For a few years in the 1980s The Rainmakers seemed like a band on the verge of major success.
Critics waxed enthusiastic about songwriter Bob Walkenhorst’s ability to combine thinking man’s humor and incisive social commentary. These are two qualities that have seen songs such as “Government Cheese,” about the U.S. welfare system and the somewhat lighter “Let My People Go Go,” endure across the decades.
But, Walkenhorst says, he can’t take all the credit for the timelessness of those songs. Much of that, he adds, comes down to the listener.
“That’s the thing with songwriting,” he says. “You’re not writing an essay, you’re not writing a novel. You’re writing usually three verses and a chorus. The listener gets to apply the last layer of meaning to it.
"So, songs that have a political or social commentary to them, they’re really a framework for the listener’s specific thoughts. So, a song that I wrote during the Reagan era can still have meaning so many years later because while the details and events of our society may change, people get to apply their own details to it.”
In some ways Walkenhorst’s songs came from a place that set him apart from many of his peers. He was about a decade older than many of the songwriters emerging in the mid-1980s and his world view had been shaped by the values of pop icons such as Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon and John Fogerty.
“If you’re writing a song and it’s three-and-a-half minutes long and if you’re lucky enough that people are actually going to listen to it, well, hey, you’ve got three-and-a-half minutes of peoples’ attention, give ‘em something worth thinkin’ about,” he says.
And if his connection to the Woodstock generation helped him develop a social conscience, Walkenhorst suggests that it’s his geographical base that has shaped his humor.
“I think when you’re from the Midwest there’s a certain no-nonsense and yet a wink and a nod about life,” he offers. “I think that life can be serious and when you’re from an agricultural area that’s at the whims of weather and disaster, life has its ups and downs so you have to maintain a sense of humor.”
“I found that when I kind of got my focus as a songwriter,” he says, “the things that tickled my imagination were the blending of serious subject and humor. And you can look back at Mark Twain. I mean that’s pretty much what he did."
With 30 years of writing and recording behind him, Walkenhorst says performing in the solo acoustic setting or with The Rainmakers reminds him that although he’s never earned a large fan base he has written songs that have stood the test of time.
“I’m really grateful for my song catalog,” he says. “It’s like being out on stage with my best friends. These songs have made my life very interesting and comfortable.”
Additional Content: 5 Things You Should Know About Bob Walkenhorst And The Rainmakers
Event information: Bob Walkenhorst at The Donut Whole Saturday, August 3. 8-10 p.m. $15 limited seating.
Music in this story, in order heard:
- “Let My People Go Go”
- “Drinkin’ On The Job”
- “The Wages of Sin”
- “Spend It On Love”