Kokomo... It's the kinda etymologically challenged word that can drive aging. sunburnt California popsters to wallow in inane tropical melodies, or impell a pair of frustrated alternative rockers to make the big move to Milwaukee.
"We were heading for New York, but we took a wrong turn somewhere after we left Indiana," explains Scott Woolridge, the guitar-playing lead singer of Wisconsin's tuneful Woolridge Brothers, when queried about the complex twists of fate that led him and his bass-toting brother, Brian, from their landlocked Kokomo, Indiana, hometown to the snow-choked shores of Lake Michigan some 13 years ago.
"At the time, there were a lot of great bands coming out of Milwaukee, like the Violent Femmes, BoDeans and the R&B Cadets," recalls Brian. "The scene's gotten a bit quieter, but it's still a great place to live and play music."
The acoustic-minded Wooldridges are one of the freshest breezes blowing down I-94 towards Chicago from the Beer City, alongside Don't Records labelmate, Willy Porter, and hard-touring midwestern genre hoppers Paul Cebar & the Milwaukeeans and Alligator Gun.
What sets the Woolridge Brothers apart from the growing crop of local bands is Scott's country-inflected songwriting and the band's swirling mesh of gentle, loping melodies.
"I'm really into traditional country and more experimental stuff like Gram Parsons," says Scott. "But I think there's a fine line between paying tribute to your influences and turning out something more personal and original."
The Wooldridges' second full-length Don't Records album, Star of Desire, released nationally in October 1995, veers towards the more inventive side of that proverbial line. An aching, bittersweet fiddle courses through a layered mix of chiming, reflective pop-rock harmonies throughout, casting a tentative ambivalence upon the hook-laden "Eve's Boyfriend" and lifting the introspective closers, "Harm's Way" and "Escape Artist," into a more mystical realm.
The warm, acoustic tone of Star of Desire is the end result of a natural progression away from the high-energy punk-pop sound the brothers brought with them and their Kokomo band, The Squares, when they relocated to Milwaukee in 1983.
"Once we got to Wisconsin, I started getting more interested in more roots-based music, like Van Morrison, Dylan and The Band," recalls Scott. "My writing started getting more organic, moving away from the quirky pop stuff we were doing with the Squares and towards the rootsier sound we have now."
The Woolridges first garnered national attention in 1993, when R.E.M. producer Scott Litt happened upon a copy of the band's cassette-only 1991 debut, My Excuse. Impressed by the songs and vocal harmonies, Litt contacted the band and made a trip to Milwaukee to see them in action on their home turf. "Unfortunately, things didn't work out," says Brian. "It's just as well, because we weren't really at the level of going out on the road behind a record at that point."
Since the regionally acclaimed 1994 release of the band's Don't debut, Skeleton Keys, the Woolridges, bassist Ron Turner and a revolving drum crops have been working the fertile Midwestern college club circuit, trying to steadily build a regional following before hitting the interstates this spring behind Star of Desire.
The one missing link in the Woolridges' engaging live act is Star of Desire fiddler Sue Jeske-Dermody, who left the band earlier this year to pursue other Milwaukee-based musical projects.
But that's a hole that will not remain empty for long, according to Scott. "If someone came along today and told me they played the fiddle and were ready to hit the road with us, I'd snatch them up in a heartbeat."
Suzuki prodigies consider yourself forewarned.