Madison folk-rockers The Whiskey Farm find inspiration ‘Over These Green Hills’

Out with a new album and relieved to be playing live music again, The Whiskey Farm has a release party planned for June 3.
3 The Whiskey Farm band members stand on stage in front of microphones
Photo by Charlie Jefko.
The Whiskey Farm's three founding members, left to right: Brett Wilfrid, Jason Horowitz and Chantelle Thomas.

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but maybe a little harder on those who, to feel fully alive, require a stage and an audience.

The Whiskey Farm, one of the Madison area’s best bands across the past dozen years, did not play a live show in 2020.

They played only a handful in summer 2021.

They’ll be back on stage this spring and summer, which is part of their news.

But the folk-rock band that has won multiple Madison Area Music Association awards and was saluted by the Americana Gazette for “great tunes, killer hooks and fantastic harmonies” also used its time offstage to record a new album, their fifth.

“And definitely our best,” Jason Horowitz, The Whiskey Farm vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, told me last week.

The album is titled “Over These Green Hills” and the band will celebrate it with a release party June 3 at Robinia Courtyard. A compilation of studio footage of the album’s first single, “Sunflowers,” can be viewed on YouTube.

Horowitz, who is a child psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine, is one of three founding members still playing with The Whiskey Farm.

Regular readers of this blog may remember his name from a couple of years ago, when I wrote about Horowitz winning a national bookstore trivia contest focused on the English author David Mitchell. First prize was having a character named for him in Mitchell’s next novel, still forthcoming.

“I’m waiting,” Horowitz says. “It will be sort of a dream come true.”

The band formed in 2010 not long after Horowitz, who grew up in Milwaukee, moved to Madison. Horowitz began playing guitar as a summer counselor at Camp Minikani, where he met his wife, Madison native Kerry Burke.

When one of Horowitz’s Madison neighbors learned he played guitar, he invited him to join a group of pals who got together once a week or so to make music at a farm near Cross Plains.

The farm belonged to Brett Wilfrid, who plays guitar, mandolin and banjo with The Whiskey Farm. The third founding member still with the band is vocalist Chantelle Thomas. The current line-up also includes bass player Mike Steen, drummer Chad Bartell, and the newest member, Matt Cooper-Borkenhagen, on pedal steel and electric guitar.

The band initially wanted to call itself The Farm, after Wilfrid’s place where it all started. “But there was a British pop band in the ‘80s called The Farm and we ran into copyright stuff,” Horowitz says. So, instead, The Whiskey Farm. “One of the many things we enjoyed at the farm,” Horowitz says.

Some of my favorite tunes by The Whiskey Farm are story songs rooted in history, and there is one, “Jesse James,” on the new album, which tries to correct the heroic persona attached to an Old West outlaw:

“Jesse James, Jesse James/You’re not the hero everybody claims/You shot for money, blood, revenge and fame/And you got ‘em/Didn’t you, Jesse James.”

Horowitz has a passion for history, but also credits his father-in-law, longtime Madison public defense attorney Dennis Burke, with suggesting potential songs, sometimes by handing Horowitz a poem he — Burke — has written.

That makes sense. Burke’s friends, and I count myself among them, have always thought of him as a lawyer with a poet’s soul. “It’s luck of the draw with your father-in-law and I think I did pretty well,” Horowitz says. “He’s a huge fan of books and music and he’s always telling me I should write this or that song.”

A decade or so ago, Burke handed Horowitz a poem about the confederate Civil War soldiers buried at Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery. Burke lives nearby and found himself drawn to the spot while walking his dog.

Horowitz’s song, “The Boys of Forest Hill” — one of the band’s best, in my estimation — appeared on The Whiskey Farm’s second album years before a controversy arose in 2017 and the larger markers paying tribute to the soldiers were removed. The gravestones remain. (In March, a Madison attorney filed a lawsuit seeking to restore the markers.) Regarding the song and the more recent controversy, Horowitz says, “We talked a lot about this as a band in the last couple of years. There’s a difference between a statue of Robert E. Lee and a marking in a cemetery of people who have died. It never felt to me, looking at it, that [the Forest Hill graves] were glorifying the Confederacy the way a statue of a general might.”

Horowitz continues: “I think we can be nuanced enough to think all of these boys on both sides were victims of something that was out of their control, even if we feel strongly about which side was right.”

In any case, the band’s social justice bona fides are unassailable. The Whiskey Farm’s music has been included on compilations of songs for social change, as well as Wisconsin protest songs. And in April 2018 they performed at a Washington, D.C. concert benefiting Refugees International.

Four members of The Whiskey Farm on stage playing at Refugees International.

The Whiskey Farm playing at the Refugees International benefit in Washington, D.C. Left to right: Brett Wilfrid, Jason Horowitz, Chad Bartell and Chantelle Thomas.

Right now, they’re just excited about playing live again. The band has a gig May 22 at the Paoli Farmers’ Market, followed by the new album release party on June 3.

“We want people to come out and have some fun,” Horowitz says, then pauses. “Like we used to.”

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