Interview: A Homecoming for Kelly Pardekooper

Kelly Pardekooper

The Mill — Saturday, March 11 at 8 p.m.

Kelly Pardekooper returns to Iowa City on March 11. — photo by Joy Hamel

It’s been several years — nearly three to be exact — since Kelly Pardekooper has returned to Iowa City to perform. The times have changed since he first left, a baker’s dozen years ago. But roots don’t ever move.

“Iowa City continues to try and invest in — and create — this really great creative space,” Pardekooper says. “I don’t know if anyone can put a finger on it.” His parents still live in Iowa City. But the turnover and freshness provided by a leading liberal arts university, he says, contributes to the evolving vibrancy in a college town.

Pardekooper is something of a late-bloomer — a non-traditionalist in the music industry. He didn’t start plucking for an audience until his mid-twenties here. It wasn’t until Pardekooper was 30 until he released his first album, 30-Weight, under his self-run label at the time, Leisure Time Records. He would go on to record two more studio albums in Iowa City.

Music actualized into something more than a hobby in 2004. So Pardekooper packed it in, following a tumultuous year, and headed down south to Nashville. He sold his house, got divorced and left his birthplace, where his parents’ vinyl collection first spurred him into a love of Americana. Haymaker Heart (2005) was his first album released after leaving Iowa City, known for the song “Not in Iowa,” which would eventually go on to feature in the television series Justified.

Pardekooper relocated to Madison, Wisconsin and then Los Angeles before hunkering down in Indianapolis in 2012, where he’s stayed put. Southern California is where he was first put in touch with his publisher at Black Toast Music, who seeks films and television shows to showcase Pardekooper’s catalog. Since then, his scruffy anthems have been picked up by television shows True Blood and Sons of Anarchy, among many others. He’s also made a Hollywood debut with a track on Nicolas Cage’s Vengeance. Pardekooper recorded his latest album, City at Night, in Bloomington, Indiana, alongside Paul Mahern, who’s worked with everyone from John Mellencamp to Iggy Pop to Willie Nelson.

Pardekooper has turned the movie industry into his source of income for his musical endeavors. It may not be the most glamorous limelight. But he’s always identified more with the songwriting aspect of being a musician, and not so much the performance — especially as he’s aged. Indianapolis has become a return to the music-writing process for him. “It’s worked out great,” Pardekooper says. “I’ve got a local venue, and [my bandmates] are all semi-professional dudes. They’ve all been in bands around Indy, and we’re similar in our tastes.”

The musical output of Pardekooper’s career has been just as much indebted to beer-for-breakfast outlaw country as Baby Boomer rock and roll. His sensibilities are molded around Harvest-era Neil Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Bo Ramsey, well known for accompanying Greg Brown and Lucinda Williams, has and always will be a local idol for Pardekooper. He encouraged an environment that fostered an Iowa boy to take six strings and make music from the heart. The Mill will always hold fond memories for Pardekooper for those reasons, too, being a landmark venue for bluegrass. Gabe’s Oasis and Sanctuary are also cruxes in the musical landscape of his memories here — though some places, like Sal’s Music Emporium, are no more.

He only plays a small number of shows each year. You could count them on two hands, and Iowa City has almost always been one of those fingers. Pardekooper, therefore, gives Iowa City favors nowhere else gets. This Friday, when he performs at The Mill, he will spend the first hour solo on guitar, playing requests of songs from over a decade ago: “It’ll be more low-key,” he says, “delivering some songs that people want to hear.”

His band will then join in to break out some newer stuff. The Hoosiers is a hodge podge arrangement of musicians based in Indianapolis that play with Pardekooper. They’ve centered themselves around the Melody Inn — Pardekooper’s preferred low-light hangout in Indianapolis — where they play what they call “Hillbilly Happy Hour” every few months.

Pardekooper will be visiting Iowa City off the heels of a short jaunt to Cuba, where he got to be a part of multiple jams and see authentic Cuban music. Latin percussion won’t be making an appearance, he tells me, but has opened up new roots of music to explore — in whatever capacity may come. Pardekooper will be playing at The Mill at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 11. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.

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