Jim Kirchstein founded Cuca Records in 1959 to capture the undocumented musical talent of rural Wisconsin. Originally a tiny recording studio in the corner of a record store, the independent label quickly expanded in response to the success of its early releases. Despite its remote location in the hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, the label’s growing popularity attracted a diverse group of artists and performers from Wisconsin, Michigan, and the Chicago area. The combination of the label’s remote location and the area’s cultural diversity created a unique catalogue that was often divergent from the current music trends. The country music that Kirchstein recorded is best described as “outsider country”—lo-fi, dreamy, and just a little too weird to make the charts. Driftless Dreamers tells the story of these artists and their takes on the term “country.”
Driftless Dreamers takes its name after the Driftless Area, a geological region of the American Midwest untouched by the last continental glacial movement. The majority of the Driftless Area lies in southwest Wisconsin, but extends into the corners of Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. The area’s lack of glacial drift is what preserved the land’s rugged terrain of forested ridges, inhabited caves, carved river valleys, and some of North America’s last true prairies. As a preserved area, the Driftless is home to many species of rare wildlife species, unknown to the rest of the country. The area’s black, fertile earth is also very suitable for farming. In the 19th century European immigrants poured into Wisconsin and began to farm. Small agrarian communities dotted the hills of the Wisconsin Driftless. Agriculture was, and still is, the lifeblood of these communities, as is music. The mainly German and Irish immigrants established community bands to carry on the musical traditions that they carried with them from their homelands. The domination of farming as the main industry in the Driftless area encouraged these musical styles to develop into the country music that Jim Kirchstein would record in the 1960s.
After a stint in the Navy, Jim Kirchstein returned home to the Driftless Area to pursue an electrical engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kirchstein lived on the eastern boundary of the Driftless in the sleepy town of Sauk City, close to his school in Madison. To support his new family, Kirchstein started selling records out of the basement of his brother’s hobby shop, located next to their family’s grocery store. Through his work at the record store Kirchstein soon recognized a need for a recording studio for the area’s local musicians. In 1959 Kirchstein founded the original Cuca recording studio in his basement record shop. Despite its remote location, the studio drew in a variety of artists from across the Midwest. The studio was also popular with local communities, whose mixed heritages produced a variety of folk and country genres. Jim Kirchstein intended for his recording studio to serve the local population’s need for both a creative outlet and historical documentation of their music traditions. As the label grew, Kirchstein created genre-specific sublabels, including Top Gun Country. The Driftless Dreamers series is a glimpse into this trove of recordings, focusing on the isolated interpretations of popular country music and the lonesome twang of outsiders.
Driftless Dreamers in Cuca Country Volume 1 is a survey of the range of Wisconsin’s country music. This volume starts with a regional hit and ends with an echoing ballad from an untrained voice. Along the way we visit some family band bluegrass, teenage Nashville sound, rockabilly, and improvised bar tunes.
More from the Cuca Archive
Badger A Go Go
15 of the Greatest Sounds
In Cuca Country Vol. 2
Mule Skinner Blues