Down at the Idiot Jam

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What happens when members of an online guitar discussion forum decide to break the physical boundaries of the Web and meet in person to play music? A gathering called Idiot Jam, that’s what. I had watched it from afar since its inception, in 2006, but the first time I could attend was in 2016. I flew from LaGuardia Airport to Midway, in Chicago, and was dutifully retrieved by my hosts, LJ Mattingly and his wife, Barb, whose gracious hospitality I have enjoyed several times during our 20-year friendship. LJ and I are members of “The Soundhole,” an online guitar discussion forum; we might never have become friends but for the small-world nature of the Internet.

After a pleasant afternoon and evening, a delicious dinner, and some guitar picking, we packed up LJ’s SUV with gear and snacks the next morning and set the GPS for Vinton, Iowa, about a four-and-a-half-hour trip due west. We drove across Illinois, traversed the Mississippi River on a bridge, and entered Iowa; for me, a strange new landscape that featured many miles of corn beneath a very big sky.

Above photograph: Marshall Hjertstedt strums a vintage Harmony Rocket at the Depot; Marty Reynolds checks his messages; and Roger Anderson examines the Harmony’s original case.

Photographs © Howard Gotfryd unless noted otherwise

Miles of corn and a big sky in Iowa.
Miles of corn and a big sky in Iowa

When we arrived in Vinton and checked into our hotel, we ran into a slew of “Idiot Jammers.” Since we had all been in contact on the forum for years, it felt as though I were seeing old friends—except that most of them I had never met. The atmosphere was joyous, convivial, and jovial, and it felt odd, delightful, and exciting to be in the same room with so many of the people with whom I had joked, shared family deaths and births, graduations, marriages, political tag-teaming, and music videos, all online. We knew each other, yet we didn’t; we were familiar strangers, and that was alright.

But why was I there? What was I doing with these people? And in Iowa, of all places….

For me, playing guitar has always been a way to share an afternoon or evening with others, expressly devoid of politics or religion, conversational topics I avoid for political and religious reasons. Music is a common language that is its own form of communication, so in the spring of 2001, I joined an online discussion forum, sponsored by an industry magazine. I was thrilled by the idea of engaging with like-minded musicians who would be only too happy to discuss music, guitars, gear (“What strings should I use?”), songwriting, technique, their favorite artists—you get the idea.

The Soundhole Is Born

Not contented with communicating only online, members of that forum organized regional meetups and jam sessions. I even hosted a packed open mic here in New York, during a very hot, humid August 2002 at The Rising Cafe, in Brooklyn, now long gone. Members came from as far away as the streets of Bakersfield and Bonn, Germany. Along with great live music, food was consumed, microbrews were quaffed, friendships were forged, and bonds were made. A seed had been planted.

We made an exodus from that forum—and a second one—and in 2006, one of our members set up a brand-new, invitation-only space for those of us who required a forum with slightly looser restrictions. You could say we slunk off into the ether, and the Soundhole forum was created and has grown over the ensuing years. Our members live in towns from the East to the West Coasts and points in between, as well as in Canada, Britain, France, Japan, and Cyprus. That’s the power of the Internet. In our quest to continue the new tradition of regional gatherings, however, we tried to find the perfect location that would be convenient for everyone, whether they lived in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon.

The Origins of Idiot Jam

Forum member Todd Frank, a resident of Vinton, Iowa, says (sometime circa 2005 or 2006), “Once, just to feel things out, I put up a post: ‘If there was a gathering in Vinton, would people come?’” Vinton made sense to him because it is centrally located from the coasts, near the Cedar Rapids airport, and just a few hours’ drive from other, larger Midwestern metropolitan areas. The response was positive and overwhelming. What began as a one-time gathering has morphed into a much-anticipated annual event, with musicians arriving from all over the US and Canada. The first gathering was dubbed “Idiot Jam” because Frank’s forum screen name is “Village Idiot.” Both names have stuck.

