Growing up on a farm in Cedar, Kan., near Smith Center, Steve Kirchhoff always envisioned that he’d attend Kansas State University and study veterinary medicine. It was the thing to do, the place to be. Being a farm kid from Smith County near the Kansas-Nebraska border, he rarely entertained the possibility of taking a different path — until a friend invited him to the K-State College of Engineering’s open house weekend and his eyes were opened to a new world.

Where’d he end up?

Career choices.

It’s a frosty December evening in 1980 in Manhattan, Kan. A roving cohort of Kansas State University chemical engineering students embark on an adventure to deliver holiday cheer by singing Christmas carols on the front porches at their professors’ homes.

Laughter and liveliness ensues as the professors endure the slightly off-key renditions of familiar classics, and then encourage their pupils to keep at their studies and earn their degrees — because their collective future as singers isn’t nearly as bright as the lights that adorn the town during the holidays.

According to two of the singing engineers, Susan and Spencer Tholstrup, it was good advice.


Read more of “Engineering excellence at K-State.”

Drawing on passion

I recently had the opportunity to contribute an article to Manhattan Magazine, a profile of local artist Brent Engstrom. Brent is a budding illustrator/graphic designer who turned his childhood fascination with those nasty “Garbage Pail Kids” into a career drawing them, among other figures, including his own characters “Monkeyboy” and “Billy Blevins: Boy Inventor.”

I remember how repulsive the Garbage Pail Kids were, yet I couldn’t help poring over the bizarre images. I preferred baseball cards. Check out the summer issue of Manhattan Magazine — the Engstrom story is on page 18 — or you may open a PDF of the story here.

Aw, poor comma.

Taken from this New York Times article.

on convenience.

Last night, I had what might have been the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had.  The combination of a furious Kansas storm and a malfunctioning apartment complex alarm system kept me tossing, turning and praying for just a few hours of silence.  Alas, I’ve had what the advertisers call the “2:30 feeling” for most of the day.  I decided an afternoon pick-me-up would come in the form of a Dr. Pepper from the vending machine.

In a matter of minutes and in an act of laziness, I descended five floors in an elevator, popped a dollar and a quarter (the latter of which came on loan from a stranger at the vending machines) in the buzzing neon behemoth and out came tumbling 20 fluid ounces of cool, crisp contentment.  I took the elevator five floors up, and was on my way to chasing the sugar rush I’d been craving.

Maybe it’s the fatigue, maybe it’s the wacky weekend just hours away, but as I returned to my desk with the beverage in hand, I couldn’t help but think how easily I was able to access a refreshment and achieve rejuvenation.  Didn’t it used to be a big deal to score a bottle of soda?  Wasn’t it a special treat reserved for special occasions?  And didn’t it usually involve walking a few blocks down the street to the local diner, all while absorbing some sunshine and passing friendly locals along the way?

I’d have loved to have done that — but I’m too tired.

A poem for Wally Judge, from a lifelong K-State basketball fan who just wanted more out of him.  Best of luck in your future endeavors.  And now…


Don’t hold a grudge
Against Wally Judge
Who just wouldn’t budge
From K-State’s bench

His stats were sludge
So he got the nudge
And on he’ll drudge
To Rutgers’ bench?

Continuing in the vein of yesterday’s post about songs spinning gloom with a grin, I was taken aback this morning when a happy-go-lucky version of “When the Roses Bloom Again” by Mac Wiseman popped up in my “Louvin Brothers Radio” playlist on Pandora.  Although I know it’s an A.P. Carter tune and it’s been covered by plenty of artists since it was written over a hundred years ago,  I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only heard Wilco’s version, recorded during the Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg.

That version — a minor-keyed, dark and mournful arrangement — seems to be the appropriate musical backdrop for the sad tale of a soldier’s departure from his lover and his final moments before dying in battle.  You can imagine my surprise when an upbeat bluegrass arrangement of the song came through the headphones — was this the same song?  How can they sing so happily about something so heart-wrenching?

