John Wendland and Andy Ploof have never lacked for an outlet to share their music together. The men, both singers and guitarists, played together in One Fell Swoop in the mid-'90s before joining with bassist and singer Anne Tkach to form the core of Rough Shop. That the band has weathered the tragedy of Tkach's sudden passing in 2015 — a new album is said to be in the offing — is further proof of the pair's musical bond. In the interim, Wendland and Ploof stay busy with their acoustic duo the Wilhelms, whose sophomore album Contortionist Blues was released this month.
In the mezzanine of the Tick Tock Tavern, the musicians muse on the distinctions between their two active bands and what playing as a duo affords them.
"I think some songs lend themselves better to full-band arrangements," says Wendland. "We tend to do those with Rough Shop. But I love a lot of stripped-down, more intimate-sounding stuff, and to me that works really well with this."
"We were at a point with the band where it just seemed harder to get everyone together," says Ploof. "We wanted to play a fair amount still, so we thought, 'Well, it's gonna be a lot easier to get fewer people together and agree to practice and agree to certain dates to play shows.'"
Ploof continues, "It was fun to focus on the acoustic duo now, and since we're songwriters, it's fun to really focus on the songs."
Of those songs on Blues, many show the intricate craft of top-shelf folk music, with finely wrought lyrical detail and sturdy, unfussy acoustic guitar work. When asked to pick their favorite new song written by the other, both men demure slightly.
"Oh man, that's really making it rough," Wendland laughs. "But maybe 'Falling Down Drunk.' That song works so well with a full band, and it works so great stripped down, and it's just narrowed down to the basics and it just really gets across. I don't see a lot of other bands playing stuff like that."
The song rides on a gentle, loping waltz and finds Ploof putting his weathered, husky voice in the guise of a man stumbling through his steps from both too much alcohol and a conflicted conviction. In talking about "Falling Down Drunk," Ploof gives insight to his songwriting process. "I had the melody for a long, long time, and then the title just worked with the song," he says. "From there, the idea of somebody trying to screw up his courage to get something done came about. I have a hard time writing words; I often think, 'OK, do I have enough for a song? Good! I'm out. I'm not writing anymore.'"
For his selection, Ploof gives credit to Wendland's "$500 Funeral," a funny and surreal story-song about sending a loved one to his final reward — on a budget. Ploof calls it a "really good, detailed story laid out in a song form," and Wendland cops that his inspiration came squarely from the Gram Parsons song "$1000 Wedding."
"If he can write a song about a thousand-dollar wedding, I can write a song about a $500 funeral," says Wendland. "That's how I started writing it, simple as that."
Wendland's song is played mostly for laughs, but the track underscores a sense of loss that permeates many of these songs. The album closes with "Meet Me on the Southside," a tribute to the late Bob Reuter, a revered DJ, songwriter and photographer. Granite City native Michael Friedman wrote the lyrics and Wendland provided the music.
"Our relationship with Bob Reuter goes back a long way," Wendland says. "When I first moved here we'd start going to guitar circles hosted by [KDHX DJ and RFT contributor] Roy Kasten. That's where I met a lot of songwriters, including Bob Reuter and Michael Friedman.
"He was a rather prickly character, but I always got along with him really well," Wendland says of Reuter.
The album's most striking song is also Wendland's most personal. "Best Spent Time" is a tribute to his late wife Marie Arsenault, and Wendland wrote it in the month between her passing in August 2016 and her memorial service a month later.
Through the grief, Wendland recalls that the music, a binding force in their relationship, provided some solace.
"It just so happened that Andy and I were supposed to be playing the night before the memorial," he says. "We just decided to do it because she was such a music fan and used to book bands for a living.
"I wrote it pretty quickly," Wendland says. "I had the melody, part of it, already, but once I had a melody in mind it just poured out. It's a hard song to do because you want to do justice to the song, but you're trying not to think too much about what you're singing. You gotta try to disassociate yourself slightly to get through the damn song.
"I wouldn't change a thing about that song, from a lyrics standpoint," Wendland concludes. "Not a thing."