The Rainmakers Find Heaven and Hell in the Heartland

Since the early '80s, The Rainmakers have been among the best bands to emerge from the Heartland Rock boom of that decade. They may be the best that's still at it.
The Rainmakers
Monster Movie

Rest easy, America. It’s 2014 and the horrors that have plagued us as long as we can remember are still around. War. Pestilence. Monopolies. Sandwich shop workers who can’t find the meatballs for your sub at two in the morning.

Those fears and observations are part of the most recent album from Kansas City, Missouri’s The Rainmakers, a little ditty called Monster Movie. The record captures the veteran band in its sonic glory, sounding in tune with the quartet’s reputation as an exceptional live act that’ll make you shake your tail feather and tickle the ol’ mental lobe. Opening with “Shithole Town” and closing up with “Swingin’ Shed”, the 12-song hootenanny does what the band has done since breaking onto the national scene round about the time that Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second helping of Cold War. Which is all of what’s been mentioned above and then some.

Fact is, you could almost take a time machine back to 1986, sing some of these songs and have folks stand up and say, “Damn. Those are songs for these times.” Indeed, like the caretaker in The Shining these songs have always been. Monster movies served as metaphors for all kinds of wild get out stuff back in the day, everything from the arms race to racism to fear of the Godless Communists. And the monster movie in question here is no different now than it was then, nor are the themes all that far removed from the ones on the first Rainmakers album.

The group began deep in the pocket of the early ‘80s as Steve (Phillips), Bob (Walkenhorst) and Rich (Ruth), formed the trio that garnered a good deal of attention for its live shows up and down the strip of highway from Kansas City to Wichita and outlying areas. Said attention earned the band a deal with Mercury records and in 1986 the group released its debut album, The Rainmakers, which was smart and smart-assed (but endearingly so).

Sure, there was fodder for the dance floor (“Big Fat Blonde” that could be construed as dumb fun with a capital M), but there were examinations of the American welfare system (“Government Cheese”, which may just as well have been an examination of corporate welfare), the jagged remnants of the American dream (runaway or otherwise) via “Drinking on the Job” and bits and bobs of life in the heartland.

“Rockin’ at the T-Dance” recalled the 1981 collapse of a walkway at a Kansas City hotel in the midst of a dance competition; “Downstream” called upon the spirits of Mark Twain, Harry Truman and ol’ Chuck Berry as the drift together in a boat and talk about the past. (God, it turns out is “an Indian giver” and Truman would rather tug on a bottle of brown liquor than talk about The Bomb.) Between all that and the (Missouri native) Thomas Hart Benton paintings gracing the first album’s cover, you got the sense that this was a group that was speaking from the Plains even if the language wasn’t always plainly spoken.

In the ‘80s we were reminded about all that came from the heartland, thanks to a beer commercial and what we would today call branding of that downhome vibe. The language shifted somewhere around the end of the decade so that we were to no longer speak of the Midwest but rather, of the Heartland. And maybe some of that’s true, as bands such as The Rainmakers and BoDeans began to make their way toward the brass ring with sounds that were honed by playing bars out on the dusty roads and in second cities.

Come 1988’s Tornado, some of the fervor over heartland rock may have died down a little, but that did nothing to calm Walkenhorst & Co.’s fires. Walkenhorst dug into the well of religion for one of his best tunes, “The Wages of Sin”, in which our narrator tries to determine what the best path to salvation is. Can you party? Surely, Walkenhorst seems to argue (and not for the last time), if there’s a God he has a sense of humor and likes to have a good time.

There were signs that the band—by now with drummer Pat Tomek firmly in the ranks—had matured from its club days via the gorgeous ballad “Small Circles” and tunes such as “The Other Side of the World” and “One More Summer”, which didn’t forsake the ass-shaking attitude of the first record but didn’t apologize for having more to say.

The record also contained a slice of true Americana, the urban legend/folktale “The Lakeview Man”, the tale of that creature/man who lives on the outskirts of town and who may or may not be dangerous, depending on who happens to be looking for him or how deeply they believe in the myth.