Penelope's Thrill and Twilight on Tunnel Road
Little did Timothy Walsh know when he took a job consulting in Kazakhstan that the experience would make him decide to retire and pursue his deferred dream of writing songs and playing in a rock band. This was an unlikely change of direction for Walsh, an award-winning poet, writer, and literary critic with a leadership role at a major university.
In Kazakhstan, befriended by a group of Kazakh musicians, Walsh eventually collaborated with Kazakh composer and recording artist Akmaral Zykayeva ("Mergen") on her most recent album, Tales of Mergen. The experience made him resolve to write and record his own album. So, at the age of sixty, Walsh retired from the university in favor of his guitar and founded Penelope's Thrill (yes, the name of the band is a literary allusion). Within six months, he found himself playing on stage at Summerfest in Milwaukee, the world's largest music festival, during a year of whirlwind gigs playing with another band from Madison (Tent Show Troubadours). The highlight of the tour was a gig at Lambeau Field for a Green Bay Packers preseason game with thousands of beer guzzling fans cheering the band on.
Recorded over the past lockdown year, the debut Penelope's Thrill album, Twilight on Tunnel Road, effortlessly fuses all of Walsh's passions--poetry, songwriting, storytelling, and guitar playing--into a seamless, groundbreaking concept album. Rich with layered guitars and echoes of rockabilly, surf guitar, and '60s-era twelve-string chime, the album tells the story of Lonnie and Chloe, who grow up on nearby farms on the edge of the Driftless Region in southern Wisconsin. They teach themselves how to play guitars, form a band, and...well, you need to listen to the songs, which travel back and forth in time, from their idyllic childhood to their rambunctious teen years, up to their difficulties finding their place in the world.
Produced and mixed by Walsh in his home studio, Yew Tree Studios, the album includes contributions from other area musicians, including Ben Lokuta (drums), Wendy Lynn Staats (violin), and Ben Jaeger (tuba). Staats and Jaeger are better known as members of Sunspot--Staats as drummer and violinist, Jaeger as guitarist, and Lokuta is the long-time drummer for Distant Cuzins (now The Cuz). Other contributing artists include Amanda Kim Sanderson (vocals) of Newcastle, England, and Akmaral Zykayeva (violin) of Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Several of the songs on the album and the three instrumental interludes include field recordings of birds, frogs, cicadas, and other natural sounds, all recorded by Walsh along the Tunnel Road--Marshall Bluff--Sugar River corridor in southern Wisconsin. All the photographs on this website were also taken by Walsh in this same area.
Back in Kazakhstan, Zykayeva, who is also a professional recording engineer, gave key assistance during the year-long project, listening to early mixes of the songs and giving expert advice. Zykayeva also composed a six-part violin arrangement for "Let Me Go," recording all the violin parts herself.
Prior to his return to music, Walsh was better known as an award-winning poet and writer. His awards include the Grand Prize in the Atlanta Review International Poetry Competition, the Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review, the Wisconsin Academy Fiction Prize, and the New Jersey Poets Prize. He is also the author of a book of literary criticism, The Dark Matter of Words: Absence, Unknowing, and Emptiness in Literature (Southern Illinois University Press) and several poetry collections, most recently The Book of Arabella and When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive.
Though Walsh has lived in Wisconsin for over thirty years, it was growing up in New Jersey that he first came under the spell of the guitar, playing in a succession of neighborhood garage bands. These days are vividly recalled in his poetry collection, When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive: New Jersey Poems, which includes poems like "Garage Band, 1974," which ends:
So every night we played, swimming in the delicious
distortion-feedback of delirious guitars,
the glowing embers of the amps, those pounding drums--
while outside, the rooftop sweetgums danced and swayed,
our neighbors scowled, our parents prayed.