“Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.” – “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe
“I was never sure how much/of you I could let in” – Heavenly Father by Justin Vernon
Thomas Wolfe wrote the words “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a sentiment I believe many people, myself included, can relate to.
But what if Wolfe’s home also happened to be the hometown of an internationally recognized, Grammy-winning musical artist. Let’s say Frank Sinatra. Or maybe someone more like Bill Monroe. What if that artist not only still lived in Wolfe’s small hometown but also played a large role in changing the literal and figurative face of this town? And what if this artist, a true innovator of the era, invited Wolfe to return home after years and years of being away for a listening party for the artist’s highly anticipated new album?
Would Wolfe have gone home then? What would he find there? How would all of this affect his perception of home stored deep in his memory bank?
These are the kinds of heavy questions I am about to grapple with because I’m going home again. I have accepted an invitation from Justin Vernon, the internationally recognized, Grammy-winning artist Bon Iver, to return to our hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin for listening party around his forthcoming album, “22, A Million.”
Bon Iver’s sound has shifted from one album to the next, with his first being a distinctly cinematic approach to folk music; the second had an expansive pop feel, particularly the nod to Bruce Hornsby or maybe The Outfield on “Beth/Rest.” The new album has hints of a more experimental, beat-oriented sound, grounded by Vernon’s soulful, emotive, clear-as-water voice.
I would argue that a significant portion of Vernon’s identity is rooted in the fact he has lived in the small college town of Eau Claire for most of his life – unusual for an artist of his stature. I left there when I was 18, more than 20 years ago, and haven’t spent any real time there in more than a decade. Based on reports from the friends and family who still live in there I don’t expect to recognize very much. Some of the changes can be directly attributed to Vernon’s influence.
To better grasp what I’m facing, and explain Vernon’s root bond to this town, perhaps a little backstory is needed. I recall Eau Claire being a great place to grow up, filled with some of the funniest people I’ve ever known in my entire life… you need a sense of humor to get you through those winters. Located in what is referred to as west-central Wisconsin (aka, cow country), Eau Claire is a college town with a population of about 65,000. When I was a kid it was closer to 50,000, and when my dad returned their to work for my grandfather’s law firm in the early 1960s it was somewhere around 30,000. For a town this small, located in the middle of Wisconsin/nowhere, Eau Claire has always enjoyed a rather sophisticated appreciation of music.
There is a legendary bar on Water Street called The Joynt. It’s a ramshackle watering hole serving a fine mix of bohemians, poets, dart throwers and blue-collar workers. The owner was a voracious fan of the music of the day and because of Eau Claire’s proximity to Minneapolis en route from Chicago, he was able to convince influential acts to stop in and perform there.
My parents would tell me stories of seeing such artists as Charlie Byrd, Count Basie, Odetta, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus perform at a bar with fewer than 100 seats. It’s where Vernon’s parents first met. And it’s from this fertile ground that the University of Eau Claire’s jazz program – for years named the best in the U.S. by Downbeat magazine – took root.
Back in the 1980’s, just when I was discovering music and learning to develop my own eclectic tastes, Eau Claire also had a thriving and diverse underground music scene. Again, this stemmed from its nearness to Minneapolis, which had the reigning music scene in the country. In addition to R&B and pop artists like Prince, The Time, and Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis, Minneapolis was giving us the greatest indie rock bands around: The Replacements and Husker Du among them.
Before I was turned 14 I had seen Twin Cities bands like Soul Asylum, Trip Shakespeare and Urban Guerrillas perform in Eau Claire. Every weekend there were shows happening and bands to check out. Some of us even tried to form our own (in my case, it went very badly, I’m afraid).
Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver are a part of the tradition, sons of the unusually vibrant music scene in Eau Claire. Indeed, he is the face of it. Music in Eau Claire has never been more potent, and now it has an audience that extends well beyond the banks of the Chippewa River. In addition to Bon Iver, Eau Claire-grown artists like Ryan Olson and his project Gayngs, Megafaun, The Daredevil Christopher Wright, and Vernon’s side project, Volcano Choir, have earned national and international acclaim.
Beyond the music, Vernon has done a number of other significant things to bring attention to our hometown. He has created a state-of-the-art recording studio in nearby Fall Creek, which attracts artists from all over the globe, including The Staves. This summer marked the 2nd annual Eaux Claires festival, which was his brainchild and is now a must-stop on the summer festival circuit. I also understand he has had a hand in revitalizing historic downtown Eau Claire, which was once bustling but was gutted by the rise of mall culture in the 80s and was slow to recover. Then there are the restaurants and new music venues he’s invested in, and the world-class hotel that will be opening soon in downtown Eau Claire.
I can’t think of another artist that has done more to put their hometown on the map than Justin Vernon. I will soon see for myself as I travel back home, to the place of my birth, at his invitation. I’m excited to be one of the first to hear the new Bon Iver album ’22, A Million’ in its entirety, but perhaps equally as excited to see how the singer/songwriter behind this album has taken care of my hometown.
This is Wisconsin on Labor Day weekend. I’ll be bringing my long underwear and a down vest, along with some Tums in case I need to get my casserole on. Oh, and some Deep Woods Off.
I’ll let you know how it goes and we’ll see if Thomas Wolfe was right.