The deep rewards of Numero group’s “Driftless Dreamers In Cuca Country.”
Image: Components from Numero Group’s “Driftless Dreamers In Cuca Country” release are displayed, including two LPs on blue vinyl, a map of Wisconsin, and a pamphlet titled “Wisconsin Gazetteer.” Photos courtesy of Numero Group.
Culled from the archives of Jim Kirchstein’s Sauk City-based Cuca Records, the recently released 2-LP compilation Driftless Dreamers In Cuca Country offers up a cross-section of western Wisconsin’s unheralded contributions to country music. This set, which rounds up the best of two previous digital releases, represents one country-centric chapter in Numero Group’s ongoing efforts to preserve the music Cuca put out between 1959 and 1974.
The restless trajectory of Numero is almost as fascinating as the defunct labels, groups, and albums that the Chicago-based boutique outfit has unearthed, carefully restored, and lovingly collected. Numero got its start back in 2003 with a fairly solid focus on forgotten flyover-country R&B labels, but over time it has expanded considerably, rounding up collections of power pop, proto-disco, outsider folk music, ’90s shoegaze nostalgia, and even [checks notes] White Zombie. For all its range and whimsy, the Numero catalog has miraculously never let me down, so it’s no surprise that Driftless Dreamers is one of the most pleasant musical experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Driftless Dreamers isn’t Numero’s first country rodeo. After Numero spent a decade or so dabbling around the fringes of twangy Americana, Cosmic American Music, the 2016 entry in its “Wayfaring Strangers” series, branded a slew of cowpokes and dixie-fried warblers with the distinct Numero imprimatur. While that release was much more country music decked out in a spangled Nudie Suit (think Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, not what Gram Parsons dubbed the “plastic dry fuck” of the Eagles or Poco) and sampled from coast to coast. This new collection focuses a bullseye on the gently rolling hills, one-stoplight towns, and scattered silos of our very own backyard.
Like any good survey of a hyper-specific time and place, Driftless Dreamers offers up a group of tracks that represent a wide variety of styles, to say nothing of personalities. But, song to song and side to side, the collection somehow manages to remain spiritually cohesive, perhaps partly because Numero has been laying track for this since all the way back in 2018 with the inclusion of a “Cuca Records primer” in the first issue of their Periodical Numerical zine series.
There’s certainly some of that aforementioned Gram Parsons country-glam pixie-dust sprinkled on more than a few tracks found here (Dave Davis’ “Kentucky Sunshine,” Artie Minz, Ellie Shepherd & The Countrymen’s “Just Another Name”), but there’s also some bouncy Beatle-esque harmonies, however bare-bones they may be (The Lavenders’ “Wanderer,” Duane & The Drifters’ “Tell Me”), lush and fragile folk that wouldn’t feel out of place on a collection of Velvet Underground demos (Menominee’s Patti Whipp with “It’s Gone” and “Walkin'”), a loping full-chested one-note yodel (Gary Chamberlain And The Country Cats covering “Muleskinner Blues”) that ends with a muted staccato CHA CHA CHA, the almost stylistically unclassifiable (Madison’s Johnny Madrid with “Hello Houston (Goodbye Ol’ L.A.)”), and so much more.
The wonderful details crammed into every nook, cranny, and groove of this thing also help the disparate tracklist hang together thematically. The end of each side of vinyl is marked by the sampling of bird songs, recorded in the northwoods of Wisconsin by John D. Curnow in the late 1960s (themselves reissued digitally by Numero a couple years back). Curnow, who died in 2018, had his own connections to the Driftless area—he was born in Prairie du Sac and spent part of his career teaching high-school biology in Richland Center.
And speaking of the vinyl, my copy was pressed up in chilly blue to honor the layers of ice that surrounded, but never covered (and thus never contributed glacial deposits, called “drift,” to…), the Driftless Area. (The set is also available on plain black vinyl for a few bucks less, but in this case the colored vinyl is tough to resist.) The liner notes come in the form of a “Wisconsin Gazetteer” which, when unfolded to full size, reveals a map of the state color-coded to identify those un-glaciated regions, as well as markers pointing out where each artist hails from.
I’ve always been a physical media nerd, deriving actual pleasure from well-thought out packaging that pointedly adds dimensionality and substance to the music I’m listening to. From the crushed penny included in the LP sleeve of Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s debut, F♯ A♯ ∞, to the industrial tactility of Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music, tweaks both meaningful and novel accentuate the music contained between the covers, create the sort of overall experience that’s far greater than the sum of its component parts. Driftless Dreamers brings the same level of care and craftsmanship to an important and heretofore hard-to-find chapter in Wisconsin’s musical history.
There’s more where this came from.
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