Doug Moe’s Madison: The city’s ‘Grand Old Man of Music’ is back for an encore

Despite the pandemic and ongoing health challenges, Richard Wiegel is back playing live music and promoting The Midwesterner's new CD, 'Pecatonica Mud.'
Richard Wiegel is sitting on a stool surrounded by instruments playing the guitar at Lakeside St. Coffee House with the darkened windows behind him at night
Courtesy of Richard Wiegel.
Veteran musician Richard Wiegel has returned to live performances with several solo acoustic guitar shows at Lakeside St. Coffee.

Around 9 p.m. on the night after Thanksgiving, as Richard Wiegel finished his solo acoustic guitar show at the Lakeside St. Coffee House, the audience stood and cheered.

The musician was startled.

“I’ve had few of those in my career,” he said.

If that’s true — I suspect Wiegel may have been being modest — then standing ovations are one of the few things about the music business and the Madison music scene that could surprise him.

Wiegel, 72 — called “the grand old man of Madison music” by the eminent country music historian Bill Malone — has almost certainly played more live shows than any other local musician. The number likely exceeds 10,000. He’s been a professional for 56 years.

And he’s still at it. The November show was Wiegel’s second live performance (he also played the Lakeside in late October) after a pandemic-induced absence of 18 months. He’s scheduled to play the Lakeside again on Jan. 21, 2022.

Wiegel also has a terrific new CD, “Pecatonica Mud,” with his roots rock band The Midwesterners. It opens with a Wiegel written song, “Paid by the Lick,” that could be the title for his autobiography: “I play guitar it’s how I get my kicks/The business I’m in I get paid by the lick.”

Pecatonica Mud Cd Cover

Courtesy of Richard Wiegel. New “Pecatonica Mud” CD by The Midwesterners.

Courtesy of Richard Wiegel. New "Pecatonica Mud" CD by The Midwesterners.

He’s accomplished all of this while dealing with a variety of health issues, including a 2005 heart attack after which an outpouring of Madison musicians staged a benefit show at the Harmony Bar & Grill. Six weeks later, Wiegel was back playing himself.

A more enduring concern is his hearing. Since the mid-1990s — Wiegel by then had been playing electric guitar for decades — he’s dealt with tinnitus, a ringing in the ears and sensitivity to sound. Most recently, he’s suffered hearing distortion in his left ear, a condition he believes is similar to one which forced Huey Lewis off the stage.

Wiegel can still play occasional acoustic shows — and make recordings. The new one, “Pecatonica Mud,” references the Pecatonica River, which loomed large in Wiegel’s childhood in Darlington.

“It was a block away from where I grew up,” he said, when we shared a recent phone call. “It would flood every year. We went wading in the flood, waist deep. It didn’t bother us. We played in the river all the time growing up.”

Inside the house, music reigned. His dad played guitar and his great aunt was the local music teacher. Wiegel took his first guitar lesson at age 5. As an early teen, he played in folk bands at county fairs. In 1965, a flickering image on a black and white TV changed everything: The Beatles. Wiegel and his buddies formed a rock and roll band, landing his first paid gigs.

By 1970, Wiegel was in Madison; his band was called the Bowery Boys. They played at Wisconsin’s first outdoor music festival, “Sound Storm,” outside Poynette. So did the Grateful Dead, though Wiegel didn’t see them. His band was already down the road to the next gig.

The Bowery Boys eventually became Clicker, whose self-titled album Isthmus called one of the best ever recorded in Madison. Wiegel also played country, with Out of the West with Beverly Jean, and the Wisconsin Opry in the Dells.

His current roots rock band, The Midwesterners, recorded their first (self-titled) album in 1991. Besides Wiegel, drummer Mark Haines was with the band 30 years ago. The additional current members are Ernie Conner (guitar) and Tom McCarty (bass).

(Like all local music scenes, Madison’s includes many intersections. Conner also plays with the Rousers. He once provided one of my all-time favorite quotes, when I asked why Rousers’ lead singer Frank Furillo stopped diving offstage into the first row of fans. “Because they stopped catching him,” Conner said.)

Birthing “Pecatonica Mud,” the new Midwesterners CD, was complicated by the pandemic. Conner’s and McCarty’s participation was limited. Haines, having closed his analog recording studio, Williamson Magnetic Recording Company, had to learn to mix digitally.

In the end, they pulled it off. Wiegel feels the collection of songs on the new CD are the best he’s written. Roots rock is certainly appropriate to describe the title track, returning Wiegel as it does to those distant days in the overflowing river: “No matter how you try and scrub/You could never wash off Pecatonica mud.”

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