The suit jacket wasn’t gold lamé or anything garish like that — no offense, gold lamé; rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t be the same without you, babe — but it did have a little sheen to it. It was J.W. Schuller’s first performance at one of the two senior centers he was volunteering at in his hometown of Minneapolis and he wanted to look nice, you know? Show these folks he gave a damn.
Schuller hadn’t even gotten his guitar strap over his shoulder when an elderly man walked up to him and said, “Are you gonna be our Elvis today?” And then he cackled.
If The Muppet Show taught us anything, it’s that old folks know how to heckle.
The volunteer gig started after Schuller’s band, U Joint, broke up after a handful of records. He wasn’t writing music or performing and knew he needed to get his head back in the game.
After some hemming and hawing and general excuse-making, Schuller dove in and played that first gig in his ever-so-slightly shiny jacket. It was the beginning of five years of playing twice a month at those two senior centers, taking jokes left and right, deflecting jeers, witnessing what he calls “octogenarian catfights” — all while playing solo gigs at venues around Minneapolis. And of course the volunteer work wasn’t all cranky old folks giving Schuller hell. He saw seniors with dementia slip back into memories of younger days, smiling as they sang every word to songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Hoagy Carmichael. He learned songs to honor requests from his audience and in the process discovered a wellspring of older music with “a rich and invigorating variety of rhythm, melody and expression” that he hadn’t fully appreciated before.
You can hear it all in Schuller’s new album No Mud in Joyville — there’s out-and-out joy, light-hearted cynicism, love for folk music and reverence for life… and death.
“[The album title is] sort of a goofy wordplay on the old baseball poem [“Casey at the Bat”], but kind of turning it on its ear, to me, it’s a little bit of an expression of imagining a better world,” Schuller says.
“It definitely has some shades of the afterlife, I guess, imagining a world without all these nasty things and more fun things. That’s kind of a recurring theme with a lot of the stuff I write.”
“There’ll be no sickness, there’ll be no shame,” Schuller sings in the title track. “We’ll all get half an hour of fame/ There’ll be no anger, there’ll be no frowns/ There’ll be no salesmen, there’ll be no clowns.
“And there’ll be no mud in Joyville when we go.”
Volunteering in the senior centers was “a bit of an awakening,” Schuller says, “both musically and existentially.” Faced with both the freedom of old age — saying whatever the hell you want, for example — and the captivity of dementia, Schuller walked away from his volunteer gig knowing a couple of things for sure: live it while the living’s good, and never underestimate the power of music.
“This is going to sound sort of morbid, and my heart goes out to anybody whose parent or grandparent is in this situation, but to be honest, my favorite ward to play in this one facility was the lockdown dementia ward,” Schuller says. “We’re talking about people who probably don’t know their children or their grandchildren, and they are singing along with me, and they know every word. It was a pretty moving testament to the power of music. It was a real eye-opener for me in terms of what music can do for people no matter what state they’re in.”
And it inspired Schuller to, in his words, get off his ass and start writing songs again.
Schuller and his wife, Jaci, are living in Boulder now, living life while the living’s good. They moved here to be close to family, and now Schuller gets the infinite pleasure of performing with his nephew, Jens Larsen, on drums.
No Mud in Joyville is Schuller’s second album, just released this past January. It’s a rollicking compilation driven by Schuller’s down-to-Earth lyrics and bright acoustic guitar work, fleshed out to juicy perfection with splashes of trumpet, keyboard and marimba.
It’s filled with relatable stories about growing up, getting perspective, screwing up, moving on and just plain old living life the best you can in spite of how hard it can be. Even in the album’s darkest moments, Schuller delivers songs in a way that’s so charming, so funny, so in tune with the complexity of human emotion, you can’t help but smile.
“I love a great sad song as much as the next person,” he says. “There are times when you just need to let it bleed and need to hear songs like that and bond with it and I’ve written a few of those, too. But for some reason, pairing sad or slightly judgmental, cynical lyrics with really bouncy music just seems like a winning formula to me. It’s a way to get people to pay a little more attention.”
On the Bill: J.W. Schuller album release show — with Red Petals and Kait Berreckman. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 10, The Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut St., Denver. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, ticketfly.com/purchase/event/1628221
J.W. Schuller album release show — with Red Petals. 10 p.m. Friday, April 13, Bohemian Biergarten, 2017 13th St., Boulder.