This is part of a series of interviews with several Eastern Iowa musicians who have been playing music in this area for about 40 years. These guys are personal friends of mine and they have put together an exciting new band called The BarnRockers. These interviews will all be exploring the pre-BarnRockers experience of these fine musicians. This is number 5 of six. I hope you enjoy the interviews with this talented bunch of guys. If you ever get a chance to see The BarnRockers play make sure you tell them you read their interview on Independent Midwest Music.com.
J C Monroe
Billy Rose: First will you tell what the J C stands for?
J C Monroe: John Charles.
Billy Rose: Okay, I thought maybe it was a secret. I’ve always known and heard everyone call you simply J C. So John Charles, how did you start out in music? What was your first experience?
J C Monroe: Well that’s a good question. I’ve seen pictures of myself as a 2 or 3 year old with a guitar in my hands. I’m left handed but in the picture I was playing right handed (laughs). I assume it from watching people on TV and picking it up and playing it. I think probably from the later fifties on it caught my attention.
I was playing a little plastic guitar and eventually graduated to a real guitar. I remember mowing lawns and saving the money to buy that first guitar. By then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were kicking in. It just kinda took off from there. I played all through high school. By senior year I was in a pretty good acoustic band. Tall Corn Summer Band, it was five guys from Dewitt.
Billy Rose: Tall Corn Summer Band, were did that name come from?
J C Monroe: We were looking for a name and we were in the band room at the high school and there was a poster for the Tall Corn Summer Band Festival in Decorah (Iowa) and we liked that, so we stole the name.
Billy Rose: How old were you when you played your first professional gig?
J C Monroe: You mean were we got paid? I’m not sure we were professional (laughs). Probably, junior year in high school. Tall Corn started junior year and by senior year we were playing illegally at a couple bars in Illinois. We were all underage. One of us was only a freshman. Then I went to St. Ambrose in Davenport and we started playing at a lot of functions down there. We were booked to open for Muddy Waters at the Fine Arts Center and Muddy didn’t show. He had double booked and had a gig that night in Cincinnati. We played but there was no Muddy Waters so there were a lot of angry customers. That was in ’73, and there were two guys from Clinton in the crowd who came to see Muddy Waters and they saw us. I had some academic difficulties at St Ambrose, because I was playing in the band and not concentrating on my studies. Anyway I ended up moving to Clinton and I was asked to join a Rock ‘N’ Roll band. That’s when I joined Motorway. That’s were I met Bingo, Dave Layton. I actually knew Dave Schneider and Ken Clarke before I knew Bingo. We went through many keyboard players and finally graduated to Bruce McCabe who was on a whole other level than we were. Anyway Bruce got the call and went to Minneapolis. So we needed a keyboard player again.
The guys in the band said there’s this guy who just moved back from New York. Bingo Strange (laughs) and he’s a good keyboard player. So Bingo auditioned and that’s how I met Dave Layton. Dave and I have been playing together off and on since ’74 in about fifty million bands (laughs).
Billy Rose: (laughs) So was Dave going by Bingo Strange at that time?
J C Monroe: As far as a stage name, yes (laughs). Of course now it’s been shortened to just plain old Bing.
Billy Rose: So what was the name of the band you were in at St. Ambrose?
J C Monroe: Tall Corn Summer Band. It was still the same band.
Billy Rose: So are any of those guys still playing? Do you ever see any of them?
J C Monroe: I still see them. They have either moved back to this area or the Quad Cities. The guy who was the real musician at the time, a phenomenal guitar player, is a professor at Augustana in Rock Island. Chris Marme, he still plays. He’s heavily influence by Indian music at the moment. He’s on my first CD playing the Mohan Vina which is an eighteen string Indian instrument. He still plays, he’s just phenomenal.
Billy Rose: So after Tall Corn you were in Motorway. What other bands have you been in?
J C Monroe: Oh my God. Dancing Bear started in the Quad Cities and then moved Iowa City. Some of those guys moved on to form Tug (laughs) there have been so many. On the acoustic side, The Rock Creek Ramblers, we always played acoustic when we didn’t have a Rock thing going. Then when we had kids I kinda called it quits for Rock ‘N’ Roll. Now the kids are long gone and all grown. So these guys started to get interested in doing something again and I said sure I’ll do it.
Billy Rose: When did you start writing?
J C Monroe: Boy, in high school actually. Most of those songs were pretty bad and pretty sad (laughs). Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and James Taylor influenced. I was learning how to play licks and Robbie Robertson, The Band, Dickey Betts influenced me. I listened to Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East all the time. So I was doing that on the side when I was in Tall Corn Summer Band. But I was writing songs back then and continued to write all along. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear my friends play them and other people do them, hear a couple of ‘em on the radio.
Billy Rose: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
J C Monroe: I think the first song I ever wrote was an instrumental. It was for a high school class. It had to be an audio video thing. Which at that time meant an eight milimeter camera and cassette tape (laughs). The guys in the band helped put it together with acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin and string bass. That was probably the first one. Then there were…the girls you’re with and chasing girls and driving fast cars (laughs).
Billy Rose: In your opinion what’s the best song you’ve ever written?
J C Monroe: Well, Dave Layton is my biggest critic and my biggest fan. The one he really goes nuts about and I really like it is the most recent song I wrote. It’s called Guilty. I’ve recorded an acoustic version. We might do it with The BarnRockers and we might not. I like a lot of them and some I don’t care for to much, but we do them anyway. If the other people like them, you got to just say okay. I think it’s very personal. Your opinions about the songs you write. Other people might really like it and it was just something you wrote in a half hour and didn’t really intend to keep.
Billy Rose: So what other instruments do you play, besides the guitar?
J C Monroe: Bass, piano and a little mandolin. I can keep up for the most part on mandolin (laughs).
Billy Rose: You play bass on a couple BarnRocker songs.
J C Monroe: I have decided it was worth it to step back and play bass to free up Bingo to play keyboard and saxophone. Bing is just phenomenal on both of those in addition to the bass.
Billy Rose: Where are The BarnRockers heading?
J C Monroe: I don’t know, really. I did a little figuring and right now we are doing about thirty percent original material. I’d like to get to the point were we are doing eighty or ninety percent original material. With two good songwriters and one semi good songwriter in the band. I consider my semi good (laughs). Dave Schneider and Ken Clarke are writing some great material. The musicianship is wonderful! Kevin Kash is an amazing guitar player and Ken Clarke too. I’ve been in so many bands were I was lead guitar and bands I was rhythm guitarist. This is the first band I’ve been in that I’m maybe the third best guitar player. We’ve got the talent it’s just a matter of putting it together the right way.