Todd Frank—"Village Idiot”—our host in Vinton, at the Depot, in 2016. Bill Hammond holds court—and the crackers and cheese—at a picnic table in the background.
Todd Frank—"Village Idiot”—our host in Vinton, at the Depot, in 2016; Bill Hammond holds court—and the crackers and cheese—at a picnic table in the background.

In the words of longtime member Bill Hammond: “To my thinking, the coolest thing about IJ is that so many people are willing to travel so far to congregate each year in this sparsely populated farm region of Iowa and connect in person and share their acoustic music after getting to know each other in an Internet community they created for themselves after, basically, being booted from (another) forum…”

Take me back to the Swale: Idiot Jam 2007, on the Lowell farm, and the Idiot Jam 2007 cake John Bushouse

Despite the countless accolades rained down upon him, Frank modestly refuses to take credit for being the “coordinator.” He credits the contributions of other forum members who have helped to keep things running smoothly (Marty Reynolds; Mark Clark and his wife Joy Ward; Bob Lomeland; Darryl Hokanson; Phil Thomas; Gene Backlin), and his wife, Kim, and daughters Peyton and Taylor, who have consistently had our backs, coordinating with local businesses, providing healthy snacks for our late-night jam sessions, as well as being an appreciative audience. Organization is easy—as Frank says, “It really takes a few phone calls, answered by people who are waiting for the call every year.”

To get a clearer sense of Idiot Jam and its inherent zaniness, watch this music video, written by the husband of one our long-time members.

“Idiot Jam” © Larry Jensen; Photographs © Katherine Mann Jensen

The Jam Agenda

Idiot Jam is held over the course of a long weekend in early September; any performer must be a Certified Regular of the forum for at least 30 days, or the invited guest of one. Lodging was originally at the Super 8 Motel on the east side of I-380 in nearby Urbana; the Friday night hangout was the O-Zone Lounge in Urbana (as Iowa resident and forum member Mark Clark describes it, “known for a complete absence of anything remotely urban”). Additional lodging, for “the bravest of us,” could be had at the now-defunct Modern Motel, in Vinton—which was modern, sometime in the 1950s.

On Thursday, attendees trickle into town and check in, and a prolonged luncheon is shared in shifts at the Vinton Family Restaurant, or “218,” as locals call it. Thursday is the night of a party, formerly at Vinton resident and retired chef Bob Lomeland’s home, now hosted by Darryl Hokanson and Phil Thomas. On Friday morning, Lomeland offers a bacon breakfast at his home just outside town and—come on—what would life be without bacon?

Friday afternoon is kind of a loose, free few hours, and the evening brings us together at The Hitchin’ Post, in nearby Garrison, for local cuisine (have you ever eaten a Maid-Rite, or an Iowa-style pork tenderloin sandwich?), cold lagers, an open mic, and mingling with local folk. In 2016, Milt, a tall, rangy, ponytailed citizen of Garrison walked right up to me, shook my hand vigorously, and said, “Welcome to Ioway!” He told me about life in his town and his two daughters who travel the world, singing with various opera companies.

Friday evening at the Hitchin’ Post.
Friday evening at the Hitchin’ PostJoe Stramaglia

On Saturday we break our fast at the Vinton Family Restaurant, enjoy the afternoon jam session, and, on Saturday evening, it’s dinner in Vinton. After dinner, performers and friends head over to the concert venue, which, after all these years, continues to sell out.

After the concert, those who can stay awake jam into the wee hours, and then Sunday morning brings our goodbye breakfast at the Vinton Family Restaurant, before everyone heads off to various points of the compass and home. In between all this activity is more late-night jamming, poking of fun, back slaps and hugs, and a great deal of blood-pressure-reducing laughter, as well as remembrances of those forum members who have gone on to that big jam session in the sky (most of us belong to an older demographic).

Hangin’ at the Cobblestone

When the Cobblestone Inn and Suites opened in Vinton, in 2011, it quickly became the hub for lodging and late-night jams in the breakfast room. A new Saturday afternoon spot was offered to the Idiot Jammers at the Depot, in Vinton—a ghost station that is now a small train museum—and the search for a regular Saturday night concert venue began. Confident that we would keep coming back to Vinton, Frank was eager to find a place the Soundhole crowd could return to each year.

