Kelly Pardekooper – You can take the boy out of Iowa, but…
You might call Kelly Pardekooper’s Haymaker Heart the musical equivalent of a midlife crisis. Not only does his fourth album represent the most creative stretch of his career, its release caps a tumultuous year for the 37-year-old Iowan. Over the course of 2004, Pardekooper got divorced, sold his house, hit the road and left the Iowa City music scene, where he’s been a fixture since his university days.
He’s made a fresh start in Nashville — not the Nashville, he hastens to add, of Music Row, publishing deals and songs pitched to Tim McGraw, but the funkier East Nashville of garage studios, bohemian bars and indie rock. It’s the sort of neighborhood where a musician who plays the clubs at night might support himself by painting houses during the day (as Pardekooper does).
He moved there at the invitation of his friend and occasional producer/guitarist Teddy Morgan, who suggested this might be a better place, or at least a warmer place, to take stock of his life and see what’s next. “Teddy said that East Nashville is probably not the Nashville you have in your head,” Pardekooper says. “I made this leap of faith more for personal than musical reasons.”
Yet his artistry has plainly reaped the benefits of that year of upheaval. With his life up for grabs, Pardekooper pushed his music beyond his comfort zone as well, venturing past alt-country convention and what he calls “the train beat from hell” of his previous releases.
The album-opening “Not In Iowa” (ironically, recorded in Iowa) serves as an evocative swan song to his native state, with sinuous atmospherics that suggest a spaghetti-western shootout between Dire Straits and Calexico. A raspy narrative relates a murder from the perspective of the corpse, to the serenade of Dave Moore’s accordion.
“Where my previous album, House Of Mud, was recorded in four days with the same band, this one was recorded over the whole year of 2004, and I used just about every guest musician in Iowa City,” he explains. “I’m not getting rich, obviously, so one of the great freedoms I have is to make any kind of record I want.”
It’s the kind of freedom Kris Kristofferson famously defined as “nothing left to lose,” and it inspired Pardekooper to go for broke. Over the course of thirteen “official” cuts and seven “bonus” tracks, Haymaker Heart surveys a soundscape that extends from the propulsive rock of “Wild Love” to the hardcore honky-tonk of “Just Shoot Me” to the stream-of-consciousness broadsides of “Folk This (Kelly Cougar)” and “21st Century Trailer Park” to the pop harmonies of “Too Late”. Pardekooper justifies the range of what amounts to a double album with songwriting that is as focused as the music is expansive.
Though Pardekooper didn’t pick up the guitar and begin writing songs until his early 20s, his formative musical influences came from the record collection of his “hippie” parents — Creedence, the Band, Buffalo Springfield and the like. He later embraced not only the rawer aggression of the Clash, but the DIY ethic of the punk era. He earned a degree in communication from the University of Iowa, which he attended on a pole-vaulting scholarship.
Pardekooper is issuing Haymaker Heart on his own Leisure Time Records (after two previous releases on Iowa City’s Trailer Records), and he handles his own management, publicity and booking. While he’s yet to establish much of a Stateside following beyond Iowa City, where his Devil’s House Band remains fondly (if a little drunkenly) remembered, Europe has been quicker to embrace Pardekooper. A late-winter swing through Germany and the Netherlands followed the ascension of Haymaker Heart to the top of the Euro Americana Chart (above such stalwarts as Alison Krauss and Iris DeMent). Apparently his name — which means “horse buyer” in Dutch — doesn’t sound as funny to Amsterdam fans, who have embraced him as a prodigal son.
“In Europe, I have a label, distribution, a publicity company and a booking agency,” he says. “I have the same booking agent in Amsterdam as Drive-By Truckers and Jay Farrar. I tell him [the agent] that in America there’s no comparison between what those guys are doing and what I’m doing. And the agent just says, ‘Well, they like you here.'”
As for America, “I’m in that netherworld where a lot of musicians are,” he acknowledges. “This is a lot more than a hobby but not quite a full-time career. I’m really passionate about it, and I like all the elements of what I do. I enjoy the recording, I really like playing live, and I love the songwriting.”
And if Tim McGraw should decide to cut one of his songs?
“I don’t have any philosophical issue with that,” he says with a laugh. “If somebody wants to record my songs it could give me a break from house painting so I could write some more.”
(Memo to McGraw: Pardekooper’s “Draw The Line” is a hit just waiting to happen. And there’s even a harmony part for Faith.)