Rock of ages
By ANDREW MCGINN
In the late summer of 1965, Roger Dunlop tried registering for his senior year at Jefferson Community High School at least nine different times.
Each time, Principal Frank Linduska, whose name would one day adorn the high school football field, sent him back to the barber, hellbent on zapping the virile young rock ‘n’ roller of his strength.
A few thousand years had passed since the days of Samson, but, ironically, it had only been 10 months since the Kinks kicked off their debut album with a Chuck Berry number titled “Beautiful Delilah.”
Classmate David Williamson, Dunlop’s bandmate in the Bushmen, was deemed properly assimilated after three trips to the barber.
“Back then,” Williamson recalled recently, “if you traded in your jock strap for a guitar strap, you were headed for trouble.”
Twenty years later, in 1986, a petition signed by hundreds asked that Roze, a popular hard rock band from Des Moines featuring Jefferson native Tony Kendall on lead guitar, be allowed to play the Bell Tower Festival.
The answer was no.
“Thirty years ago, I was too rock to play the Bell Tower,” Kendall joked.
Both men have thankfully lived long enough to see change in their lifetime.
The 2018 Bell Tower Festival not only has a rock ‘n’ roll theme — “Carnival Lights & Rocking Nights” — to commemorate the upcoming induction of the Bushmen into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but a homegrown supergroup of Williamson, Kendall, drummer Hank Muzney and bassist Parker Willis has been invited to perform Friday night on the Plaza Stage just after the opening ceremony feting this year’s Tower of Fame Award recipient.
The times they have a-changed.
Of course, just three months shy of 70, Williamson no longer has any hair to worry about, and Kendall now prefers camo to the open, leopard-print shirt he styled on the back of Roze’s “Shine a Light” LP.
They — along with Muzney, 55 — are also now grandparents.
“My grandkids have never seen me play in a band,” Kendall, 61, said. “We just had one (grandchild) graduate. They’re going to be in shock when they see ol’ Grandpa up there.”
What’s more shocking is that one small town has reliably produced enough talent to constitute a supergroup.
That word is mine. Officially, Williamson is calling it Jefferson Rocks: Four Generations of Greene County Rockers, but let’s call it like it is: There hasn’t been a band name that wonky in the annals of rock since Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
“I mean it when I say it, Jefferson rocks,” said Williamson, a 1966 graduate of Jefferson High.
The multigenerational group has been rehearsing in Muzney’s one-car garage on South Cedar Street — “It’s definitely a garage band,” Muzney quipped — for this one-time performance of five bona-fide rock classics and one Williamson original, “Dirty Rock ‘n’ Roll Records.”
Muzney’s daughter, Miranda Sebourn, got into the act as well on backing vocals.
Frankly, it’s a wonder they don’t have everyone on the south end of town rattling a tambourine along with them — when they explode into “Twist and Shout,” it may have made even Mr. Linduska shake and shimmy.
It was originally hoped the Bushmen — Williamson on lead guitar and vocals, Dunlop on rhythm guitar, Bruce (Smith) Banister on bass and vocals, and David Baller on drums and vocals, all local high schoolers at the time — could play this year’s Bell Tower Festival.
“We just weren’t ready equipment-wise and personnel-wise,” Williamson said.
Presumably, it was less of a logistical challenge for the Allies to invade Normandy on D-Day than it’s been for one band to reform after 52 years.
The Bushmen last played together in July 1966 at the Greene County Roller Rink, capping a 22-month run that became the basis of legend.
Back in those days, DJs hadn’t yet supplanted live bands at dances, and it’s astonishing how up-to-date bands had to be, the Bushmen cranking out a cover of the Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud” during an Oct. 16, 1965, appearance on a KRNT-TV teen show hosted by Bill Riley, the Dick Clark of Iowa.
The song was only three weeks old.
The Bushmen are the first Jefferson band to earn a spot in the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a feat festival organizers were eager to celebrate this weekend.
“For me,” Williamson said, “everything is yes until it isn’t.”
With a set by the Bushmen not possible, Williamson suggested Plan B — to turn the spotlight back around on a community that hasn’t always appreciated the caliber of its own talent.
Combined, it’s undeniable.
