The Junkersí creation story begins in a Chicago bowling alley in 1995. Matthew Stratton was visiting the University of Chicago as a prospective graduate student, staying for the weekend with an old college friend who introduced him to Kenneth Burns. Like Stratton, Burns enjoyed playing guitar. Saturday night came and they met up with other UC grad students at the bowling alley, but Stratton wouldnít bowl. Burns asked him why.
"My mother died in a horrible bowling accident," said Stratton.
"He was completely deadpan about it," recalls Burns. "And not knowing him the way I do now, I believed him."
The next afternoon Stratton and Burns shared some living-room guitar licks. Hours later Stratton flew back to San Francisco. Neither had any reason to believe theyíd ever see each other again.
And they didnít, until the summer of 1999, when their mutual friend got married in Chicago. At the wedding, Stratton told Burns he was in Madison now, studying irony in 20th-century American fiction as an English doctoral student. Burns said he was moving to Madison the next month to study the root causes of genocide in the political science doctoral program. "My office is at the bottom of Bascom Hill in White Hall," said Stratton. Call me when you get into town." Then Stratton made a reference to his mother, leaving Burns aghast.
"I held a grudge against him for making me believe this for so long," says Burns.
"I donít even remember making that remark," says the strapping, 6í6" Stratton. "It never occurred to me he would believe it."
In that divine moment of the Junkersí genesis, every element of their essential character revealed itself. The setting was academic. The plot involved a group of young adults playing games late into the night. The theme tapped into the fine line between tragedy and smart-ass comedy. And as the leading characters, Stratton and Burns provided the man vs. man conflict, two Capricorns compulsively drawn to and unsettled by each other.
Six years removed from the bowling alley, on another Saturday night, they wore bolo ties and cowboy hats in front of a capacity crowd at Madisonís King Club. The occasion was the Junkersí Hunker Down CD-release party. The alt-country honky-tonkers formed almost immediately after Burns moved here, rounding out their lineup with two other English doctoral students, Thomas Crofts on drums and Dave Junker on bass.
"We sold 150 CDs at the release party, and there was a line of 75 people along King Street waiting to get into the show," says Burns.
"Our success really snuck up on us," says Stratton. "Only a few months earlier our calls werenít being returned. After the CD release, clubs started calling us to ask if we would play there."
What was it about four UW brainiacs living out the last years of extended adolescence that allowed them to conquer the local music scene, almost unintentionally? And now that they have, can they confront the nagging adult decision of what to do next?
If the Junkers rose to the short list of Madison bar-band favorites virtually overnight, maybe itís because they quietly germinated as an idea in search of a band for three years.
Stratton met Crofts in August 1996 at the English departmentís orientation for new grad students. A native of San Antonio, Crofts moved to Madison via New York, where heíd worked as a Manhattan book editor for six years. Stratton grew up in Salem, Oregon, and moved to Madison via San Francisco, where he "worked a series of grunt jobs after college, much to the extreme chagrin of my family."
"Thomas and I had both been in bands before, so we would smoke together outside of White Hall and dream up fantasy bands," recalls Stratton. Crofts says his musical heritage is Zeppelin and Sabbath. Then he went punk in college. Stratton says he strummed to Neil Young and Woody Guthrie ad infinitum (the Junkers are Latin junkies) when he still lived west of the Sierras.
Dave Junker, the Minnesota native who would become the bandís namesake, was also on campus in 1996 taking graduate coursework in African American studies. But not until fall 1998 did Junker enroll in the English Ph.D. program to study African American literature. Before long, he and Stratton were sharing an office.
"Our ideas for bands never really went anywhere, because we didnít have anyone who could sing until Ken got here," says Stratton. Once he did, the longstanding English department house-band-in-the-making had a frontman. And, unexpectedly, he was a son of Nashville who wrote classic country.
Kenneth Burns grew up on the snooty side of Music City. His dad was a surgeon who didnít want his son attending public schools.
"I went to an ultra-conservative K-12 Christian school with some of the children of Nashville country stars," says Burns. "Barbara Mandrellís kids went there, Grandpa Jonesí granddaughter and the son of one of the Oak Ridge Boys. But I think my dad realized I was starting to rebel against how repressive it was and switched me to a more free-form Jewish high school."
It was there that Burns studied the Holocaust and became interested in the topic of genocide. "I also had this romantic notion about the academic lifestyle," says Burns. "Thatís what first led me to enroll in the international relations program at the University of Chicago and then switch to the doctoral program here."
Despite the bowling grudge, Burns didnít hesitate to call Stratton his first week in Madison.
"I felt artistically very connected to Matthew, and we started doing living-room jams together right from the time I arrived," says Burns. "He booked us a gig at the New Wine Co-op on Gorham Street that fall before we had really formed the band. We got Thomas and Dave to play with us. But we played that night without having a name."
For the next 10 months, Kenneth, Matthew, Thomas and Dave played together as the Benders (a name they later relinquished to a Canadian indie band). It was a time of haphazardly assembling equipment, shows and playlists however they could, wherever they could.