The comfortable, unassuming Cobblestone Inn and Suites, in Vinton, Iowa—our favorite lodging and late-night jam space since 2011, courtesy of management and other guests—mostly Idiot Jammers! Notice the absence of cobblestones
This is the comfortable, unassuming Cobblestone Inn and Suites, in Vinton, Iowa—our favorite lodging and late-night jam space since 2011, courtesy of management and other guests—mostly Idiot Jammers! Notice the absence of cobblestones.Leonardo

A New Venue and a Community Effort

During that search, Clark recalls that, “Todd learned that Farmer’s Mercantile Hall, in Garrison, might be available, so he called me to ask what I thought. I drove up and we looked it over. It seemed like it might work if the weather wasn’t too hot.”

Coincidentally, Garrison (population 450, seven miles from Vinton) had just lost its library in the 2011 derecho, and Frank suggested to the library support group that “they might become our Saturday night sponsor and use the ticket money to help rebuild the library. So, the Saturday evening concert became a community effort. Of course, the Hitchin’ Post, in Garrison, was a convenient saloon for Friday nights and they seemed glad to have us.

“We [the Franks] live three miles from Garrison and knew the ladies who vowed to get a new library and start over. With their energy, how could we not step in and help?”

The sound and the fury: A mighty windstorm, or derecho, destroyed the old Garrison Public Library, in 2011 (left). Photograph © Angela Dague. This is the new library (right). Photograph © Todd Frank

Garrison Public Library Director Angela Dague was pleased with the arrangement. She says, “I love that we are using one of our oldest buildings to host the concerts and, when the streets are full of cars and music comes lofting out of the building, town folk walk by or ride by to see what is going on. We have had visitors from all over the state and farther come to Garrison for the concerts. This union with Todd, The Soundhole, the Mercantile, and the Garrison Library has been a game changer for us. They have helped raise money for our library for 6 years now. The building has been done for 5-1⁄2 years, but the funds now go to help buy books and other needs the library has. We appreciate each and every one who has come and played beautiful music over the years and look forward to many more years in the future. We absolutely love having them!”

An advertisement from 2014, announcing the upcoming Soundhole Forum fundraising concert at the Farmers Mercantile Hall, in Garrison: “Singers, Songwriters and Musicians from across the country!”
An advertisement from 2014, announcing the upcoming Soundhole Forum fundraising concert at the Farmers Mercantile Hall, in Garrison: “Singers, Songwriters and Musicians from across the country!”

Nick Fisher, who with his wife Charlotta owns the Farmer’s Mercantile Hall (built in 1911), says: “Todd Frank approached me about possibly putting on a show at the Farmers Mercantile Hall. He said members of the group were doing a few shows around the area and thought the Mercantile would be a good location. He said they wanted to donate any proceeds to the Garrison Library to assist them in recovering from a windstorm that had destroyed the old library.... Things just sort of came together after that. Following the first Idiot Jam, we gradually began having some live music events. Before this COVID interference, we had been having monthly Sunday afternoon shows featuring musicians from all around. The Garrison Library has continued to provide refreshments and has become a popular part of the events. People have come to look forward to the Idiot Jam in September!”

Understandably, the money that Idiot Jammers raise for the Garrison Public Library hasn’t covered a fraction of the cost of rebuilding, which originated from private donations and other funding. As Ms. Dague suggests, above, our contribution has bought books and much-needed supplies. What our participation in this enterprise has done, equally, is not only to secure a venue to which we are welcome to return each year (barring pandemics—Idiot Jam was canceled in 2020) but, more importantly, it has inspired the people of Garrison to embrace Idiot Jam as an honorary, appreciated, and welcome part of the community. You can’t receive a higher compliment from country people.

Back to the Depot

Saturday afternoon at the Depot offers music, guitars, camaraderie, jocularity, icy beverages, sliced salami, and chips.
Saturday afternoon at the Depot offers music, guitars, camaraderie, jocularity, icy beverages, sliced salami, and chips.

