Famous Mockingbird — Friday, May 3 at 8 p.m.
Despite his name, Chicago Farmer has a tough time even getting grass to grow at his home in Bloomington, Illinois. It’s not for lack of trying, though.
“I actually have this mud pit in my backyard right now,” he says, laughing. “I’ve been planting grass, but I’m never around here to water it.”
Chicago Farmer is both moniker and mantra for Cody Diekhoff, an earnest Midwestern folk observer who has been at it for the last 15 years. The interstates connecting this part of the country have become his daily commute, and his songs and stories reflect that.
He plays the Famous Mockingbird in Marion on Friday, May 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.
When we spoke, he was set to take off the next day toward Indiana for a weekend of shows. He had just gotten off of eight nights opening for Todd Snider across the Midwest. Snider has been a longtime fan of Chicago Farmer, calling him, in a blurb on Diekhoff’s website, “the genuine heir to Arlo Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott … Chicago Farmer is my brother; if you like me, you’ll love him.”
“He’s said some really nice things about me,” Diekhoff says. “Opening for him is really like the greatest gig in the world. To have somebody like that who has your back, and who motivates you and inspires you to keep pressing on — it’s a great thing.”
Diekhoff grew up in Delavan, Illinois, a rural town in the central part of the state where his grandparents farmed. Bloomington is just over 35 miles from Delavan, meaning his work is particularly rooted in the space between where he came from and where he writes from now. And those 35 miles hold both a lot of memory and a lot of future for Diekhoff.
“Growing up in my small town, it was kind of like everything was imagined or daydreamed. It was all fiction or made up. These days, my songwriting — the themes and everything — are more honest. I think they are just more truthful and honest,” he says. “I’ve had about every delivery job you can imagine, every restaurant job you can imagine, and every farm job you can imagine. Got a lot of songs out of all them.”
Take a song like “Rocco N’ Susie” for example, a folk examination of a familiar situation, similar in practice to John Prine’s way of looking at the galaxy through a paper towel roll.
“I wrote that song at a time when meth was really, really out of control, in central Illinois especially … It seemed like there was a meth lab busted there every other day,” he says. “Now, it’s actually back to heroin there, which is crazy.”
One verse is: “Rocco he lay on the kitchen floor / Holding a spoon and a match / Cops opened up the garage door / Susie’s cooking up a batch.”
He has five albums full of tunes like this, about all the places in between, titled appropriately: About Time, From A Small Town In Illinois, Talk of Town, Backenforth, IL and Midwest Side Stories.
His latest, Quarter Past Tonight, was released last fall. It’s a live album collected over two nights at the Apollo Theater in Peoria, Illinois. It collects, for the first time on tape, the fullness of Chicago Farmer’s performances, near-bursting as they are with stories, jokes, and folk tunes wrought out of years of playing any place that would let him set up shop.
“I’ve probably played in more garages in Bloomington, Illinois than I’ve played actual venues,” he says. “I kind of started out as kind of just background music, and now people are really coming to hear the songs and hear the stories. It makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere.”
Earlier this year, he escaped the never-ending winter and traveled down to Austin,Texas in February with plans to record a new album. He got into the studio with roots-rockers Band of Heathens.
“We locked ourselves in a recording studio with them and some tacos for five days, and we made a new record,” he says.
He expects the record to be out by the end of the year, and has a full set of dates until then, including countless festivals like Big Grove Brewery’s inaugural Cornfed Folk Festival in Iowa City on June 8.
“The Cornfed Folk Festival…that’s right up Chicago Farmer’s alley,” he says. “And Greg [Brown] is a legend everywhere, but especially there in Iowa City. I’ve played with Greg a couple of times. He’s always been really cool. I even got him to smile a few times.”
Diekhoff just turned 40 and tours with his wife “95 percent of the time,” he says. His wife is a visual artist who operates Twice Upon A String, repurposing used instrument strings into jewelry. She gets strings from acts like Greensky Bluegrass and Railroad Earth, but Diekhoff has claimed one particular piece for himself.
“I have the only John Prine string I have ever come across,” he says.
When I ask him about his moniker, Chicago Farmer, and whether or not he would one day like to be known simply as Cody Diekhoff, he answers in the negative. For 15 years, he has been building an identity which lets him live in that middle ground he has always called home.
“My name gets misspelled all the time, so I’m just known as Chicago Farmer now,” he says.
“For me, Illinois is pretty much Chicago and the farms, and I feel like that’s where I am from and it is me. It is who I am, and it is my music, really. I think it’s just kinda become who I am.”