"I started writing songs in earnest so that we had more than covers to play," recalls Burns. "We sent out demos to places in and out of town and got a call from the owner of a redneck bar in Sheboygan named Ma Bellís. She said she liked our demo and wanted to book us because we reminded her of Conway Twitty. Then she asked us if we knew enough songs to play for four hours. That obviously forced us to learn a lot of material fast. They didnít have a P.A., so Thomas went to UW SWAP Shop and found a pair of six-foot-tall, very skinny speakers that were marked down to $20."
"They sounded just awful and were highly unstable," adds Junker. "Near the end of the show someone in the crowd finally bumped into one of them. I could see this giant shadow crossing over us on the stage, and it seemed to fall slow-motion over Kenís shoulder and smashed into Matthewís guitar."
"We abandoned them after the show, and the owner kept leaving us messages the next week asking if we wanted our P.A. system back," says Burns.
The Benders accidentally landed their first Madison club show on a Monday night in 1999 at OíCayz Corral, pinch-hitting for an hour for the late-arriving Kissers.
"We got a positive response from the crowd, and OíCayzís Cathy [Dethmers] liked us, so she booked us for more shows," says Burns.
The Junkersí make classic country accessible to Madison bar crowds by inflecting it with the punk sensibilities of the Northern liberal mind. On "The Susan B. Anthony Rag," the Junkers declare: "She was the best thing to happen to legal tender/But I guess we were all just too blind to spend her/Now I wonder if sheíd have fared better if sheíd been a man."
From the start, the Junkers were Madison club-scene naturals. With a portable grad-student following already in their pocket, they unwittingly plugged into several currents of local pop: a strong appetite for quality roots music, a preference for big-beat bands not put off by audiences that talk and drink, a penchant for smart humor and a drive to join in song with other adults committed to resisting responsibility and aging.
Who better to represent that ethic than four thirtysomething Ph.D. candidates dividing their time between languishing dissertations and encores at closing time? They are poets of honky-tonk, brains who binge, the greatest minds of a generation who ordain themselves (like Crofts and Stratton) as high priests of a nonexistent online church just for the hell of it.
And what better music to represent that generation than a bittersweet twang bringing together the tragedy of what is with the comedy of how people respond to it?
By the winter of 2000-01, the Junkers had embraced the ultimate country-music oxymoron. They were fronted by a singing cowboy who identifies as gay. Burns went to the Rainbow Room to celebrate over drinks with Stratton and Strattonís fiancťe on the night he came out. Seated at the bar, they talked to the Rainbow owner, who asked them what kind of music they played.
"For whatever reason, without missing a beat, I said Ďgay country,í" recalls Burns. "So we got booked there for several months on a regular basis. The Rainbow Room turned out to be a real lifeline for us that year, because after OíCayz burned we didnít have a place we could automatically turn to and get a show."
Then the Junkers got another break. Stratton had been working at the Living Room restaurant on University Avenue when its owners bought the old Mass Appeal hip-hop club on King Street and turned it into the King Club. By fall 2001, the space had become the bandís home venue.
The euphoria of the Hunker Down CD-release party gave way in three days to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And Burns decided not to return to his doctoral studies that fall. "My romantic ideas about being a professor couldnít dispel the fact any longer that I just didnít like or want to do the work," he says.
A few weeks earlier, Burns had quit drinking. "I was getting heckled at shows for being drunk and, in some cases, was barely able to finish out our last set. I decided that if this was something I really wanted to do for a living, I needed to take it seriously."
In their third year playing together, the Junkersí honeymoon was over. Crofts now referred to Stratton and Burns as "the old married couple." "Their hostility builds up without being expressed," says Crofts. "Itís a big pain in the ass for me and Dave. Theyíre clearly in love with each other."
Continuing their co-dependence, Stratton and Burns currently play as the duo #1 Dad every Sunday night at the Crystal Corner Bar.
Despite their tenacity in clinging to the college-kid lifestyle, adulthood keeps encroaching on the Junkers. Crofts and his wife gave birth to their second son last year. Stratton was married this summer in the only ceremony ever performed by "Father" Crofts (with a real justice of the peace at his side).
And, in the first adult ambition to genuinely pierce the Junkersí playground bunker, Dave Junker adopted a daughter and relinquished his full-time role with the band last month. Heíll be replaced by Ed Larson, a technician and former owner of Oregonís guitar repair shop, EdTronics. "I just shut up when they all start talking about their Ph.D.s," says Larson.
For Crofts and Stratton, there are still days in the fall of 2002 that donít feel much different from the fall of 1996. They still see each other in Helen C. White, still talk about fantasy bands. But they donít deny thereís a new urgency to their lives. The band has a new album, and thereís a producer in New York shopping it to labels.
"In a year, I want to know whatís going to happen," says Crofts. "I either need a bird in the hand with the Junkers or will need to get myself out onto the academic market."
Thatís a new kind of crossroad for the Junkers. After all, their showstopper comes off as a personal motto, busting away at the seriousness of growing up:
Weíre adults, so letís commit adultery
Then you can cry yourself to sleep on my pillow
There may be a price to pay, but weíre paying anyway
So letís get started ícause weíre only getting older.
Like the rest of us, the Junkers will get old. Unless they die first in a horrible guitar accident.