So… after a wild Friday of fun and orientation, newbies LJ and I arrived at the Depot that Saturday afternoon, where folks were already knee-deep into howdy. The Depot museum houses showcases, exhibits, antique railroad stuff, a telegraph room, a model railroad, and benches to sit on if the weather prevents us from staying outdoors. We brought along snacks, beverages, and milled about playing guitars, singing, noshing, joshing, and telling tall tales.

The author (center) and friends play inside the Depot museum.
The author (center) and friends play inside the Depot museum.Marshall Hjertstedt

Don Penniman and Marty Reynolds had set up a guitar triage bench on a picnic table to tweak, repair, or restring any guitars that needed attention. Reynolds is a luthier from Minnesota (who once coached me through my first-ever drop-fill finish repair—remotely—with dazzling results), and has always been most generous with his time, knowledge, and skills. Penniman just knows a lot and is a nice guy. They worked on a few guitars that afternoon and set them up tight and right.

Don Penniman works the guitar setup bench, Saturday afternoon at the Depot.
Don Penniman works the guitar setup bench, Saturday afternoon at the Depot.

After we had picked and gabbed to our hearts’ content, we all returned to the Cobblestone, “cleaned up good,” and reconvened at Vinton’s La Reyna restaurant on Saturday evening, for a delicious Mexican buffet, icy margaritas, and huge servings of jocularity that vibrated the room with laughter. One wouldn’t think to encounter such authentic Mexican fare in the middle of an Iowan farm town, but the people who own La Reyna are from Mexico and have been serving it up in Vinton for years.

At the Mercantile Hall

After dinner, we formed a caravan and made the seven-mile drive through the cornfields to Garrison (one stoplight at the crossroads leading into town), and the Farmers Mercantile Hall, where the live sound equipment was set up for the evening’s concert. The “Library Ladies” were in the kitchen preparing to arrange the snacks, food, soft drinks, and sell tickets (all proceeds to the library), and the performers found space in the back room to unpack, tune up, warm up, and schmooze. David Radtke’s wife, Melva, our stage manager, set the evening’s lineup. She was super-efficient and tough but loving. Meanwhile, out front, our resident violin maker and tech wiz Gene Backlin was set to record audio and video as the house filled with guests.

Full house at the Farmer’s Mercantile Hall, Backlin’s recording equipment at two o’clock.
Full house at the Farmer’s Mercantile Hall, Backlin’s recording equipment at two o’clockTodd Frank

I sat through and enjoyed everyone’s performance almost until the end of the show. When it was my turn to take the stage, I confided in the audience that this had been a novel few days: “Hello. My name is Howard Gotfryd, and I came out here from New York—City— [cheers and applause] to play for you tonight. Anyone here from New York? No? Well, this has been a week of firsts for me—my first fish fry, my first time in Iowa, my first visit to Vinton, my first Idiot Jam—and my first time playing guitar.” You’ve got to go for the laughs when you’re in unfamiliar territory.

For some reason, they saved the short guy from New York for last, but I had great fun performing my two songs, the audience was amused but respectful of my awe at the local vast spaces, and I was jazzed to be there doing this. If pressed, I’d say it was a great deal more energizing than editing copy.

(From left) The late Roger Anderson, along with LJ Mattingly, Joy Ward, and Mark Clark kick off a tune at the Farmer’s Mercantile Hall. LJ sat in on resophonic guitar with the others, whose bluegrass band is called Castle Ridge.
(From left) The late Roger Anderson, along with LJ Mattingly, Joy Ward, and Mark Clark kick off a tune at the Farmer’s Mercantile Hall. LJ sat in on resophonic guitar with the others, whose bluegrass band is called Castle Ridge.

