Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blues: Buckmiller Schwager Band brings home the blues
The Buckmiller Schwager Band aren’t just any ol’ old dudes. They’re old dudes that have been to Memphis and back.
This month on IPR’s All Access Live – a special program that invites Iowa musicians to play a show that is live-streamed on the radio – the IPR Studio One team welcomed the Buckmiller Schwager Band (BSB) at xBk Live in Des Moines. Spearheaded by frontman Tom Buckmiller and guitarist Brian Schwager, BSB is a Des Moines-based blues band focused on educating the masses about the blues.
In 2021, Buckmiller and Schwager, as a duo, won the Iowa Blues Challenge, which earned them the honor of representing the state at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN, where they made it to the semi-finals. Their bassist, Eric Smidt, invited himself along and made a documentary of the trip called To Memphis and Back, which was accepted to six film festivals, including the Iowa Independent Film Festival and the South Dakota Film Festival. (The film will be released to friends and fans later this month and will be available to the public in June.) The band’s debut album is titled the same, and Buckmiller has a tattoo of the phrase on his left forearm.
For Buckmiller, getting to play on Beale Street in Memphis was a highlight of his music career – it’s where greats like B.B. King and Muddy Waters honed their craft. But what actually drives BSB is sharing the blues with newcomers, and that’s why the “and back” portion of the album title is so important to them.
“How do we keep the blues alive?” asked Buckmiller. “Although [Memphis] was a highlight for me, the work we continue to do is when we come back to Iowa. Every gig. Friday night gig, Saturday gig, Thursday gig.”
Old blues meets new
In reality, BSB isn’t a bunch of old dudes but a group of musicians that spans multiple generations of musical upbringing and influence. Schwager is a ripe 35. Smidt is 43. Sitting in his basement studio a week before the band’s performance for All Access Live, Buckmiller proudly proclaimed, “I’m 49…and a half!” Drummer and Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame member Larry Mersereau is 71, but when he plays it’s easy to picture him as the suave 22-year-old he once was.
[Blues is] the story of hardships and joy in simple music for people in a struggle, and I think we can all relate to that.
But the question of age and generation is central to the band. Buckmiller, a social sciences professor at Drake, originally got into the blues because of his love of rock and roll.
Buckmiller grew up on Led Zeppelin and Def Leppard, rock bands famously influenced by blues artists like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Then he found blues artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, and he wanted to see who they were influenced by. He said now he’s as far back as 1930s Delta blues, a form of the genre that originated in the Mississippi Delta and was sold as race records.
“Back in the Delta, you worked as a sharecropper. I don't have that experience. I'm not pretending to have that experience, as a white male,” said Buckmiller. “But Saturday night was the one night they got to go to house parties or the juke joints, and that guy playing the guitar is playing the blues to lift spirits up."
“[Blues is] the story of hardships and joy in simple music for people in a struggle, and I think we can all relate to that.”
Schwager, on the other hand, went the opposite direction. He started with artists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd just like Buckmiller did, but then he went forward to the “new blues.” Along with Shepherd, he lists Joe Bonamassa and Gary Clark Jr. as his top three blues artists.
“We have to negotiate that in our songwriting. I’m coming from the old school blues. I like to dress up a bit. Brian likes to wear cool clothes,” said Buckmiller. “But I think that’s the beauty of it.”
Going live on 24th St
On stage at xBk, Buckmiller is a wonderfully unimposing frontman. He’s confident and charismatic without stealing the spotlight – and their show really does feel like the Buckmiller Schwager Band. Buckmiller stands in the middle of the stage while Schwager, who is much quieter both on stage and in real life than Buckmiller, stays primarily on stage right, gently cradling his guitar. Buckmiller dons a button-up and a suit jacket while Schwager sports a t-shirt and flannel. They’re wearing matching fedoras.
Their songs follow the typical blues pattern: Buckmiller sings a verse or two, hands it over to Schwager to solo, and ends on another verse or two after Schwager’s fingers slow back to a regular rhythm. For people unfamiliar with the blues, this pattern can feel trite or boring, a notion Buckmiller acknowledged on stage.
But Schwager isn’t one of those guitarists who shreds just to shred. He takes his time, deciding what the song needs. Sometimes he goes all out, leaning forward on his tip-toes like the music is about to pull him into another world. Sometimes he slinks back into his corner on stage right, letting slow, sultry notes ring out into the room.
The band is anything but boring.
They played to a full house (it’s worth noting the mean age was probably about… 49 and a half). Buckmiller had the audience eagerly singing along to several tunes, and there were people dancing throughout the entire 90-minute show.
In the middle of their second set, the band took a moment to take the crowd on a tour of American blues. They played a few seconds of Chicago blues, what Buckmiller refers to as the “foot tappin’” kind of blues. Then we went to the West Coast, a swing style Buckmiller said was “jumpin’ jive.” Texas blues sits a little behind the beat, like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Detroit is “down and dirty,” like John Lee Hooker.
This crash course felt like going back in time, like the whole audience got loaded onto a bus to tour the best musical moments of the ‘50s and ‘60s…or perhaps of 1973, which was 49 and a half years ago.
The rest of the night consisted of a mix of tunes from To Memphis and Back and unreleased songs. The push and pull of different generations, of old and new, was punctuated by traditional blues songs with modern lyrics, like “Black Jeep Blues,” a song Buckmiller wrote with Sarah Ling about how his wife has a blue Jeep and Ling has a black one.
“Black Jeep Blues” is track six of ten on To Memphis and Back. Track four, “These Are The Good Days,” a feel-good, soul-blues bop, was another standout at All Access Live, closing out BSB’s first set and earning them a standing ovation. My favorite track on the album though is “Tylenol and Templeton,” a gritty, Texas-style grind in which Buckmiller proclaims, “My head’s pounding hard / Keep my eyes open with a couple of toothpicks / The effect of that cigarette I had / It ain’t gonna stick / But it ain’t nothing that some Tylenol and some Templeton can’t fix.”
The Buckmiller Schwager Band ended their set just before 9 p.m. to another standing ovation. As the band tore down, fans congratulated them and shuffled toward the doors, still foot-tappin’ and jumpin’-jivin’. The room felt full but light, buoyant on the joy found in the shared experience of new and old.
Want to keep up with the Buckmiller Schwager Band? Follow them on FB at @buckmillerschwager and IG at @buckmiller_schwager_band, or visit their website at buckmillerschwager.com.