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Tom Roznowski: Reanimating the past



Tom Roznowski wears many hats: Singer, songwriter, freelance historian, event producer and public radio essayist.

And more than 30 years after the upstate New York native landed by chance in Bloomington, he remains fascinated by the recent history of the Midwest and its tension of rural vs. urban, traditional vs. modern, be here now vs. get there faster.

His latest book, 2009's An American Hometown: Terre Haute, Indiana 1927, attempts to recreate an era from the names and addresses of an actual city directory. And a new album, This Place in Time, examines a broader range of American culture, but with the same nostalgic perspective. Though the CD is not directly related to the Terre Haute book, its story-like songs were influenced by the research, Roznowski says.

To convey that vibe through music, however, he knew he would need the right people and the right circumstances. Unlike Roznowski's first two albums, which were recorded in hyper-efficient Nashville studios, This Place in Time is a homegrown project, recorded in Bloomington with stalwarts of the local roots and rock scenes.

"It's a real Indiana album," Roznowski says. "'Organic' is a word that gets overused, but I thought this album especially was important to do at home, and just the familiarity and the space that we had to work with supported the overall concept of the album."

Key to the record's sound is the core backing ensemble, a trio known on their own as the Living Daylights: Carolyn Dutton on violin and string arrangements, Johnna Maze on mandolin and Loretta Vinson on upright bass and backing vocals. They often perform live with Roznowski, so they already had put their mountain-music spin on this material before recording began.

"The songs demand a sort of folk-bluegrass hybrid," he says, "and I don't really come from that tradition myself."

But Roznowski wanted to reach a little farther, too. He enlisted local studio guru Paul Mahern as co-producer, and the two spent considerable time discussing the sound they were after. In describing it, Roznowski mentions the rollicking, circus-caravan approach of the Band, Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue and the lesser-known mid-'70s work of Faces founder Ronnie Lane.

"Paul has worked in so many different genres, in terms of his production," Roznowski says. "It really helps to have somebody – T-Bone Burnett would be another one – who has a real strong sensibility and a real strong grounding in various genres of music. If you're going to produce something that's 'Americana,' you really should be working in various different genres, because roots music, by its very nature, can include everything from zydeco to R&B to 1-4-5 rock 'n' roll."

The most apparent Mahern influence is the rock and soul punch he added by calling in some of his favorite hired guns: Vess Ruhtenberg on electric guitar, Devon Ashley on drums and Bill Mallers on keyboards, notably the Hammond B3 organ.

"Paul brought some really good musicians into the mix," Roznowski says. "It's important to have a producer who can amalgamate all that."

The subject matter of the songs is a cocktail of personal and collective history, both real and imagined, with an attitude that ranges from edgy to Norman Rockwell. In "Gravy Boat," the protagonist recalls breaking a piece of heirloom china at a family gathering. "Heaven of Pies" is a first-person account from a judge at a baking contest. Pop culture milestones are noted in tunes like "Private Presley," which recounts the surreal 1958 episode in which the world's biggest pop star was drafted.

And for listeners struggling to follow the references, the jacket even includes a short glossary of names and terms ("Eugene Debs was an American political activist ...").

In other business, Roznowski also is a partner in Porch Light Indiana, an outfit that organizes events showcasing Hoosier culture and food, with a particular eye toward music, books, beer and wine.

One such event is coming up Sunday, Sept. 12, in the tiny Brown County town of Story. Aside from performances by Roznowski and the Living Daylights, as well as singer-songwriter Jason Wilbur, attractions from noon to 5 p.m. will include food by local celebrity chefs and a selection of Indiana microbrews.

"It's just a good opportunity to showcase things from Indiana and put them in front of people," Roznowski says. "These events give people a chance to connect with their immediate surroundings and see the riches and resources that exist there. They're not always aware there's a microbrewery in their area."

Roznowski and the Daylights also will perform music from This Place in Time for a members-only event Sept. 8 at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, downtown on the Canal, and he will sing jazz and pop standards with pianist Monika Herzig and her combo Oct. 22 at the Chatterbox on Massachusetts Avenue.


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