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Buckmiller Schwager make their mark going “To Memphis and Back”

"To Memphis And Back" poster
Eric Smidt
The new documentary film "To Memphis and Back" follows Tom Buckmiller and Brian Schwager, as they perform in Memphis.

There’s a moment in “To Memphis and Back,” the new documentary following the Buckmiller Schwager Band from Des Moines, that seems simple, but feels highly significant. Guitarist Brian Schwager places one of the band’s stickers right outside the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, alongside the stickers of countless other bands.

“It was crazy!” said Schwager. “You see where we put them, right outside of Sun Studios, and there’s thousands of other bands' stickers there. Just to be there, and have your band name next to everyone else’s in such a famous place. That’s the beginning of it all right there! It’s still cool to know it’s there, whether it’s buried or not other than a thousand other stickers.”

Schwager is one half of the core duo that makes up the band, along with vocalist and guitarist Tom Buckmiller, who is also the band’s songwriter. Buckmiller Schwager were in Memphis in January to perform at the International Blues Challenge, which the duo earned the right to participate in after winning the 2021 Iowa Blues Challenge. Traveling to Memphis was an awe-inspiring moment for the duo.

“We had an absolute blast down there,” said Schwager. “The city, the atmosphere, being on Beale Street and all the history that’s there, and obviously having the opportunity to play as blues musicians. Words can’t describe how I felt.”

Tom Buckmiller and Brian Schwager arrive at the legendary Beale Street.
Eric Smidt
Tom Buckmiller and Brian Schwager arrive at the legendary Beale Street.

“We’re students of the game, and we’re just soaking it in and learning,” said Buckmiller. “It’s an important genre that we have to keep alive. And as a white male with a lot of privileges, entering this field of playing the blues, you really have to understand all the history. You can’t just play it because it’s fun to play Steve Ray Vaughan licks. There’s a responsibility there.”

Eric Smidt, the band’s bass player, accompanied Buckmiller and Schwager on the trip. Smidt is a documentary filmmaker, both for his day job and in his spare time.

“My previous credits have all been through the employer that I’m working with. I’ll say ‘Hey, we should do a project around this,’ and it turns into a documentary, and we go through the film festival circuit,” said Smidt. “The challenge is always finding that right hook and that right story. If you’re going to call something a documentary film, then it has to have that extra level of production value.”

Smidt decided the experience of the International Blues Challenge, and the trip, needed to be made into a film. “After winning the Iowa Blues Challenge, and knowing that they were going to be able to go to Memphis, they really saw an opportunity,” said Smidt. “We really need to educate people about the blues. I saw it as an opportunity for me, and our band, to push the blues community in Des Moines forward.”

“I didn’t really give them a choice that I was coming,” Smidt added with a laugh.

The result of Smidt’s work is “To Memphis and Back,” which shares its title with the band’s most recent album.

Buckmiller Schwager ended up reaching the semifinal round of the International Blues Challenge, and the film includes footage of one of their three performances in Memphis. “To Memphis and Back” also includes clips from a performance by the full band at the Greenwood Lounge in Des Moines, and interviews with the duo, as well as Des Moines musicians Bob Pace and Heath Pattschull.

The mission of the film goes hand-in-hand with a part of Buckmiller Schwager’s live show that’s shown in the film: a blues history lesson, complete with samples of various blues styles, and Buckmiller giving a brief explanation of each. Buckmiller said the band doesn’t do this at every show, but “every time we have a pseudo-okay crowd, it goes over great!”

“To Memphis and Back” made its debut at the Alternating Currents Festival in Davenport in August, and was recently screened at the Iowa Independent Film Festival in Clear Lake, and the South Dakota Film Festival. The film will be shown at the Sioux City International Film Festival later this month, and Smidt is also looking into a showing in Des Moines.

“We thought it would be a great idea for the blues community in Des Moines,” said Smidt. “It would be open to the public, but we would treat it as an invitation to people in the blues community, who have supported Tom and Brian and the band.”

Tom Buckmiller and Brian Schwager perform at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, in January of 2021.
Eric Smidt
Tom Buckmiller and Brian Schwager perform at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, in January of 2021.

Everyone involved agrees that “To Memphis and Back” has transcended simply being about one band, and their trip to Memphis. For Buckmiller, Schwager and Smidt, the film is a love letter to the blues.

“Raising awareness of the group was never the goal of this project,” said Smidt. “Obviously, we’re leveraging that through social media, and that’s great. But the music transcends the project. I think that, for 27 minutes, people are going to be like ‘That’s awesome! That just sounds good!’”

“I think it’s a great look at blues music, and a couple of guys that are trying their hardest to keep it alive,” said Schwager. “If you can walk away with a new appreciation, or a new interest to go check something out that you may otherwise not, it would be cool for me to say ‘Hey cool, I’m glad you walked away with this,’ and maybe go check out another band from Des Moines, and see how much that scene is thriving.”

“I get asked, ‘Why don’t you play country music or classic rock?’ We could make more money, but that’s not where my passion is,” said Buckmiller. “I’m of an age where I just want to play what I want to play. I hope it comes through that we’re passionate about this, and we’re trying to be worth watching. If you come out to see our show, I hope you see that we’re blood, sweat and tears on this, and we’re going to play with our heart and soul.”

Tony Dehner is a Studio One Host