It’s an absolutely beautiful song.  The lyrics are pure, powerful and poetic.  And it bears such a touching message: that while death is part of the natural order of life, it’s never easy to accept — but having faith that someday we’ll be reunited with our loved ones, in another life or state of being, gives us hope and comfort.  As we yearn to see someone’s face, hear their voice and touch their hand once more, the debilitating grief that weighs heavy on our hearts can slowly be wiped away if we call to mind our memories of a life lived like the song’s characters: faithful, brave and true.

Much like the practice of concealing despondent lyrics with buoyant musical arrangements, we place flowers and other symbols on graves.  Is it because we wish to cover our pain with something colorful, fragrant and radiant?  Or do they stand for something else?  Flowers themselves will bend and fade — but they’ll bloom once more.  So perhaps I’m wrong.  Maybe flowers aren’t something we use to shield sorrow.  They’re not to be used as armor, but for affection, adoration and ardor.  They’re the perfect example of the natural order of life.

They remind us that our wounds can become wings.

Charlie Louvin: 1927-2011

Another legend has passed.  No doubt music fans worldwide will mourn the loss of Charlie Louvin, whose tunes spawned generations of fans of classic country, gospel, folk, blues and the like.  My first introduction to Louvin actually came through Uncle Tupelo’s take on the Louvin Brothers’ “Atomic Power.”  I was floored when I first heard the song.  That a band could take a song with a pleasant country bounce and play it at a breakneck punk pace — without getting rid of the fiddle — was incredibly eye-opening to me.

I’ll admit that I was more than a little late to the alt-country party; I was about 12 when UT broke up and still immersed in the [dying] grunge and alternative rock records in my older brothers’ collection.  But after hearing a tune with such ominous lyrics masked by a jovial musical arrangement,  I suddenly found myself on a mission to dig deeper into country music lore and find more of those songs of doom and dread.  I’m grateful for the discovery, and sad for the loss of another artist who gave the world a tremendous catalog of music.

*The original, 1952.

*Uncle Tupelo, 1994.

*Charlie Louvin + Jeff Tweedy, 2007.

I heard a lot of new things this year.  Some of it was actually new, some of it was relatively new — and some of it was not new at all.  I hardly listened to any new jazz recordings this year.  And I unearthed quite a bit of stuff that I hadn’t listened to in years, for various reasons.  Without further ado, in no particular order, here’s a list of my 20 favorite new releases from 2010, with a little bit of commentary.  Feel free to tell me about yours!

