She Swings, She Sways: Ottumwa’s Indie Artists Revel in their Own Voice


She Swings, She Sways is (from left) Cory Canny, Jason Bolinger, Diana Garles, Troy Morgan, John Gordon, Wes VanAntwerp, and recently added but not pictured, Jimmie Dalton. Photo by Jason Walsmith.

The first time I saw She Swings, She Sways was on a summer’s day ’neath a gazebo in one of those idyllic Iowa town squares that look like a Hollywood B-movie set for a Norman-Rockwell-cum-Music-Man after-school special. The weather was perfect humidity-wise, as summers go in this neck of the woods. A small crowd had gathered, and what looked like a laid back, no frills group of musicians was getting set to strike up the band. I had heard these guys were from Ottumwa and were quite good but had no real expectations.

They kicked off their set, and it was clear from the first that these guys had something going; they were self-possessed, melodically strong, unpretentious, sweet like organic watermelon. You know what I mean? All mixed metaphors aside, my socks weren’t bowled over but I found myself instantly liking Ottumwa a lot more.

Keeping in mind that I have an undue fondness for singer/songwriters, what impressed me most about She Swings, She Sways is their strength of character, lightness of being, and depth of field. They’re folks clearly comfortable in their own skins, not the least apologetic to be simply who they are. Did I mention commitment to joy of self-expression in a totally down-to-earth way?

They’re a group of indie artists pushing their creative envelope, luxuriating inside the comfortable confines of their own voice. When it comes to making great music, finding your voice is basically the whole shooting match, the rest is connecting the dots. Thanks to the Icarus-like economic masters of the universe, we all know now what havoc derivatives can wreak upon the world. While these guys are not reinventing the wheel, they are gloriously anything but derivative. Some groups just have that deeper “thing” that flashes when you see or hear them. They do.

S4 is made up of six musical souls, according to their MySpace and Facebook pages (their website is www.sheswings, all of whom are listed as vocalists: founders John Gordon and Cory Canny on acoustic guitars, Troy Morgan on bull fiddle, Jason Bolinger on drums, and Diana Garles on trumpet and keys. (Disclosure: Diana’s father, Gary, is a deejay at KRUU-LP 100.1 FM,, the grassroots radio station I manage). Fairfield’s own surf-psych maestro Jimmie Dalton has been recently added on electric guitar. Writing credits go to the whole band.

SsSs, as they ssssay, are Iowans all, born and raised within 30 miles of each other (except for newcomer Jimmie, who’s New Jersey born and raised). Swings & Sways joined forces in “the only apartment building in downtown Ottumwa, Southeast Iowa’s post-industrial wasteland,” as they describe it. Speaking of wasteland, their brand-new release, out on the Des Moines-based Authentic Records label, is called Wasted Love Songs. It is their first full-length effort and features tales from each of the members of squished and squandered love. Two EPs have preceded it, each showing marked headway, production value-wise. They have what they call a “Midwestern sound” (think Americana/ folk/pop with a twist), influences ranging from Leonard Cohen to Neil Diamond, sound comparisons with the Decemberists, the Shins, and Whiskeytown.

The new record has great sonics, with songs that are tight and loose at the same time, just the way the prairie gods of the Midwestern sound intended them to be. Seriously, the damn things are little parachutes of near perfection in their nugget-like simplicity, their pure sit-up-and-barkness. A certain open egalitarianism pervades the band’s landscape, the recording matching the simple, smart arrangements. Making great music may not be rocket science, but if you’ve ever tried it, you quickly realize that collaring the crucial mojo of individual performances, and then assembling them into a collective whole, could easily explode a rocket scientist’s head. But done right, the results are as effortless as breathing, as satisfying as eating a perfect orange, the stuff of immortality.
These guys have a deep ease about them that either comes from living, working, traveling, writing, and spending so much time together, or in spite of it—I’m not sure. They seem to do it all deceptively well, live on radio, under a gazebo, or in the studio. Their hearts may be planted in the Iowa soil but their souls appear to be moonwalking toward the long and winding roadhouse blues, far, far away in that neverland place where bands hit paydirt by being themselves better than anyone else.

Like the wings of bald eagles floating above the Des Moines River, She Swings sways with an effortless conviction and a deadly precision. It’s nice to know that whether SsSs is at South by Southwest, the State Fair, or going coastal, they’re taking a little piece of our heartland with them.