Our Bloomington spotlight starts with perhaps the most easily recognized and acclaimed Indiana artist, Hoagy Carmichael. The composition “Stardust” is notable, recorded numerous times by countless artists, but it is this example that is represented here, both sung and performed by Hoagy, a Bloomington native, but also recorded in Richmond, Indiana and released on Richmond label Gennett Records in 1950. Carmichael’s history is represented across town, from his statue on IU’s campus to his burial site in Rose Hill Cemetery to the Stardust bridge on Bloomington’s northwest side.
Jumping ahead to the 1970s we see the emergence of a rich independent music scene in Bloomington, best represented by the labels Bar-B-Q Records and Gulcher Records. The former came to encompass a collective of artists recording music that combined jazz, psychedelic rock, and folk elements into a unique regional sound, as represented by the Screaming Gypsy Bandits on their track “Junior” from their 1973 release In the Eye. Featured on this album is Caroline Peyton, who’s solo albums on Bar-B-Q further evolved this regional sound. Her 1972 effort Mock Up plays on-par with popular female folk artists of the time, fusing acoustic stripped arrangements with peculiar time signatures and jazz instrumentation. Her follow up Intuition, released in 1977, is more embedded in country rock, with full band arrangement and pop accessibility. Labelmate and Lebanon, Indiana native Bill Wilson made considerable contributions to this sound, bringing the influence of the Texas country rock scene with him upon returning to Bloomington in 1972. His 1973 album Ever Changing Minstrel is a perfect harmony of country and rock music, blending country instrumentation and rock structure and drive with powerful lyrics representative of the nation’s climate.
The latter label, Gulcher Records, came to encompass a scene that was radically different. Despite being a small and completely independent label, Gulcher housed recordings and releases by several of punk’s most significant acts, including Indiana natives Zero Boys and the Gizmos. The driving rhythm, distorted instrumentation, and aggressively shouted vocals of Indianapolis’ Zero Boys was heard by punks across the nation, influencing future generations of punk and rock musicians. The scene was a hot spot for artists embodying this aggressive new genre, as heard on The Panics’ “I Wanna Kill My Mom,” released in 1980. The Gizmos were proud torch bearers for the midwest sound happening in Bloomington, as embodied in 1981’s “The Midwest Can Be Alright” (consider this a response to 1980’s “Can’t Stand the Midwest,” a furious punk criticism of Indiana from West Lafayette’s Dow Jones and the Industrials). Gulcher records also housed New Wave acts hailing from Indiana, like Bloomington’s Amoebas in Chaos and MX-80. The Bloomington punk scene became a nexus for experimentation with the punk sound, as represented by a fusion of punk and electronic music heard on E-in Brino’s “Indianapolis and the Dancing Cigarettes” & “Pop Doormat,” both released in 1981.
Moving into the 1980s, we see the emergence of perhaps Bloomington’s second most notable and easily recognized artist. John Mellencamp, born and raised in Seymour Indiana, had found commercial success in the late 1970s and early 1980s with singles like “Hurts so Good,” “I Need a Lover,” and “Jack & Diane.” At a crossroads in his career, Mellencamp decided to return to his home state, starting what would become a tradition of writing and recording in Indiana that would last the rest of his career. 1983’s “Pink Houses” glorified small town America, harkening to a nondescript image of average American life with accounts of vague American characters. Building on this theme and creating the image for which he is best known for, Mellencamp released Small Town in 1985, with the hit single “Small Town,” an anthem not only for small town America but also for Indiana. Mellencamp, who resides now in Bloomington, remains a proud torch bearer for Indiana music and art into the new decade.
In the 90s, artists began expanding upon the alternative rock explosion in popular culture. As shoegaze, noise rock, and grunge began to take underground and eventually mainstream markets by storm, Bloomington’s Arson Garden released their sophomore effort Under Towers in 1993, an album laden with noisy guitars affected with pitch shifting effects pedals. Horror-punk act The Nevermores released their first and only album Lock Your Doors… in 1991, blending the familiar Bloomington punk sound with Farfisa organ and screamed lyrics. Antenna formed in Bloomington after the dissolution of Blake Babies, releasing guitar driven songs with pop sensibility and distorted riffs inherent to grunge and alternative rock acts, as heard on 1993’s “Shine.”
By the late 1990s and early 2000s alternative rock had splintered and shifted in numerous directions, one towards a genre that would be coined “Emo,” inspiring genre pioneers Early Day Miners. The Bloomington band released Let us Garlands Bring in 2002, and songs like “Centralia” embody the band’s desolate and slow guitar driven compositions, layered with somber strings and whispered harmonies. Bloomington’s Good Luck took a different approach to emo music, fusing the genre’s lyrical frustration with punk’s pace and instrumentation and pop’s accessibility, as heard on 2008’s “Stars Were Exploding,” which specifically references Lake Griffy. Moving into the 2010s, the underground music scene’s of America began to revisit the early rock ‘n’ roll sound of 1960s garage bands. Apache Dropout released “Teenager” on independent label Family Vineyard in 2011, echoing the sound of Bloomington’s original punk scene. Triptides, originally of Bloomington, combines reverb-drenched guitar tones with whispered lyrics and psych-influenced song structure, as heard on 2012’s “Sun/Shine.” Diane Coffee harkens back to bubble gum pop and r&b tunes on tracks like 2013’s “Green.” Bands like Thee Tsunamis are reminiscent of Bloomington’s original punk scene while creating unique garage rock tracks like 2015’s “Drag.” Into the mid 2010’s Bloomington remained a haven for experimental artists as well, like the ambient electronic project Lake Daggers, whose 2015 “Rite II” is built upon a sparse musical landscape consisting of drum machines and droning synth bass.
Bloomington artists continue to build on the traditions of artists before them. Dasher combines punk aggression with effect-laden guitar tones reminiscent of shoegaze and alternative Bloomington bands from the 1990s. T.V. Mike & the Scarecrows produce tight country rock that would fit in the Bar-B-Q Records circa 1975. Indie pop duo Spissy combine the pop sensibilities of 1970s and 1980s rock radio with mellow guitar-driven arrangements that Mellencamp could tap his foot to. Bloomington is also home to a new generation of inspired folk musicians, like Kay Krull, whose distinctly unique recordings continue to evolve the sounds of Caroline Peyton. The Wonderhills also build on the Bar-B-Q Records sound, combining elements of bluegrass and old time into a unique folk-fusion. The Cowboys remain torch bearers for the Bloomington punk scene, bringing a fresh perspective to fast-paced, power-chord driven anthems. Amy-O draws from the same history of Bloomington’s 1990s alternative rock scene, expanding the sound with catchy riffs and beautifully arranged vocal harmonies. Most importantly, however, Bloomington remains a place for artists to blossom and create new music movements, as heard in Durand Jones & the Indications, whose retro-soul revival music is quickly gaining recognition across the nation. As it has always been, Bloomington is a place for artists across Indiana and even the world to come together, influence and inspire one another, and create exciting and timeless music.
Resources for Further Exploration
Arson Gardon – article about Arson Garden, an art rock project out of Bloomington, from Nuvo Magazine
Caroline Peyton – piece on folk artist Caroline Peyton, from Numero Group
Gulcher Records – write-up about Gulcher Records and the Bloomington punk scene
Bill Wilson – article from Nuvo Magazine about Bill Wilson, a Bloomington cosmic country artist