Two proud Wisconsinites have joined forces to create an album celebrating all things Wisco.
Comedian Charlie Berens, of Manitowoc Minute fame, and musician Adam Greuel, with the bluegrass darlings Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, have released “Unthawed” on vinyl and CD. The album blends both of their strengths: Berens’ classic comedy and Greuel’s musical chops.
“I’d say that it’s country flavored with a little blues,” said Greuel describing the sound of the album.
“I don’t know if Adam will agree with this, but I like to think of it as a good old Midwest junk drawer,” said Berens. “You got a tennis ball in there. You got a Packers bumper sticker in there. You got a muddle in there for your Old Fashioneds. All this stuff — which seemingly may not make sense if a non-Midwesterner is looking at it. But if you pull it open, someone from the Midwest will look in there and go, ‘Yeah, I think that’s about everything. You could use a couple more nails and screws in there. But, you know, other than that, pretty solid.’”
So “Unthawed” is a little bit of everything. But overall, “Unthawed” is a love letter to Wisconsin and its people. Berens and Greuel laugh about the Wisco-isms they grew up with. They commiserate over the wintertime blues and celebrate Packers coaches and Craigslist Missed Connections. The album has its serious moments, too.
WPR’s Maureen McCollum recently talked with Berens and Greuel via Zoom to learn more about the album and their friendship.
(The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Maureen McCollum: How did you guys meet?
Charlie Berens: I was playing a show in Minneapolis and Adam was recording with Horseshoes at Pachyderm [Recording Studio]. We had been talking over some forums — social networking — and he said, “Hey, swing on by.” So I swung on by and that was the first time we met.
Adam Greuel: Yeah, Charlie swung in and we had a nice hang there. We talked like, “Ooo, maybe we should do some stuff in the future.”
Then by happenstance, we ended up in Nashville at the same time. We hung out and went to a couple of shows. And when we were drinking beers, we started to form a tune and we were like, “Well, let’s go to the recording studio in the morning.”
MM: What song was that?
AG: “Old Wisconsin Jubilee.” We were laughing about growing up in Wisconsin and all of the Wisco-isms that we all know. I called my friend and we went into the recording studio — just had a hoot. We talked about doing an entire album and now here we are.
MM: You both have this deep, shared love of Wisconsin. And you’re both very personable people, so it just seemed inevitable that you would have hit it off pretty quickly.
CB: Yeah, it is kind of like that. We both like to fish and mess around on the boat. You know, what really drew me to Adam was the way he launches a boat. When you can see a guy land a boat like that, you get a bottomless pit of respect for him. And that’s when I decided that we record this album.
AG: (Laughing) Honestly for me…especially in times that we’ve been going through — challenging times, really, as a country — there’s nothing better for the soul than comedic relief, you know? Charlie’s just the best at that. I love his juxtaposition of being socially aware and socially conscious, yet also picking out the irony in life. Also, being aware of parts of our culture here in Wisconsin that makes us all genuinely happy.
Charlie has helped so many people when they’re starting to feel blue. That’s what I love about the guy.
CB: Well, let me jump on there and say that as a comedian, that’s not always what you seek — an escape from all the things. I often go to music and, obviously, I’ve been a huge fan of Adam’s solo stuff and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades for a while. So this is the part where, you know, we’re both going to pat each other on the back and tell you that the other one’s better than the other.
AG: It turns out you can write a pretty darn good song, too. And he sings pretty dang well. He’s going to be ripping up guitar solos like Eddie Van Halen in no time.
CB: Adam’s helped me quite a bit with that. I knew how to play music kinda. But, Adam took some of that ‘kind of’ out. So now I can ‘sort of’ play music. It used to be ‘kinda’ level, now I’m ‘sorta.’ So that’s good.
MM: What led to the creation of the entire album?
CB: It was COVID, right? We all had too much time on our hands.
But before that, Adam came on tour with me for a few shows. He started with songs and then I would come on and we all do “Old Wisconsin Jubilee,” the one song we could do together. Then we started writing other songs in the green room.
We started writing “Naming Your Town” in Green Lake. I had just heard from one person, “You know, there aren’t even any rapids in Wisconsin Rapids.” I heard that during a Rapids show. I was like, “Well, that would be a funny line: Well there ain’t no rapids…” (laughing)
AG: Yeah, just having fun, getting goofy with some of the ironies and cultural components in Wisconsin. Charlie and I — thankfully — we have fun when we write.
There’s a tune called “Supper Club Shuffle.” It’s like a place I live near here in central Wisconsin. You’re just chillin’ upstairs, looking out over the Wisconsin River and laughing about some of the things you bump into at supper clubs: taxidermy and things like the Old Fashioned and the guy who brags about the buck on the wall. Our fondness for some of the Wisconsin culture definitely comes out in this record.
MM: When I first heard “Supper Club Shuffle,” I could visualize the older couples waiting for a table or dancing together after they have a bellyful of prime rib and three Old Fashioneds. I miss going to places like that. I just really want to go to a salad bar. That song evoked those memories when I was listening to it, which was really nice.
