It’s been a good year for Cody Diekhoff — the solo artist from central Illinois whose performs under the name Chicago Farmer. He’s performing at the Great River Folk Festival in the afternoon on Saturday, Aug. 26, and again on the main stage during the evening concert.
Diekhoff (pronounced dee-cough) has been called “the working man’s singer/songwriter.” He’s been playing at festivals all summer long while touring in support of his seventh album, “Midwest Side Stories.” It’s an album that has garnered critical acclaim for its “Dylanesque” songwriting and empathetic take on life in rural and small-town America.
Meanwhile, folk hero Todd Snider has become a huge fan. “I love Chicago Farmer’s singing and playing and songs,” Snider has said, “but it’s the intention behind the whole of his work that moves me to consider him the genuine heir to Arlo Guthrie or Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. … Chicago Farmer is my brother; if you like me, you’ll love him.”
Diekhoff is grateful for Snider’s support. “Todd has been really kind to me over the years,” he said.
Because of the warmth and humor in Diekhoff’s manner, plus his willingness to tackle social and political issues, references to Arlo Guthrie come up often. In “Umbrella” the opening song on “Midwest Side Stories,” Diekhoff sings about the songwriter’s mission and the power of music:
“I arrived here, kicking and screaming the day that I took the stage, I went searching for some kind of meaning, like words looking for a page. Came up empty and full of worry that nothing could cover the pain, then these songs and stories began unfolding like an umbrella in the rain.”
Chicago Farmer lyrics are deceptively simple, but they can tell heart-wrenching stories. In “Rocco & Susie” Diekhoff sings about the seemingly normal couple next door with kids who are “somewhat well behaved.” They succumb to despair after Rocco loses his factory job during an economic downturn, eventually turning to meth and ultimately losing their children and their marriage.
Another song on “Midwest Side Stories,” “Revolving Door,” is a kind of protest song about how working people are cast aside by the powers that be whenever they’re no longer useful.
“I grew up in a town of 1,700 people and there are things that go on every day there that you can’t not see,” Diekhoff said. “I guess I’m the only one singing about the things going on in central Illinois. I poke fun of where I come from, but there are a lot of great, hardworking people there — I’m proud of where I’m from.”
For those curious about the name, Chicago Farmer was briefly the name of the band that Diekhoff formed when he moved to Chicago. After being inspired by Steve Goodman and John Prine, Diekhoff broke up the band and went solo but kept the name.
Although he’s been playing solo for 10 years now and has traveled all over the country, he’s very familiar — and fond of — La Crosse.
“It seems like I play in Wisconsin more than almost anywhere besides Illinois,” he said. “I’ve played at the Charmant, The Root Note and the Popcorn and also at the Mid West Music Festival this spring. I’m sure when I’m in town next week at some point I’ll end up at the Root Note for crepes and a coffee.”
Diekhoff likes playing in smaller events like the Great River Folk Fest. “The great thing about smaller festivals is that everyone feels like a part of it,” he said. “There’s more of a connection between the audience and the performers.”
He added that he’s also looking forward to seeing the other performers — especially The Last Revel. “I caught them at a festival I was in earlier this year and really liked them,” Diekhoff said. “La Crosse will be rockin’ that night!”