“It’s not the Bushmen,” Williamson said, “but wait til you see who it is.”
He went about assembling the Justice League of local bands, with Muzney getting the first call.
Muzney’s late father, Don, was a country picker extraordinaire and an avowed influence on Williamson and Banister growing up.
“I listen to the drums and bass,” Don once told me, explaining how he overcame an inability to read music. “When they’re right, there ain’t nothing I can’t do. I can do anything on that guitar.”
When Don Muzney returned home to Jefferson for good in the late ’60s from Nashville, where he’d backed Jean Shepard and Tom T. Hall on the Grand Ole Opry, he promptly put his family to work as Don and the Country Bells.
Son Hank, all of 6 at the time, was conscripted to play drums. That is, for the next 38 years.
There’s hardly a bar, fair or ballroom in Iowa that Hank Muzney didn’t play with his family’s band, even sharing stages at times with the likes of Marty Robbins and Johnny Paycheck.
With Muzney on board, Kendall was next.
“I didn’t know what I was in for,” confessed Kendall, revered by those of us of a certain age as the hottest local guitarist of his generation.
But as it turned out, even Kendall had a Bushmen connection, recalling that he once peered in on them rehearsing in the middle school band room.
He was just starting to discover rock ‘n’ roll.
“God,” he remembers thinking, “that’s cool.”
“I just hung there on the window,” he added.
Kendall would spend eight years as lead guitarist in Roze, a band inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
“The stars have just aligned here,” Williamson said.
Parker Willis, a 2015 graduate of Greene County High School and the only member of the group with active record and endorsement deals, readily agreed to play bass.
That is, he’ll proudly play the Schecter bass the company has asked him to rep on stage.
“I love being from Jefferson,” said Willis, 22, a member of the Des Moines thrash-metal outfit Green Death and a Schecter Guitars artist. “Plus, I just love playing gigs. I couldn’t say no.”
Willis joined Green Death while still in high school, and just a few months after graduation found himself playing Knotfest in Southern California on a bill topped by Slipknot (the festival namesake), Judas Priest and Korn.
Green Death is now under the tutelage of Megadeth bassist David Ellefson, who recently revived the legendary metal label Combat Records for a new generation. (It was Combat that released Megadeth’s debut album, “Killing is My Business ... and Business is Good,” back in 1985.)
Call it six degrees of the Bushmen — Ellefson, who grew up near Spirit Lake, just across the border in Jackson, Minn., is being inducted this year as well into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
As a whole, Jefferson Rocks comes across as a joyous celebration of rock ‘n’ roll, in part because it proves that each generation is more alike than it might seem.
“Dave’s playing his style. I’m playing my style,” Kendall said. “Everybody’s bringing their own style to it.”
And, yet, they combine for a singular sound.
That’s never more apparent than during the group’s cover of “You Really Got Me,” which is either a Kinks song or a Van Halen song, depending on your age.
Without either, there’s no Green Death.
“It’s mind-boggling Parker said yes,” Williamson said. “If some 70-year-old man had come up to me at 22 and said, ‘Hey, man, you wanna rock with me,’ I would’ve said forget it.”
Then again, when Williamson was 22, a 70-year-old man would have been born around 1899.
Today, you’re apt to overhear Willis ask Williamson (as was the case last week at rehearsal), “Have you checked out the new Stone Sour album? You need to.”
One of the defining moments in Williamson’s life was the night in high school he and Roger Dunlop ventured over to Carroll in a blizzard to see Jerry Lee Lewis at the Starline Ballroom.
Fewer than 20 souls dared to brave the weather, not only making for a semi-private show, but for a chance to hang with a legend, who at the time was all of 30.
The Killer unapologetically bummed Salem cigarettes off his young fans, and Williamson got his copy of “The Greatest Live Show on Earth” signed in return.
More than 50 years later, Jerry Lee is slated to play Riot Fest in Chicago this September, just ahead of his 83rd birthday, alongside the likes of Blink-182, Beck and Elvis Costello.
“As the Killer once told me at the Starline in Carroll,” Williamson recalled, “he said, ‘Baby, talkin’ about the cat here, I ain’t ever gonna hang up my rock ‘n’ roll shoes.’ ”