Peoria native Jared Grabb knew art would be a major part of his life from a young age. But once he arrived in college to study comic book art, he discovered his love of music trumped visual art.
Feeling the visual encouraged him to disguise his message or work through a filter that took the meaning away from the initial contact, he turned to music.
“With songs, I was looking up to people like Woody Guthrie and some underground punk acts where the meaning was more direct and closer to the surface. It felt more like a conversation with the audience,” said Grabb from his home in Peoria.
That the son of a Caterpillar worker went down an artistic path wasn’t surprising. First, Grabb felt that pull early on. But he also watched how the Caterpillar strikes in his formative years affected relationships among friends and family.
“I grew up in a church community that had everything from engineers to managers to line-workers at Caterpillar. The tensions that came between these people that had a deep love for each other in the church community ... because of this corporation they all worked for, it certainly put a damper on my feelings toward working for that company,” said Grabb.
Though he said he was a good student and used math as one example of a subject he enjoyed and in which he excelled, he dove headfirst into art classes when he stepped onto his college campus. He didn’t view this artistic foray as being different from the many Cat workers he was surrounded by.
“It wasn’t ‘us vs. them.’ It was like ‘these are all my people.' These are the people that brought me up, cared about me and I just happened to deal with everything around us in song and art. And they maybe deal with it by tinkering with cars,” said Grabb.
He did concede he may have been viewed by others as slightly different.
“Sure I was,” Grabb laughed heartily. “I was a weird, quiet kid.”
At 17 she’d find my lonely sketching by myself
Then at 18, that’s when she told me
You ain’t gonna amount to anything else
Than a working man, a working man
You better keep yourself in school
- “Working Man” by Jared Grabb
Though known now in Central Illinois for his folk/country persona, one of Grabb’s first bands was the punk-rock outfit Scouts Honor that toured the country and even internationally. It was during that travel when he began to look at this hometown differently. “Escaping” for periods at a time gave perspective, as did Peoria’s relatively low cost of living, where he could land when not on tour.
“When you see the rest of the world and what else there is out there it makes you miss what makes where you come from, where you come from. My early songwriting in my early 20s spoke a lot about resenting this place while I was coming to terms with that fact that I’m from here and its mine and I need to own it. What was magical about taking that ownership is that other people in the community … I saw them come to own it as well in ways that were helpful and meaningful to them,” said Grabb.
Grabb stays busy writing and producing the “Middle America” podcast, whose stories are told through the fictional character Wendell Bauer. Grabb said it’s essentially a fictionalized memoir of growing up in Peoria, as well as telling historical stories of the area. Recent episodes include “Larger Love,” which looks at historic race and gender relations in Central Illinois through the life and work of abolitionist Mary Brown. Others explore the history of Ft. Crevecoeur and the early happenings at the now legendary Trefzger’s Bakery.
“The music and memoir are there to add some emotional weight to the history. Tying it all together makes it more into art,’ said Grabb.
And perhaps another outlet for your original music.
“Somewhat,” admitted Grabb.
It was also a vehicle that allows him to stay at home more often with two young children, and deal with aging in an art form (music) that celebrates and rewards youth.
“I like to tour, but I don’t want to miss out on my kids' lives. You don’t have to travel as much to build an audience with podcasting. So I was interested in getting into this world where it's not as lame to be a white-haired guy behind a microphone,” he laughed.
“You’ve got to be Johnny Cash to get up there and get into those later years and get the young people excited on the music side of things.”
Jared Grabb returns to Nightshop in downtown Bloomington Thursday night.
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