Cody Diekhoff as his alter ego Chicago Farmer is a riveting live performer who has cultivated a loyal following with folk songs and stories about the American heartland. And especially central Illinois.
Though his studio albums have received much critical acclaimed, Diekhoff said fans have been clamoring for an album that replicates those live shows.
The Delevan native and now Bloomington resident will fulfill that request with a live double-album release during a two-night performance at the Castle Theatre on Aug. 3 and Aug. 4. It coincides with his 40th birthday celebration.
Diekhoff spoke with Jon Norton on GLT’s Sound Ideas about the new album recorded over two nights at The Apollo Theater in Peoria. It’s titled “Quarter Past Tonight," and it showcases his compelling storytelling and strong connection with his audience. He said the ability to engage an audience for long periods of time didn't happen overnight.
“I spent about five years traveling around Illinois being background music to people,” said Diekhoff. “I was kind of the guy who people would tap their foot to, and you know, take shots to, and drink beers to. And that was fun. But after a while, I wanted my words to be heard and my songs to come through and connect with people.”
So he focused his songwriting and show prep on making his performances entertaining and interactive.
“That was my mission, that’s what I’ve been working on ever since,” said Diekhoff, who almost exclusively performs solo now.
That wasn’t always the case. He said he “cranked it to 11” with a full band when he first started playing out of high school, but time spent hanging around Chicago’s legendary Old Town School of Folk Music altered his perspective.
“I really started getting into John Prine and Steve Goodman and guys like that, and I kind of felt like the songs I was writing came across just fine by myself. It really is the best way for me to express myself in my words and art. If you can’t hear my words, it’s really kind of pointless,” said Diekhoff.
A handful of the 32 songs and vignettes on “Quarter Past Tonight” are new to his record output, though he has played them at various shows. “Dirtiest Uniforms” is one that encapsulates how he lives his life, and why his rabid fans connect with his self-effacing, small town, working class outlook.
He was thinking curve ball/What he got instead/
95 miles per hour/Right into his head/
He hobbled down to first/With a lump on his face/
And on the very next pitch/He up and stole second base/
With the greatest speed/He wasn’t born/
But he had the dirtiest uniform
- Dirtiest Uniform from “Quarter Past Midnight”
Diekhoff said that verse was a tip of the hat to the late (and beloved) former Chicago Cubs player Ron Santo, his all-time favorite.
“He wasn’t the most athletic human being on the planet, but he gave it his all, every play, every time he stepped to the plate or had a ball hit to him,” said Diekhoff.
But the song is also a nod to others in his family, including his mother.
And even though the school/Is on the wrong side of the tracks/
She’s cross over/And she came and gave back/
We knew she could have left/But she stuck around/
To get everyone else’s feet on the ground/
Then we would drive/And we’d achieve/
But she’s the first one to arrive/And the last one to leave/
From the wealthiest town/She wasn’t born/
But she had the dirtiest uniform
- - Dirtiest Uniform from “Quarter Past Midnight”
It was that ethic displayed by both Santo and his mother that Diekhoff said stuck with him when turned to music full time. He said both were heroes to him and gave him hope that he too could be someone.
I’d watch him play/Listen to her teach/
And I set out on my way/To practice what they preached/
I heard my callin’/And I found my thing/
Now I spend my nights/Falling down trying to sing/
But I get back up/Just like they taught/
And I keep on working/With the tools that I’ve got/
With the purdist voice I wasn’t born/
But I had the dirtiest uniform
- - Dirtiest Uniform from “Quarter Past Midnight”
That song and others aren’t just stories. They’re messages from a small town preacher.
“There’s definitely a spirit, I think, in the songs,” said Diekhoff. “When people get together and sing along with those songs and those songs connect with them, there’s a certain spirit in the audience we capture.”
He said his songs are similar to his good friend Edward David Anderson.
“When you see him perform and singing his songs, you can see the local crowd singing along and getting into the songs. It’s not just because they’re groovin’. They’re really good songs that hit you right in the gut, chest, and heart—and make you think about life that’s going on around you right now,” said Diekhoff.
Funny he should mention Anderson. Sometimes it seems as if they are one, as they often perform together and can be seen with their wives together at many a music venue in the area. The two are also credited by many in town to be at least partly responsible for solidifying the Bloomington-Normal music scene over the past seven years. Now as Diekhoff prepares for his 40th birthday, he was asked if there is still room for younger singer-songwriters to follow in his and Anderson’s footsteps.
“It’s taken me about 15 years to get to where I can travel around the Midwest and have a crowd pretty much wherever I go. Not a huge crowd like the Castle Theatre show every time. It takes time. Will a 20-year-old solo act be able to do that in the near future? I don’t know,” laughed Diekhoff, before reconsidering when remembering the small club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he would be playing the following night.
“The Ark is a little 300-seat club/theater that focuses on folk music and singer-songwriter. Those clubs are still around. And I’d tell a 20-year-old kid to definitely go for it.”
Chicago Farmer celebrates his 40th birthday with shows on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 3 and Aug. 4, at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington. Friday's solo show will include guests Edward David Anderson and Althea Grace. "Old Shoe" will back his full-band show Saturday, with special guests Anderson—and Peoria's up-and-coming folk/bluegrass quintet Way Down Wanderers.
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.