Chicago Farmer,
Backenforth, IL
(independent, 2012)

I lived in Chicago for years, and the few farmers I encountered there all were only passing through. But that's taking matters too literally. Chicago Farmer -- Cody Diekhoff in his daily life -- is a Chicago-based, folk-accented singer-songwriter who grew up on a farm in downstate Illinois. Backenforth, IL is an eight-cut EP showcasing his talents. I am given to understand that a handful of full-length CDs, unheard by me, have preceded this release.

Diekhoff will remind you in a general way of John Prine, who got his start in the Windy City's folk clubs, of which there were quite a few back then in the early 1970s. Though I imagine there are fewer such establishments these days, Diekhoff manages to find work and garner attention for the right reasons: he deserves them, or so the present release would lead one to believe. The recording features some striking material. Again, these don't sound exactly like Prine songs then or now, but they're of sufficient quality to remind one how fresh and welcome Prine seemed on those initial Atlantic albums.

On the other hand, if Diekhoff sings in a rustic voice (playing acoustic guitar in front of a small electric band), it's one with a greater range than Prine's decidely limited one. And if he's witty enough, he's not laugh-out-loud funny like Prine. Since he isn't Prine -- though he acknowledges him as a significant influence -- he doesn't have to be. In fact, the one humor-laced song, the sing-along "Workin' on It," is the album's one disposable cut. While hardly an embarrassment, it's something that surely works better in a club where drinks are served.

That small qualification aside, the high points are elevated ones indeed. "Who on Earth" boasts a subject matter so unusual that it feels practically sui generis. Everything after the opening three words ("I got drunk") will take you places scarcely traveled and ask questions rarely encountered in song. "200 Miles Away" is a hard-hitting modern folk song laced with fierce anxieties, and "The Twenty Dollar Bill" recalls a certain variety of gothic country ballad of which the late Porter Wagoner was once the master. I hope some bluegrass band picks up on "The Jon Stokes Prison Break Blues."

Singer-songwriters, or all but a relative few of them, ply their trade in faceless anonymity. Most never find an audience, and that includes some who merit one. Happily, the eloquently rooted Chicago Farmer is starting to make a name for himself, and maybe one day we'll all be hearing of him. If he's as consistently good as he is on Backenforth, IL, such recognition will confirm that, yes, every once in a while deserving music does rise to the top.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 December 2012

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