hottest band is known for its BTO covers. When David Zollo & the Body Electric hit the stage, the mood of the room turns from empty to intimate.
There’s a certain time when the local music fans know the hometown favorite is about to fly the coop. The shows get full, the label talk starts, and something secret and personal feels like it’s creeping toward the Wal-Mart shelves.
But sometimes, for one reason or another, the music just works best where it starts. Explore hidden pockets of the country’s backroads, and you’ll find those rockers who could’ve gone places, but perhaps traveled further by staying.
That’s the story of a rich enclave of Iowa musicians and their back-porch country sound. They include rumbling folk icon Greg Brown, and blues-guitar slinger Bo Ramsey, currently touring with Lucinda Williams. With Brown and Ramsey serving as mentors and collaborators, the heir apparent to the throne of indie success is taking his place among quiet greatness. David Zollo’s arrival is heralded by his new album, The Big Night, and the continued growth of his independent label, Trailer Records.
Among stubbled fields and sprawling sunsets, Zollo learned to play piano as a boy in rural Iowa, his father’s Buck Owens and George Jones records shaping his style. “That honky-tonk country sound is music that’s just made to be played on the piano,” he remembers.
His first band, High & Lonesome, formed in the winter of 1992. Named for a Jimmy Reed song, the wide-open group courted both the jam fans and two-stepping swingers. It’s the kind of music that goes over well with Midwest crowds. “This was way early in that alt-country thing,” Zollo says. “It wasn’t even a thing yet.”
In 1994, as Hi & Lo was packing rooms regionally and flirting with labels, Zollo’s raspy voice took on new meaning: doctors diagnosed him with early-stage throat cancer. The ensuing surgery waylaid the band. “Going out there and trying to sing and not being able to was, in a way, good for me,” Zollo says. “It was a little forced humility.”
On his way to a personal Ground Zero, Zollo moved into a trailer he bought from Greg Brown and danced with a drug habit. That’s when he cut a heartfelt, ballad-filled solo album, The Morning Is A Long Way From Home, with Bo Ramsey.
“I was calling into question a lot of assumptions,” Zollo says. “But I learned a few lessons that you’re not going to learn playing in a popular rock ‘n’ roll band — like nothing is guaranteed to you.”
In 1996, the bright lights dropped a dime in the pay phone. The chance to rest his voice and the possibility to move forward musically came in the form of an offer to play keyboards with Todd Snider & the Nervous Wrecks. Zollo moved to Nashville, playing with Hi & Lo when the Wrecks were on break. The gig only lasted a year and Zollo returned to Iowa, but Hi & Lo faded away in the transition.
Iowa City’s Green Room, home turf. The opener is Pieta Brown, Greg’s daughter. Her voice comes crystal-pure from behind a Gibson guitar. She echoes her dad’s slow, lazy style, with a nod to the Cowboy Junkies. Zollo settles behind the piano for her Tammy Wynette cover. He nods in encouragement when Pieta’s voice fades a bit. Nerves, probably. She’s young. He’s been there. The piano fills the spaces.
Fired by the work ethic of Middle America, Trailer Records has become something of a local cooperative for talented working musicians. “This town is so far outside the industry, people are able to work free from the constraints of the business,” Zollo says of Iowa City. “There’s a lot of creativity here.”
With his latest record, Zollo takes his place as a seasoned veteran in his own right. The Big Night rolls with a steady backbone like the subtle landscape that gave it life: languorous riffs, open spaces, verses wandering fields part gold and part gray. Even so, Ramsey thinks there’s also something in Zollo’s music that resonates from Iowa to places far away. “I hear gospel music when I hear Dave,” he says. “He’s reaching out.”
Brown provides a good last word: “The thing about Dave Zollo is that he’s very hooked into the beautiful history of music in America. He’s really playing it in his own place and his own time.”