Switchback duo shares northeast Iowa’s impact on their musical career

Coming home ... Switchback’s Marty McCormack of Chicago, IL (left) and Brian FitzGerald of Lansing (right). The duo is bringing its blend of “Celtic Roots, Americana Soul” to northeast Iowa July 21 at TJ Hunters in Lansing for its first local show since 2019. Submitted photo.

The early years ... Brian FitzGerald (left) and Marty McCormack (right) of Switchback playing in Chicago, IL early in their careers. The band credits FitzGerald’s move to Lansing in the mid-1990s as being instrumental to their careers as musicians. Submitted photo.

Advance tickets for first local show since 2019, scheduled for July 21, available now

by Tanya O’Connor

Switchback’s Brian FitzGerald of Lansing says that the music he and Marty McCormack have spent 30 years creating wouldn’t be what it is today without the people of Allamakee County. So when the duo calls northeast Iowa “magical,” they’re not talking about pixies or fairy dust. They’re talking about you.

t’s the people of this “hard-working, no-nonsense, lack of pretension or ego” place, notes FitzGerald, that the band loves, and that has defined the winding (often gravel) road of their musical careers. Switchback is paying homage to its northeast Iowa home Friday, July 21 at T.J. Hunters in Lansing. This will be the band’s first local show since 2019. It’s called the “Switchback Family Reunion,” because, as they say, “our fans are family.”

Brian FitzGerald grew up in a club-owning (FitzGerald’s, Chicago) household of nine kids. (McCormack’s story is similar; he grew up one of eight singing siblings, also in the Chicago area). Both were city boys. And as young musicians, they weren’t having a particularly easy time of it.

“You’ve got to understand that before I moved out here,” says FitzGerald, “when Marty and I were both living in Chicago - we were in a completely different set of circumstances as live musicians. From competing for gigs, to dealing with club owners, to trying to find a parking spot - it was tough.”

Then, family members took a road trip. They went “up river.” They landed in Lansing, and then they stayed. FitzGerald and his family soon followed. “Maggie and I, with our one child at the time, came to Lansing and bought a house (which they still live in) from my (now late) brother, Jeff, in the early ‘90s,” FitzGerald recalls.

At the time, he adds, “people thought it would be the end of Switchback.” But that’s not what happened. That, he adds, “is when the magic began.”

Many in northeast Iowa remember the late Dar Klein, the former Dar’s Place, and all who worked there (especially Brenda A’Hearn and the late Paula Hitchcock), played music there, loved being there, and knew the particular sound of its beat-up, but beloved, screen door as it fell shut upon entry. Switchback found it in the mid 1990s, and it became a musical home for this fledgling duo.

Both FitzGerald and McCormack are great storytellers. Maybe they’re just…Irish. At any rate, they’re nostalgic, take themselves seriously-but-not-too-seriously and paint descriptive pictures of their early years in northeast Iowa.

“The first night we played at Dar’s, we walked to the bar across the street during a break. We opened the door. And a guy riding a mule rode on out. When we’d play those early gigs at Dar’s, there’d be a table full of Sweeneys,” recalls FitzGerald. “And then there’d be a table full of bikers. And then there’d be tables of everybody else. The Sweeney family would have this line of Irish whiskey at the ready, and they’d call out for ‘Danny Boy.’ Others called for tunes by The Band or the Rolling Stones. We also developed an audience for our developing original tunes at Dar’s.”

This fertile ground resulted in the release of “Dar’s Place: Everyone Welcome” (1998) that featured Dar’s own Brenda A’Hearn on the cover. In 2001 they released “Nancy Whiskey.” This one featured cover photography by the late Larsh Bristol. Dar’s Place denizen, the late Maxine Elsheimer, agreed to be photographed with FitzGerald and McCormack. The photo shoot solidified a lasting friendship,and FitzGerald treasures the numerous letters he received from Elsheimer over the years and memories of their frequent visits.

When Dar’s Place burned in 2001, the music-making continued when Brenda A’Hearn established Brenda’s Bar & Grill. A’Hearn was known to describe Switchback as simply being “way good.” The band was taken with A’Hearn’s way of describing things she loved as “way good,” so much so that they named their developing production company after her. Switchback’s Waygood Productions may be found online at www.waygoodmusic.com.

Two weeks ago, FitzGerald played a couple of solo gigs at area rest homes. He strolled up to them in a collapsible wagon he rigged up to carry his mandolin and guitars and off he went. Last week, FitzGerald and McCormack led the “Switchback Rocky Mountain Express Tour” out to Winter Park, CO.

The duo have a decades-long history of new music releases, while also playing  rest homes, regional schools, biker rallies, farmers’ organizations and senior citizen centers.

They conduct tours to Ireland, Costa Rica, Italy (where Pope Francis was lucky enough to get a cheek-kiss from McCormack’s then-small daughter Aine) and more. They also remain active in liturgical music with their masses featured (and accompanying sheet music for congregational choirs) at www.jubilationmusic.net.

Recently, they say, things are getting back to “normal” - a bit at a time. But like many during the pandemic, it hasn’t been easy. FitzGerald experienced a broken tibia, resulting in canceled shows just prior to the onset of COVID-19.

“It was doubly hard to then face having the next two years of shows canceled as well,” they recall. “Thankfully, our fans rallied to us during tough times, buying CDs and paying for online concerts. We realized that we really have a family more than ‘fans’.”

A large portion of this family, they note, resides in northeast Iowa. FitzGerald credits individuals, including local musicians, for the strength of these relationships.

“We’ve met amazing Iowa musicians like Joe and Vicki Price (Vicki, now a full-time working musician, was still working at the ‘button factory’ in those years) and other former Mother Blues Band members, Big Blue Sky and more,” FitzGerald shared. “We wrote the ‘Mayfly Dance’ after they hatched the night of a Lansing music festival. We became friends with Larsh Bristol, had fans like Charlie and CJ Huber in Decorah, the McCaffrey family and so many more.”

Howard and Donna Bright, founders of the legacies The Natural Gait and Ion Exchange, created the Haybarn Rendezvous. It was, as FitzGerald recalls, “our very own festival. You’d have to brave a trail halfway up the bluff to get there, and people did it, even with hip and knee replacements.”

“There’s nothing like the Driftless area,” adds McCormack. “Music’s a participatory event in our northeast Iowa home. Our fans are people from all walks of life - and a lot of them love to dance. As we’ve said, there’s no ego or pretension flying around, just the fans and us making music in this great corner of the world.”

Advance show tickets include a free collector’s t-shirt and swag drawing. These are available only to the first 200 ticket holders. Tickets may be secured at www.waygoodmusic.com; printed advance tickets are at Carquest Lansing Auto Parts and Riverland Expressions, Lansing; Village Farm & Home, Waukon; Oneota Community Co-op, Decorah. Multiple t-shirt sizes will be available at the event.

Tickets also are available at the door at a higher cost. The doors open at 7:30 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Percussionist Nick Hirka of Decorah joins the band for this event.

“Since we’ve been playing in the area so long,” notes McCormack, “we have sponsors we have known for just as long. They have helped us make the event possible.”

Event sponsors are Riverland Expressions, Carquest Lansing Auto Parts and D&J’s Expresso, Lansing; Elliott Jewelers, Nightingale Drug, Bieber’s Insurance & Real Estate and Clark Tire Pros, Waukon; LA Communications, Weis GMC, Inc. and Nick Wilz, Farm Bureau Financial Services, Decorah.