CB: That’s very cool to hear because I think that was our hope. Even just thinking, “OK, what are the things that people forget about Wisconsin?” When you talk about the Midwest, it’s often viewed as a flyover place. Why is that? Not enough people have pulled out the trees from the forest. We have those things that we can latch on to and say, “Oh, that’s something cool that’s unique to here.” Why not identify with it?
You know, the South has all those things. There’s sweet tea and pecan pie and a bunch of other crap that Zac Brown puts in his songs. Not crap, you know (laughing). But why can’t the Midwest embrace its culture in the same way the South has?
MM: I love you said that because I feel like when we hear songs like this, somebody will clump it in with this Midwestern/Wisconsin/UP shticky-type of music. But I like that you want to reclaim it and make it serious, like Zac Brown has.
CB: Yeah, because it’s the same vibe, you know? I mean, we’re all people. And I do it have a love for all those shticky kind of deals and the polka and all of that. I think there’s room for both.
AG: I’m with Charlie. We have some really fun parts of our culture up here. Why not celebrate it with music?
And, you know, there’s a Packers tune on there. “LeFleur,” the flower of the Frozen Tundra. It’s about Matt LaFleur, the Packers coach, who’s soooo awesome.
MM: I am a sucker for Wisconsin sports songs, so I was delighted to hear this.
AG: That has some of our polka-based vibes going on. But it’s kind of like a country music based record. We weren’t hyper focused on having a direction musically.
We did a lot of the recording remotely with friends of mine from around the country. Some of the guys from Leftover Salmon are on that record. And then, Wisconsin’s own Kenny Leiser from WheelHouse, who some folks know as being one of the most genuinely sweet people ever.
MM: And a phenomenal fiddle player and guitar player.
AG: Yeah. And then, the ever-wonderful Teresa Marie Hardy from People Brothers Band, who’s just like…ahhh her talent is mind blowing! We’ve got this song, “Uff Da,” which is about Craisglist Missed Connections, and she came into the studio. Me and Charlie were just like, “Ahhhh!” She hit it perfect.
It was a really fun collaboration. We successfully navigated COVID waters to do so. It feels good musically.
MM: “Unthawed” has a number of light-hearted and funny tunes, but it kicks off on a serious note with “Ope Nope.” Can you talk about writing that?
AG: I had driven down ole I-90 and had been in Wyoming backpacking around alone just to get away from people. Charlie and I had talked about really focusing on getting this album put together. He’s like “Well, when you’re up there, why don’t you see if you can think of a song?” I started hiking and that’s what came into mind.
I was starting to be homesick and missing things back in Wisconsin. One difficult thing about this pandemic has been just not having the fellowship. Not having that sense of community — at least physically — that we’ve grown accustomed to. But there’s still ways. There’s still phone calls. You can still get together outside by the fire or with a friend or two and get by. So that’s partially where that came from.
Then Charlie and I met up in Stevens Point and that’s where the rest of the song got written. Right, Charlie?
CB: Yeah. As we’ve been in this whole COVID time and the past few years, there’s been so much division. So much division in Wisconsin especially. You see it amplified from our politicians and some media. Listen, we have people intentionally splitting us up to tears us down. I mean, that is the playbook. It’s been the playbook historically for how you get people on your side and win things, like maybe elections. But it’s not the playbook for a happy society.
I think that COVID has done some good things. It’s made us all more connected to our core people in our lives. But, I think it’s done a bad thing because some of us have gone down these rabbit holes to either conspiracy theories or being on social media too much. When you’re not meeting your neighbor face-to-face, you’re meeting them over the computer, what happens is you just get this… I don’t know what it is. You’re more bombastic with how you’re saying things. You would never say this to your neighbor’s face, but you plaster it all over social media? Why is that the case? It’s kind of like united we stand, divided we go ass over tea kettle.
It’s just looking for a way to try and unite us again over the things we know we all love together and to reject the politicians who think that we need to be divided in order to find success as a country.
AG: Sure, life’s difficult right now. There’s a lot to divide us. But, hey, we can still come together over some things that we all celebrate, like being outside, hanging out by a fire. I think that’s what we need more than ever right now. Look for the commonalities in us all and focus on those. I’m trying to do that with some of my family members, for instance, that I don’t agree with entirely. I still say, “Well, how’s the fishing?”
MM: Anything else you want people to take away from this album?
AG: One of my favorite parts about music is its ability to bring people together and to pick you up when you’re feeling blue. When I was making this album, it made me smile to think that somebody is going to listen to this and they’re not going to be having a good day. They’re going to hear one of these tunes and their day is going to be turned around. Their next conversation with somebody is going to be lighter. Life will be a little bit easier and they’ll be able to go take a walk and smile at life, you know? That’s one of the coolest things about music. It’s in this record, I know it is.
CB: I do want people to really take away hope from it. We’re more alike than we are different. Always remember that. When somebody who has a vested interest in dividing us tries to do that, just remember that we don’t need to do that.
To hear the full conversation with Charlie Berens and Adam Greuel, check out the “Wisconsin Life” podcast feed on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. There, you can hear more song snippets from “Unthawed.” Find out where the name “Unthawed” comes from, learn the joys of Craigslist Missed Connections and discover who wanted to sound like Bob Dylan.