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Last Tango in Iowa City

Iowa City-based musician Anthony Worden performs during 80/35's  2022 festival.
Alyssa Leicht
Iowa City-based musician Anthony Worden performs during 80/35's 2022 festival.

Iowa City-based musician Anthony Worden will be moving out of state soon. Iowa Public Radio Studio One asked him to reflect on his experience making music in the state.

When making original music growing up in Iowa, you sort of exist in a bubble. I grew up in Cedar Rapids, a modest sized city, but lacking a record store, rock club or arts scene that would have been accessible for a young kid growing up in Catholic school. Despite the lack of access, I somehow found the power of Rock n’ Roll. And in many ways, I couldn’t miss it.

I don’t mean the spiritual and raw power that I would later find in music, but Blues Rock - rock that existed as the cultural emblem of the baby boomer working class. The music that fueled the city’s urine-reeking factories, cereal mills and golf courses. The Rock n' Roll that fueled the collective nostalgia for a youth and naivete that is sadly long gone. Like most guitar players, I studied Hendrix, Jimmy Page, The Beatles and every other band that you could hear on the local rock station - 100.7 the Fox. The ultimate goal in my adolescence was to be good enough at the pentatonic scale to maybe get a gig playing some version of a 1-4-5 progression at a local sports bar.

Iowa City-based musician Anthony Worden on stage at the 2022 80/35 festival.
Alyssa Leicht
Worden on stage at the 2022 80/35 festival.


Slowly, I learned the flaws of what I had been raised on. I started to think that it may be lame to play the 7 millionth version of “Hey Joe” for a crowd of khakis and New Balance shoes. I needed to broaden my musical landscape. Luckily, I had an older family acquaintance, Tim Hill, who lent me Radiohead, Wilco and Grizzly Bear CDs. After maybe the seventh listen of a borrowed OK Computer album I finally got it, and my mind was forever changed. I was halfway to baseball practice listening to the track “Let Down” in my 90s era bass-boosted Pontiac Grand-Prix, and I just burst into tears as I heard the beauty of the song. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to devote my life to the pursuit of making something to match that emotional capacity.

Like so many other weirdos, art-freaks and musicians, I found myself in Iowa City. I knew it was more bohemian and I knew there was some sort of “scene” there, plus I always had a good time partying with former high school classmates. I said goodbye to my track scholarship and a major in the stable career of Physical Therapy and moved to the “city of the arts” in the fall of 2012. I knew there was something for me there, but I went into it totally blind.

Being a good young adult, I decided to get my degree in Marketing from the Tippie School of Business. I somehow found the time to do my homework in between reading Pitchfork, writing songs and getting stoned listening to records. Pet Sounds, Deerhunter, the beginning of the record label Captured Tracks and the San Francisco band Girls were all regularly featured listening on my hand-me-down record player as the vinyl resurgence gained steam.

Then, during my senior year, the director of the Mission Creek Festival, Andre Perry, gave my very green college band, Bull Black Nova, a chance to open for Amen Dunes and Delicate Steve at that year’s festival. This was such an honor, and really encouraged me to continue pursuing my own music. Andre has given so many people opportunities to express themselves in this community, and continues to do so to this day.

In May of 2015 I graduated from The University of Iowa and looked out into the business world with contempt. I had my degree but had nothing in common with many of the people I’d studied with and no monetary aspirations whatsoever - save for getting some Oasis Falafel on occasion. I was very narrow-minded and could only see music as “the way to be,” much to my mother's chagrin. Within a matter of months I had ended my long-term relationship as well as my college band, and sought refuge in the new Flat Black Studios, where I began my first solo record.

My First Record

I was a pretty confused young person, but Luke Tweedy really helped guide me and helped me believe that what I was doing was worth something. He did much the same for many young Iowa City artists at the time. And, after a year in the making, I completed my first record, Ideal Conceptions of the Beautiful and Good.

The album’s title asked the question “what should a person be or do with their life?” I was searching deeply for the answer. That question can lead anyone to bouts of depression or confusion. Five years later, I'm not sure I’ve come to the conclusion or had any epiphanies. Mainly I now understand that people just fall into things and tend to stick with them.

The songs on that album contained stories, or poetic interpretations of the pains of growing up in public, as many of us had in our ever-changing culture. The sounds and structures were adventurous and labored over. It really was a labor of love, and every note felt exciting - the exciting feeling an artist feels when they have made something they are truly proud of for the first time. I've been chasing that first project’s exhilaration every time I've been in the studio since. I feel like I owe Luke for life for the time he gave me during that process.

Last Dance

Three albums and a couple hundred shows later, I now find myself looking down the barrel of my last performances as an Iowan and with my band, The Illiterati. I’ll be moving down to Kansas at the beginning of August to be with the one I love, which is something you gotta do every once in a while in this life. It’s been a wonderful ride, and I have nothing but respect for everyone who has sailed with me. Thank you to you all and I hope you know that you have made my dreams come true by helping me with this project.

In Iowa, I grew and changed for the better as I saw the state change for the worse. No, there aren’t great opportunities for artists here. No, artists don’t get fairly compensated for their labor. No, people around don’t often embrace challenging music. But I know so many people who are trying to change these things, and I'm humbled to call a lot of them friends. There are so many people to thank for my experience here. I hope you all know that I appreciate you and that your devotion to your work doesn’t go unnoticed.

Please join me and seven other bands for one last show, at Gabe's in Iowa City, on Saturday, July 16. All of the bands have agreed not to take money from the performance, and instead we’re donating it to the local charity, Inside Out Community Re-Entry, which seeks to help people re-entering the community after prison sentences.