|Much of the spirit and feeling of the blues was captured in its early acoustic guitar origins, now lost in the mists of time. Every once in a while, a talented artist comes along with the ability to recapture the magic and conjure up the essence of that powerful old music. That’s just what the Cedar County Cobras have done with their latest album, Homesick Blues, a spirited blend of old-time country, Delta blues and hypnotic Mississippi Hill Country sounds. And they do it all with a keen ear for their musical roots and a contagious foot-stomping enthusiasm.
The Cobras are Tom Spielbauer and April Dirks – a winning combination of vocal magic, songwriting skills and musical craftsmanship. Spielbauer is an accomplished songwriter and master of guitar and mandolin, who uses a foot-drum to propel his soulful vocals. Dirks, his music partner of nine years, plays a mandolin, a vigorous upright bass and shares the vocals, adding her own haunting presence. Homesick Blues is their effort to revisit this great old music, filter it through their own sensibilities, and give it a contemporary toe-tapping vibe. Six original songs are finely crafted to reflect the spirit of the music, and the four well-chosen vintage covers get special Cobras treatment.
The album opens with the original spirited duet of “Utah,” the tale of a mysterious detour around that state: “She told me she can’t drive in Utah / She gets stopped they’ll take her in / Don’t ask her what happened / She won’t tell you what she did.” It’s a clever idea for a musical road trip. “Country Records,” a country-flavored original and duet with Dirks also on mandolin, is the mournful story of lost love with its upbeat music a delightful counterpoint.
Another fast-paced original, “Long Time Gone,” follows, with Dirks again bringing her mandolin and sharing the vocals in a haunting farewell message: “Well, the way you treat me baby is a low-down crying shame / I’m leaving here girl / I’m gonna try and forget your name.” Dirks steps in at the end to wave goodbye: “Know I won’t follow you to the station / Won’t chase that train you’re on.” “Gimmie Lightnin’ “ is a throbbing original in the hypnotic spirit of Mississippi Hill Country blues: “T-Model Ford and CeDell Davis / They were playing down there last night at Gabe’s / I had to be there, I couldn’t miss that.”
The first cover, “Poor Boy” is a rhythmic version of a 1927 recording by Gus Cannon in another duet with Dirks. They follow that with “Trouble No More,” recorded by Muddy Waters in 1955 as a variation on “Someday Baby Blues,” by Sleepy John Estes in 1935. Spielbauer offers a tasty slide intro to “Walkin’ Blues,” the 1930 Son House recording. Spielbauer’s “Voodoo Doll” is another ode to the pain of lost love: “I’m too weak to stand up, I can’t even crawl / Feel like someone sticking needles in my voodoo doll,” as Dirks joins in the rawness of the message. The final cover is “Shake It Right” by Jessie Mae Hemphill, with Spielbauer and Dirks joining in the dirge-like Hill Country rhythms.
The title track is saved for the closer, with Spielbauer’s slide stinging the intro, leading into a gently loping pace driven by articulate guitar lines matching gruff vocals. It’s a fine farewell to the album and the time well spent in song before he moves along: “Well, I got to go / I got to move on down the line / The menfolk they don’t want me here / The women they won’t pay me no mind.”
With Homesick Blues, Spielbauer has reached back into the mists of time for his inspiration and this music. The Cedar County Cobras have recaptured the spirit of this classic American music with accuracy and integrity. And a lot of fun.
Jim White (a former music writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette & now writes the Blues Roadhouse)
Tom Spielbauer is a guitarist playing in a delta blues style who plays a foot drum and slide guitar in the style of musicians such as Elmore James and R.L. Burnside. He is a prolific songwriter and is known for playing boot-stompin’ blues boogie as the lead player in the Iowa roots band Cedar County Cobras and recently has played as a solo act in Clarksdale, Mississippi and several Midwest venues and festivals. He is also the winner of the 2022 Iowa Blues Challenge and placed as a semi-finalist at the 2023 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. With over twenty years of playing blues and rock n’ roll across Iowa and the Midwest, the authentic sound of his music comes from a career of pouring concrete and working construction. In 2005, Tom was diagnosed with advanced macular degeneration at an early age and declared legally blind. Following in the footsteps of blind blues musicians such as Blind Willie McTell & Alan Wilson, he eventually traded his concrete tools for a guitar and a foot drum to play the blues full time.
Also an Iowa native, his music partner April Dirks started playing mandolin with the Cedar County Cobras in 2014. Before collaborating with Tom, she often performed as a professional bluegrass musician with a unique “gypsy” sound that she brought to any performance or music jam. Early in the project, April discovered she had a talent for playing the upright bass and the duo naturally gravitated to playing American Roots and Delta Blues Music. April now plays the doghouse bass that gives the duo the boot-stompin’ boogie sound that makes the music really move.
Over time, the Cobras have played hundreds of shows across Iowa and parts of the Midwest. They bring a contagious energy to any live performance and cover different genres of music so that every member of the audience is sure to be satisfied. Audience members will find themselves tapping to the beat of the foot drum and upright bass or getting up to dance with the crowd. The band performs at breweries and wineries across the Midwest and have played many other venues from the small-town dive bar to the large classic theatre or the large festival stage. Cobras are well recognized by the Iowa Blues Association and share the stage with Midwest blues Hall of Fame players such as Joe & Vicki Price, Rush Cleveland, Bob Dorr, Matt Woods, Kevin “B.F.” Burt, Avey Grouws Band and many more. Cobras have played the main stage at the Iowa Arts Festival, the Englert Theatre, and the Iowa State Fair. The band has also shared the stage and festival line-ups with notable acts such as Kent Burnside, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Marty Stuart, Will Whitmore, Split Lip Rayfield, Legendary Shack Shakers, Ben Miller Band, Sam Bush, and even the amazing Travelin’ McCourys.