The concert at the Mercantile Hall was exhilarating. Every performance was different and masterful. We heard fingerpickers, strummers, crooners, country singers, bluegrassers, swing guitarists, folkies, and art singers. We ended the show with all the performers on stage singing, “Goodnight, Irene.” The Idiot Jammers had raised more than $700 for the library. The evening had been a delight on both sides of that stage, and we all mingled for a while afterward, meeting and chatting up some of the Garrison townsfolk over coffee or lemonade. When the audience had all gone home, the equipment broken down and packed, the Library Ladies having said their goodnights, we returned to Vinton and the Cobblestone for more jamming and hilarity.

On Sunday morning, freshly showered and sparkling, anyone who didn’t need to hit the road early straggled into the Vinton Family Restaurant for the traditional goodbye breakfast. We packed up the car and headed over. Naturally, a group review of the weekend ensued over cups of coffee and plates of eggs, pancakes, waffles, hash browns, bacon, sausage, and buttered toast, with much hilarity—and some premature missing of friends whom we might not see again for a year or more.

One of many Sunday goodbye breakfasts at the Vinton Family Restaurant.
One of many Sunday goodbye breakfasts at the Vinton Family RestaurantKatherine Mann Jensen

Goodbyes were said, some tears were shed, and LJ and I headed back to the Chicago area, past miles and miles of cornfields under a bright blue sky stippled with puffy white clouds. We were tired but thrilled to have been a part of an exhilarating Idiot Jam. I spent one more night as a very appreciative guest in his home, after dinner at his and Barb’s favorite steakhouse, where they told me about some of the history of their town. We played a little more guitar and the next morning I packed my carry-on rolling case and the Mattinglys drove me to Midway for my flight home. A couple of hugs, thank-yous, and checkpoints later, I was headed back to New York with a brain full of songs, jokes, and images of all the new places I had experienced and the old friends I had met for the first time, determined to return for future Idiot Jams.

David Radtke, our favorite MC
Local Iowan artists Ruth and Steve sing and play beautifully.
Bill wrestles salami into submission at the Depot.
The late Larry Bister (left) and the departed Roger Anderson (center). Concertina player Jan Leman (right) was married to Larry. The Soundhole forum mourns their loss.
The ever suave and genteel guitar picker Mark Clark
Joy Ward and Marshall Hjertstedt play one of Marshall’s original tunes.
Swing master Russell Letson shows us how it’s done.
Alan Rogers and Roger Anderson explore the tones of a vintage Gibson Southern Jumbo.
Rob Hanesworth delivers his world-renowned performance of “I Hope You Die.”
The late Doug Heard (left), also deeply missed, regales Larry Bister (center) and Paul Schlimm (right) about something that got him riled.
Two fine humans and musicians we miss
Dennis O’Neil, an impish wit whom we lost suddenly last year, lets the audience know that “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. ”

I recently asked Todd Frank about his fondest memory of all the Idiot Jams. He says, “Of course, it's seeing all of you folks come. But aside from that, our first concert at the Merc. I took a gamble. A ramshackle building in a town of 450, a town off the beaten path. We all showed up between 6:00 and 6:30 for the concert, and aside from us, the place was empty. Heck, the whole town was empty. People were being nice to me, but I could hear people muttering that the concert would just be for ourselves.

“But then people came. And came and came. It was a huge thrill for me to see the place fill up with locals to the point that every seat was taken. I will never forget that.”

Are you a fan of an Idiot Jam or other regional music festival? Join us in conversation in the Comments section, below.

And if you’re hungry for more music-related content, check out Music Appreciation Week, the place audiophiles go to satisfy their inner craving.

Gear We Used at Idiot Jam

It was with great sadness that The Soundhole forum community learned of the death of Todd Frank's wife, Kim, on June 26, 2021, after a long illness. The outpouring of love, grief, and sympathy from forum members stands as a testament to the wonderful wife and mother she was, how she took care of all of us at every Idiot Jam, and to the love that binds this musical diaspora of people together.

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Nice article... wonderful that music fosters these links across time and distance. I bet you could sell a lot of beard balm at the IJ.

Thank you, John. The Soundhole community never would have happened without the Internet, and I never would have forged any of these friendships with people who live far from where I live. Yes, beard balm would have the potential to sell well at an Idiot Jam. Many of us are old guys with whiskers.

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