Who am I
Photo By: Macy Thiel
Returning to Rural Roots
Wisconsin rocker launches solo album of folksy blues and light country.
Growing up in a rural area north of Appleton, Wisconsin, Tom Thiel was never at a loss for tinkering with his hands and staying busy. While balancing chores and helping keep a nearby neighbor’s farm productive, music caught Tom’s heart. There was always something playing in the background in the Thiel house to homework or housework.
Thiel had music in his blood. His mother considered studying opera in college and his grandfather, Roman, had a passion for music and playing concertina. Tom’s parents wanted to continue the musical tradition in the family and paid for some piano lessons. After a year of dabbling in ivory, Thiel quit the lessons and began soul searching for how his love for music could translate into something useful.
Unable to afford his own instrument in a household where younger brother, Greg, seemed to get an early jump on music from his crib, Thiel made an instrument out of wood and different sized nails in fifth grade. The custom instrument turned heads in grade school as a project and tuned his confidence up a notch to learn to play guitar. While saving money to buy a used guitar as a teen, Thiel’s determination led him to learning how to play something musical before he even held a six-string in his hands.
“I took the plastic case from a watercolor paint set and wrapped six rubber bands around it to be my guitar strings while drawing a few fret lines on the prototype with a marker,” Thiel recalls. “I learned every chord in my younger brother’s guitar book and from that makeshift guitar neck. It was like I had to prove to my parents and myself all over again that I could be a musician.”
Thiel’s youthful ingenuity has translated into adult skills in computer programming as well as guitar playing. He works as a learning innovations specialist at Fox Valley Technical College, developing online learning objects for worldwide users designed for a variety of application platforms.
“Songwriting is like putting together a puzzle of sound and lyrics, and computer programming is also about problem solving or putting together a puzzle,” says Thiel. “They are very similar in the way you create something from nothing.”
After spending several years traveling the country playing clubs with his brother, Greg, who today is a full-time musician in Nashville, Thiel’s new career at FVTC grounded him in sharpening a musical direction. A current guitarist of 13 years with the award-winning band, Boxkar, Thiel’s new musical path inspired the release of his first solo album, Old Shadows.
“I often wrote songs early in the morning after late gigs with Boxkar and felt it was time to put them to use for the enjoyment of others,” reflects Thiel. “These songs are like my children. I wanted what’s best for these songs because I felt that they deserved to be heard and maybe other listeners may find inspiration or even an answer here or there in them.”
Old Shadows features nine songs blended in subtle country and blues influences, along with a selection of ballads. The album was recorded by Appleton’s Tony Anders and includes local musicians Andrew Mertens on bass and drummer Matt Geiseke. The sound contrasts Boxkar’s heavier rock roots. “Sometimes it’s cleansing to step outside of a routine and put our daily grinds into music or even on paper,” notes Thiel.
Thiel’s first single, “Where Your Heart Is,” has already received radio play in Wisconsin and Iowa, and his first supply of CDs sold out at a local retail store. The song’s crisp in-and-out guitar rhythms offer lighter and deeper tones, while the lyrics run love through a test of thought-provoking questions. “Broke Down” is a foot-stomping folky arrangement that portrays ‘what could have been’ with vocal echoes and guitar licks of outlaw country swagger.
Songs like “When You’re Gone” serve a blues and country mix while the ballads, “Stuck with Me” and “This Letter” put us on a train where scenes of regret and hope lead us to live and learn.
Thiel recently received an invitation to join his brother and 80's pop icon Tiffany for a live performance at the Iowa State Fair in late August. The once-in-a-lifetime experience included an eight-hour rehearsal in Nashville before the band departed by bus for Des Moines.
The performance with Tiffany joined other notable milestones for the 48-year-old musician. In 2005, he played with Boxkar at the Presidential inauguration, and a few years after
the band won a national award at a Hard Rock Café competition in Chicago. At FVTC, Thiel has played an instrumental role in helping the college’s Foundation raise money for scholarships by way of playing live performances at college-wide campaign events.
Old Shadows is available on ITunes, Amazon, Google Music or locally at the FVTC Bookstore and the Exclusive Company in Appleton for $10. For more information, visit www.tomthielmusic.com
* Chris Jossart 2017