The Rainmakers, a career review

The Rainmakers, Walkenhorst is the second from the right.

By John Ruberry

What is the greatest band that you’ve never heard of? The odds are, unless of course you have heard of them, that act is the Rainmakers.

I first encountered them in 1986, when “Downstream” from their self-titled debut album burst into my life one night on WXRT-FM in Chicago. “It blows a hole in the radio when it hasn’t sounded good all week,” as the Clash sang in “Hitsville UK.” And that remains my favorite track from the Kansas City-based band. Singing about his beloved home state, front man Bob Walkenhorst manages to place Mark Twain, Harry S. Truman, Chuck Berry, and the Mississippi River into a thrilling three minute narrative.

Well, we picked up Harry Truman floating down from Independence
We said “What about the war?”, he said “Good riddance”
We said “What about the Bomb, are you sorry that you did it?”
He said “Pass me that bottle, and mind your own business.”

In addition to being one of the best lyricists I know of, Walkenhorst is a gifted vocalist. Imagine the trumpet-like tenor of Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander and the lungs of Meat Loaf and you’ll probably know what I mean. While bands nearly always eschew labels, I’m going to give them one anyway–place them in the Americana genre.

Better yet, listen for yourself.

The Rainmakers aren’t rock, they’re not country, they are, American. Although–I’m not making this up–they are far more popular in Scandinavia than here. And Norway loves them the most. Here in America their most prominent fan is Stephen King.

Also on their debut is another distinctive, if not infamous track, “Government Cheese.” In the 1980s the federal government publicized its giveaway of free processed cheese to the elderly and poor. The feds still do it. Which led to Walkenhorst to write a song about the handouts.

Give a man a free house and he’ll bust out the windows
Put his family on food stamps, now he’s a big spender
no food on the table and the bills ain’t paid
‘Cause he spent it on cigarettes and P.G.A.
They’ll turn us all into beggars ’cause they’re easier to please
They’re feeding our people that government cheese.

When John J. Miller compiled his 50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs for National Review in 2006, “Government Cheese” was one of them.

The bridge of that song leads with “Decline and fall.” My frequent use of that phrase, particularly about Illinois on my own blog, is inspired by “Government Cheese.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Rainmakers were booed after performing “Government Cheese” at a record company event.

Walkenhorst, unlike most songwriters, possesses a strong sense of right and wrong–and responsibility. Not surprisingly, he looks like an Old Testament prophet.

See what he says on “Spend It On Love” from their third album.

You tell of man who took a hundred dollars
Spent it on lottery tickets and beer
Won a couple of million, left his wife and children
Lived himself to death in a couple of years
Should have spent it on love
Spend it on his children
Spend it on the ones who need it the most
Take your little bundle put her in a basket
Leave her on the doorstep of her future home.

After three albums the Rainmakers disbanded. But their Scandanavian popularity brought them back together in 1994. After another breakup they reformed again in 2011. The best track from the third life is “Missouri Girl,” which Walkenhorst pronounces “Missouri” as “misery.”

The current members of the Rainmakers, besides Walkenhorst, are Pat Tomek on drums, Rich Ruth on bass, and Jeff Porter on guitar.

All of the Rainmakers studio albums and their two live collections are on my iPod. You can also find their work on Amazon.com. They deserve to be as popular in the United States as they are in Norway. Perhaps one day they will be.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.