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Awful Purdies are here to help with a simple song

The Awful Purdies
Awful Purdies
The Awful Purdies

If you catch a performance by the Awful Purdies sometime this spring or summer, be sure to look for the rooster.

The colorful, wooden figurine should be propped somewhere on the stage with his lanky legs dangling and his beak chipped while the band performs. He’s been with the Purdies for every show they’ve played in the last 17 years, and represents, in the band’s words, “a gender balance.” He’s about the only male representation you’ll see or hear during their performances.

A wooden, painted rooster is present at every Awful Purdies show.
Josie Fischels
/
IPR News
A wooden, painted rooster is present at every Awful Purdies show.

And that’s fine by the Awful Purdies — with five multi-instrumental women in the band, all armed with powerful vocals and a message to spread, the stage is perfectly full, thank you very much.

The Awful Purdies are a folk-Americana band with a sound that drifts into old country, bluegrass, honky tonk and soul. Formed in 2006, they are so named as a cheeky jab at the men who would come up to them after their first gigs as individual musicians, drawls dripping with vacant compliments.

“When we started being female musicians, often as a female musician, after you play, people would come up and go, ‘well, you're awful purdy’ as opposed to, ‘What you're an excellent musician or what a fantastic song you wrote,’” band member Marcy Rosenbaum said. “So it's kind of us calling that, taking, embracing it and calling that out.”

Meet Awful Purdies

Rosenbaum plays the mandolin, guitar and bass in the quintet made up of herself, Nicole Upchurch on guitar and banjo, pink-haired cellist and bassist Kate Rowe, guitarist Sarah Driscoll and Katie Roche on accordion (and washboard — and xylophone — and penny whistle — and recorder.)

The friends are fairly spread out across eastern Iowa, raising families, working jobs and getting involved in their communities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Tiffin and West Branch, but they still make time to get together and rehearse about once a week.

May 12-14, you can catch the Purdies headlining the Gays Mills Folks Festival of Music & Dance in Wisconsin. They’ve played near and far over the course of their nearly two-decade collaboration — even as far as a European tour, where they packed up a mini version of their rooster and shipped out overseas.

The collective has benefitted before from grants from the Iowa Arts Council to make music — even a full album, All Recipes Are Home (2015), that was inspired by the lives of Iowans. This year, IAC money is helping fund a women-only folk series the band is part of in collaboration with Abby and the Sawyers, and the Night Lights throughout the spring and summer.

Like many local artists, the members of the Purdies are active outside of their quintet, both musically and in their personal lives. Most play in at least one other band. Rowe is a techno DJ, Driscoll owns her own yoga studio. On top of it all, the Purdies are mothers, wives and friends.

“I think that was kind of the whole idea of the band — was that we can balance our work lives and our personal lives and our kids in this situation — and it's been really awesome,” said Rowe. “I wasn't a mother when I joined this band, and my son just turned 15. So we've been there for all of it together."

Awful Purdies perform at Studio One.
Lucius Pham
/
IPR News
Awful Purdies perform at Studio One.

The sense of unity emanates from the group when they gather in their signature semicircle, softly counting in each song. They swap turns on taking lead vocals and instrumental solos. While the backing vocal harmonies of the others swirl behind. It’s a delightful surprise to discover how distinctly the solo voices of the individual singer varies. While Upchurch's gentle and airy voice soars over the sound of the banjo in “Something in the Water,” Roche's warm twang with a soulful edge dances along with the rolling lullaby of “Why Would I Be Small?” which also features one of Rowe's cello solos.

The latter song, the second featured off their 2020 album, The Great Unraveling, tackles topics from climate change to womanhood. While the album came out in December, several months after the beginning of the pandemic, several of the songs, including the title track, were written pre-pandemic.

Each song from The Great Unraveling is bold. Even when backed by soothing, rolling and simple instrumentals, Roche unabashedly questions the world, that as a woman, “Why would I be small?” Other songs, like “Something in the Water” call out environmental catastrophes and crises.

“Monarch, is your flight too long, and can it be helped with a simple song? Can I help with a simple song?” Nicole sings out.

“We have some values and some things we'd like to see happen in the world and some change we'd like to see,” Roche explained.

She said just being a member of the band means she is part of the change she wants to see, too.

“Showing up as five women to play music, we're so very often the only women on a bill. And after 17 years, I think we thought we'd see more, and we have started to, I feel like, in the last five years,” she said.

It may not be perfect, just like their music-making, but it’s part of the Purdies journey, and helps drive them. The gratitude that comes from being part of the Purdies, Roche said, is huge.

“It's been nice, growing a little older and a little more comfortable in our skin, collectively and personally, and just like not seeking perfection,” she said. “Just being like, ‘How lucky are we that we get to play this music together?’”

The Awful Purdies are Studio One's Artist of the Month for May.

Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.