Photographing Iowa's Roots Rock Music Scene
BY MEG WHITE
Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown, with Steve Hayes and Rick Cicalo, City Park Music Festival, Iowa City, July 3, 2000. (Copyright 2007 Sandra Louis Dyas)
Sandy Dyas has been photographing Iowa musicians for over two decades. This past June, the University of Iowa Press released a collection of over 60 of these photographs, entitled Down to the River, Portraits of Iowa Musicians. In these photographs Dyas captures what musician Dave Alvin aptly referred to as the “rough and sweet uniqueness” of the Iowa sound.
Sandy is a mother of two daughters and, surprisingly, a grandmother. Her work has appeared in publications such as Vogue, the New York Times, and No Depression magazine. Sandy has an M.F.A. in intermedia from the University of Iowa, teaches photography at Cornell College, and has a thriving freelance business. If memory serves, I first met her at Gabe’s at a Kevin Gordon show on the dance floor in 1994.
Sandy, this is a beautiful book. What inspired you to begin photographing musicians?
Thank you, Meg! It all started in Bernard, Iowa, at a Bo Ramsey show. I suppose I began photographing live shows because Bo asked me to take photos a long time ago for a live album CD of his. Once I began taking the photos at a show, I was hooked. I really loved the vibrancy of the music and visually I just loved the scene—the lights, the movement, the images—but it was always the music that I really connected to. I felt even more connected with that music when I had a camera with me.
When did you first begin taking photos? What was your first camera?
I started taking pictures when I was 8 or 9 years old. My Dad gave me an old Brownie camera and then my parents gave me a Polaroid Swinger when I was in 7th grade, and then an Instamatic when I graduated from 8th grade. Back then I didn’t really know what a 35 mm was. My Uncle Bob had one that I saw him use occasionally and I vividly recall his slide shows at my Grandpa Roy’s house. My uncle would invite us over there for the evening when he and my Aunt Lu were visiting. He shot slides—primarily of flowers, trees, and landscapes. Bob was a professor at Iowa State in the Landscape Architecture Department and he and Lu traveled a lot. I was completely intrigued with these large, colorful images projected on that old screen in the darkened living room. I realize now how much those evenings influenced me.
In 1972, my boyfriend and future husband gave me my own 35 mm—a Minolta SRT 101. Quite a few of the photos in the book were made with that camera. That camera changed my life, and what an upgrade from the Instamatic!
There are over 60 photographs in your book. How did you go about the process of selecting which musicians to include and, then, which photographs?
I wanted to include the musicians I had spent the most time listening to and dancing to, and I know all of the musicians as friends, so most of the decisions were obvious. Vicki Price was the first person to call me and tell me how much she loved the book. She said it felt like looking through a family album, and I think she really hit the nail on the head there—it is a family album. These musicians have created a community through their music.
This said, editing was a long process. I would print and reprint. Look at the results, spend time with them, leave them alone for a while, come back to them, start it all over again, etc. Finally, when I had it narrowed down, I copied them all into a manageable 5 x 7 size and made a mock-up so I could easily layout the photos and pay close attention to the sequencing.
It was also important for me to pay close attention to subject matter—like the vertical photo of Pieta Brown paired horizontally with her father, Greg. The way the gestures of each of their bodies played into one another and the way the images looked together worked well together. In other instances I paired photos that were taken the same night—such as the two photos taken at a Joe Price show at the Mill.
As one of its premier documentarians, what would you say are the characteristics that make the Iowa sound unique?
I don’t profess to really know . . . but I will say I think that this sound comes out of the blues and folk music and, of course, from some rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll. It’s a mix of styles with an emphasis on rhythm—our music rocks and you can usually dance to it. Some of the music is quiet, sad, beautiful . . . and has a lot of feeling in it. I think the common denominator is very good writing.
Your book comes with a rather a unique feature—an 18-track CD containing a wonderful selection of songs by musicians featured in the book. Can you tell us about how you went about the process of choosing which songs to include?
You know, I have always wanted to be a musician, but it did not happen. This made it especially fun to arrange a selection of my favorite songs. Some I chose just because I love the song, and others because they seemed to fit better than another one I had picked out. Two of the Kevin Gordon songs I really wanted to include, I could not because of licensing—“Pauline” and “Jimmy Reed is the King of Rock & Roll.” I love the line in the latter song about “Dark sunglasses, sharkskin suit, standing in the broken glass of East Dubuque on a Sunday morning.” We used to do a lot of dancing in East Dubuque and would head across the bridge after a great night of listening to Bo Ramsey and the Sliders at Coopers Wagon Works in Dubuque. The song has a lot of personal meaning for me.
At the risk of getting you into trouble with any of your subjects, I have to ask if you have any musician you are particularly fond of shooting. If so, why?
Live shows, hands-down it would be Bo. He is the king of cool and just has this look—you know? He has a presence on stage and can really front a band. And he, as far as I know, is the only musician that can really direct and lead an audience in the way he does. Back when shows used to be three whole sets with one band, it was crazy how Bo could build up the crowd . . . slowly, and then bring them down a bit . . . just so the crowd would be asking for more. . . . The night was almost always magical because his timing was impeccable.
Portraits are a different animal all together. Lately, I have really had fun taking Greg Brown’s photographs. The last shoot I did of Greg was for No Depression magazine and it felt more comfortable than earlier shoots. It takes me awhile sometimes to find my groove with people. I think part of why everything worked so well that day was because the night before there was a concert with Greg at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City and it was a phenomenal show. This no doubt added to how I approached him the next day.
Are there any photographs in the book which inspire particularly strong or fond memories for you? Tell us about that.
Oh my, I don’t know, there are so many memories packed into this body of work. My friend Justine Zimmer and I talk about that time in Iowa City—the era represented in this book—what it was like. We wish it were still the same, but it’s not. The music scene in Iowa City is always present—but it changes. There seems to be something new in the air right now, for instance, The Diplomats—I love them, but their sound is distinctly different from the roots rock sound we were immersed in during the ’90s and early years of the 21st century. The Pines [Ben Ramsey and David Huckfelt] are of the newest generation of musicians stemming from the roots rock sound that is featured on this CD, but they live in Minneapolis. Pieta Brown and David Zollo are in-between the older generation and the youngest and have their own distinct sounds. The music changes but there’s always a lot of good sound to be be found.
Anyway, I looked through the book and tried to figure out if there were certain favorite photographs and, of course, there are. They all speak to me in different ways, for different reasons, and they are all tied up in memories. I think rather than pick out one of a certain musician, I’d choose the one near the back of the book of a sign outside of Gabe’s in Iowa City. It reminds me of all those impossibly wonderful evenings upstairs on the dance floor—the lights, the whiskey, my friends, and how it seemed as if we had managed to escape to a higher place somewhere out there . . . and it was all due to the music and the community it created. I sure am glad I had the sense to photograph it. Who knew it would never be the same?
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