  1. Blitzen Trapper, Destroyer of the Void — it took a few listens to “get it,” but it quickly became one of my favorites this year.  Sprawling, schizophrenic and sweet.  And that’s only the first (title) track.  But mellower tunes like “The Tree” and “Heaven and Earth” made this disc for me.
  2. The Black Keys, Brothersthe boys from Akron return with nearly an hour of their trademark blues, dragged through the sludge, fuzz and scuzz, with some pop hooks and blue-eyed soul ballads.  Recommended tracks: “Next Girl,” “Tighten Up,” and “Unknown Brother.”
  3. Stornoway, Beachcomber’s Windowsill — perhaps the total polar opposite of their predecessor on this list, Stornoway’s sweet-and-melancholy tunes laced with melodic basslines, touches of organs and chiming acoustic guitars helped me find a little peace when I needed it.  Try “Zorbing,” “I Saw You Blink,” “Watching Birds,” “Fuel Up,” or “We Are the Battery Human” for some variety.
  4. The Dig, Electric Toys — spacey and epic.  “Carry Me Home.”  “I Just Wanna Talk to You.”  How ’bout a website instead of a MySpace page, guys?
  5. Miniature Tigers, Fortress — you too, guys.  The happy, bouncy synth-filled pop of “Gold Skull” made many a morning less dreary.  Once it gets moving, “Rock and Roll Mountain Troll” is another keeper.
  6. Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone — my man Tweedy produced this disc from the soul-gospel legend.  Tweedy’s production is a tad more crisp ‘n clean that I would have liked, but there’s still enough grit and muscle behind the tunes for Mavis to cut loose.  The title track proved to be a poignant reminder for me to hold my ground during a rough end to 2010.
  7. The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang — good rock ‘n roll, great at high volume.  There’s a nice series of videos detailing the making of the album on their website here.  The title track is solid, but if I had to pick one from this disc, it’d be “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.”
  8. Futurebirds, Hampton’s Lullaby — another MySpace page.  But it’s the second coming of early My Morning Jacket.  Listen to “APO” and “Ski Chalet.”  Hope to hear more from these guys soon.
  9. J Roddy Walston and the Business, J Roddy Walston and the Business — perhaps the most fresh, invigorating take on pure rock ‘n roll from this year.  I can’t think of anything new to say other than what I said before.  Play this one LOUD, but “Don’t Break the Needle.”
  10. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, We Walk This Road — the young master of pedal steel teamed up with producer T-Bone Burnett for a walk through history where folk, blues, gospel and soul intersect.  Another lap guitarist, Ben Harper, dropped by to inject some fiery playing and singing on “If I Had My Way.”  It’s been a spiritual year, more so than recent ones.  Maybe that’s why “I Still Belong to Jesus” was my favorite from this disc.
  11. The Soft Pack, The Soft PackAw, c’mon!
  12. Soulive, Rubber Soulive — Beatles tracks filtered through the stinging funk, jazz, soul, R&B and more.  Call it fresh or call it sacrilege, but I dug their treatment of “Eleanor Rigby,” “In My Life,” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
  13. Tift Merritt, See You on the Moon — Ms. Merritt won me over this year when she threw pop, folk, soul and little country into a blender, and came out with tunes as fun as “Mixtape” and as subdued as “Never Talk About It.”  But “Engine to Turn” and “Feel of the World” resonated most, with their messages of loss, longing and hope.
  14. Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises — I agree with Mark Kozelek when he said the best thing he purchased this year was a Cervantes guitar.  Knowing my extensive reader base, some of you will be bored to tears with this stuff, and some of you will be sucked into the hypnotic arrangements, droning, double-tracked vocals and deft fingerpicking of “Alesund,” “Third and Seneca,” and “Half Moon Bay.”
  15. Spoon, Transference — Carefully crafted and perfectly executed, Spoon’s work is always fascinating. Cementing their reputation as one of the most consistent bands working today, Transference is filled with dirty hooks, stabs of piano and Britt Daniel’s larynx-shredding vocals.  Try “Written in Reverse.”
  16. Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do — the group’s second disc minus Jason Isbell initially was hit-and-miss for me, but I’ve grown to love this one.  In terms of the current lineup, they’re musically tighter than ever, although this is a little polished – and electric – than the rustic country shuffle of the excellent-but-sprawling Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.  Try on “The Wig He Made Her Wear” for a troubling tale of domestic drama, or for a more swampy vibe, “Drag the Lake Charlie.”
  17. The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever — Craig Finn and crew return with another disc about drinkers, dive bars and delinquents, recalling the girl from 2006 track “Chips Ahoy!” in “The Weekenders,” my favorite track from the disc.  Those looking to get their “oh whoah whoah” fix will get it in “Hurricane J.”  And for those fans unsure of the band’s sound or direction without keyboardist Franz Nicolay, the [always] epic closer tells them “this shouldn’t hurt, but you might feel a slight discomfort.”
  18. Gold Motel, Summer House — when it came to bands playing sunny, reverb-drenched pop with a charming frontwoman, I just didn’t latch onto the Best Coast craze, although “Boyfriend” was ok.  I preferred to get my beach fix with Gold Motel’s “We’re on the Run,” “Safe in L.A.” and “Perfect in My Mind.”
  19. Karen Elson, The Ghost Who Walks — with the encouragement of hubby Jack White (the hardest-working man in rock), model Karen Elson stepped out into the light with dark country and folk — and I soaked it up.  I’m still trying to decide if I prefer the title track in acoustic or full-band format.
  20. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards — Speaking of Jack White, his second supergroup returned with a follow-up less than a year after they debuted with the outstanding Horehound.  White and Alison Mosshart’s ferocious vocals are only matched by the brutal force behind “Blue Blood Blues,” “Die By the Drop,” and “Gasoline.”