MONTICELLO — As tractors hit the fields throughout Wisconsin these days, it’s clear that planting season has arrived.
And as tavern tables get pulled outside and tents begin to go up for warm-weather festivals, it’s also clear that the Jimmys’ season has arrived, too.
Both are at the heart of Jimmy Voegeli, the Monticello-based keyboard player and bandleader who is juggling spring duties on the fifth-generation family farm with getting his band ready for what becomes its busiest time of the year.
“It’s kind of a tale of two lives sometimes,” said Voegeli, whose band plays a free show Friday night at the Wisconsin Brewing Co., in Verona.
The music has kept Voegeli and his six bandmates as hopping as the crowds who flock to the tents and patios where the Jimmys often play. The band recently returned from its first European gigs and is finishing up a new record that is targeted for a June release. They’ve still got their twice-monthly Thursday dates at Tofflers Pub and Grill in New Glarus. And last month Voegeli earned his second Wisconsin Area Music Industry award as best keyboardist.
It’s all been part of Voegeli’s master plan, which was a pretty good plan for a guy who flunked band in high school.
“When I first started this band I always told the guys, even before we played a gig, that I had this vision of what I wanted us to be and what we were going to do,” said Voegeli, 51. “That was in having a bigger band like this and not to concentrate on playing 9 (p.m.) to 1 (a.m.) in the clubs, but play more at the festivals and concert series kinds of things.
“For a band like us, we can go play for two hours and just lay it all out in one set.”
Steeped in the blues
The Jimmys’ sound — with Voegeli on piano and organ, and the other six players on horns, guitars and drums — is steeped in the blues.
“Blues is the base of the songs I write, but I can’t fool anybody that I’m a real bluesman,” he said. “I think the real guys would be a little insulted. We try to take a different path with our songs sometime but they’re all engulfed in the blues.”
Music ran in Voegeli’s family; his father, a trumpet player, met his mother while playing in a polka band. Voegeli also took up the trumpet, and later the euphonium, but didn’t have an illustrious start to his music career. He rarely practiced and flunked band his junior year at Monticello High School.
“It was legitimate,” Voegeli said. “And (the teacher) meant it the way it meant to be. He meant, ‘Let’s go, stop goofing around.’”
That report card makes up the cover of Voegeli’s first CD, 2006’s “‘F’ Is For Blues.” The teacher who flunked him, Mike Korth, played trombone on one of the songs.
Voegeli, who swapped his horns for the keyboard while in college, started playing in bands while at UW-Madison. He eventually joined the Westside Andy and Mel Ford Band.
After his first CD, Voegeli felt it was time to put his own band together. The current lineup includes Mauro Magellan, former drummer of the Georgia Satellites, and blues guitarist Perry Weber, along with Mike Boman on trumpet, John Wartenweiler on bass, Pete Ross on saxophone and Darren Sterud on trombone and trumpet.
“My dad always said, ‘Bide your time, you’ll know when it’s right,’” Voegeli said. “And the time just felt right to retire from the Westside Andy and start my own little thing. It’s been a fun progression.”
Voegeli’s father, Howard, was well-known in the dairy world. He was one of the key players to bring the World Dairy Expo to Madison in 1967, and the Voegeli farm became noted for breeding, genetics and exporting and exhibiting Brown Swiss dairy cows. Howard Voegeli died in 2003, and Jimmy Voegeli is part of the operation near the New Glarus Brewing Co., with his brother, Bryan.
Jimmy Voegeli works at the farm 30 to 40 hours a week (“That’s a part-time farmer,” he said), part of an operation of 200 milking cows and 1,500 acres. He does that while working 20 to 30 hours a week booking and promoting the band on top of rehearsing and playing. Last weekend he returned from a gig in Indianapolis only to get on a tractor to work all day on the farm.
“I’m very fortunate that my brother is understanding about the career,” Voegeli said.
Voegeli said he loves the life on the farm, but never has quite embraced it fully. That has kept him from embracing the musician’s life fully, he said, so that might not be such a bad thing. Blues musicians don’t exactly live the life of luxury, Voegeli said.
“I’ve talked to them about their lives and I wouldn’t want to be that, either,” he said. “I know blues guys living, not in poverty, but it’s hand to mouth and not much to show for it. They’re happy, though, so who am I to judge?”
Things are on the right trajectory for the Jimmys, Voegeli said. The band played a well-regarded blues festival in Sighisoara, Romania, in March, and picked up some gigs in Norway while abroad. They played to crowds big and small and made some good connections, he said.
“We’re the size of a band that isn’t profitable to a management company, we only have two albums and we’re working on a third so we haven’t yet proved to a record company that we’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “So we have an uphill battle yet to make it to another level.”
Sometimes the drive uphill is on a tractor on beautiful farmland in Green County, and that’s OK with Voegeli, too.
“I see how hard farming is and how dedicated you have to be, and it’s the same for music. I’m certainly walking a tightrope, especially this season,” he said. “You’re itching to get seed in the ground to help Mother Nature get things going, and you know you’re going to be outside playing in the festivals and seeing all your friends again. No life is ever easy.”