King of the Tramps includes members (from left) bassist Ryan McAlister, keyboardist Adam Audlehelm, lead singer and guitarist Todd Partridge and drummer Ryan Audlehelm. (Photo by Roger Feldhans)
King of the Tramps includes members (from left) bassist Ryan McAlister, keyboardist Adam Audlehelm, lead singer and guitarist Todd Partridge and drummer Ryan Audlehelm. (Photo by Roger Feldhans)

December 29, 2017

AMES

A King of the Tramps sticker is affixed to a green-room refrigerator at DG’s Tap House.

Members of the Carroll-area band the sticker represents sip on Rolling Rock beer and chat with other musicians as, in the midst of a week packed with shows, they prepare for one in Ames that has special meaning.

Those same stickers, easily recognizable with a white “KOTT” on a black oval background, now can be found throughout Hamburg, Germany, as well.

The Carroll-area roots rock band — they call their music “whiskey gospel” — has been playing music throughout Iowa and beyond for seven years. The band, whose members include Todd Partridge on vocals and lead guitar, Adam Audlehelm on keys, Ryan Audlehelm on drums and Ryan McAlister on bass, has played throughout Iowa and in more than 10 states, including Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado and North Dakota. The band also added venues in Germany to its list of shows in the past several years.

King of the Tramps’ members have played on stages large and small, but this small show in Ames early in December is one of those that remind them why they do it.

The show, featuring about a half-dozen bands, was a toy drive and fundraiser to benefit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, located in what has been named the poorest county in the United States.

Toy Drive for Pine Ridge is a nonprofit organization headed up by Omaha musician Larry Dunn, also known as Lash LaRue, who works with other musicians to put on shows to raise money for the reservation.

His first trip delivered piles of toys and about $500 in donations. While he was there, according to the organization’s website, Dunn heard a young boy say, “See, Mom, I told you Santa wouldn’t forget.”

The endeavor has grown since then, incorporating more musicians and shows, more donations and toys.

Money gathered at the drives pays for propane to help heat the homes of the people on the reservation.

Some years, Dunn goes to the reservation only to find that someone he’d met in years prior had frozen to death that year.

“He has stories that’ll rip your heart out,” Partridge said. “Some kids, it’s the only toy they get all year. They get one freakin’ toy.”

One time, Dunn delivered toys and ran out with one kid left. He somehow tracked down a soccer ball for that last little boy, who latched onto his leg and wouldn’t let go.

As part of the fundraiser, bands play for free. King of the Tramps has played the show for several years.

The venue is special, too. Ryan and Adam Audlehelm, brothers who live in Carroll, were born in Ames. They’ve been to a lot of shows at DG’s Tap House throughout the years.

“I saw some of my favorite bands here, and then I was finally on that stage,” Ryan Audlehelm said.

They also love performing at Byron’s in Pomeroy, where they’ll be this New Year’s Eve. The show starts at 9 p.m., and tickets cost $10 and can be purchased through the band’s website, www.kingofthetramps.com.

King of the Tramps also will play at the Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival at 7 p.m. Jan. 20 in Cherokee.

During that week early in December, the members of King of the Tramps, all of whom live in the Carroll area, traveled to a show in Omaha and two in Des Moines in addition to the Ames show, returning to their homes and day jobs after each one.

“This is about as busy as it gets,” Partridge said.

He estimated the band put on between 60 and 70 shows this year. It’s common for them to have a show or two each weekend, but four in a week was extreme.

“The excitement of this keeps you going,” Adam Audlehelm said. “It keeps you awake.”

When they’re not onstage, the band’s members fill different roles during the day. Partridge works as vice president of the MoveIt companies in Breda. Ryan Audlehelm works as a general contractor and McAlister as an electrical contractor. Adam Audlehelm has worked as a cook for years and is between jobs after Mac’s Corner Cafe in Carroll recently closed.

For seven years, they’ve developed the delicate balance of juggling jobs and life with the band — which, between rehearsing, traveling, putting on shows and recording, has caused King of the Tramps to become much more than a hobby for its members.

“A hobby is something you do to forget about your work,” Partridge said. “This is our life work. It’s not a hobby.”

It’s a way of life that has sent them overseas.

A series of coincidences and connections resulted in King of the Tramps being invited to fill in on a tour in Germany in October of 2015. They did a lot of smaller, acoustic shows at coffee shops and breweries; Ryan Audlehelm recalled occasionally busted out a suitcase drum set for the smaller shows.

Then they got invited back — and signed to Songs and Whispers’ label, Budde Music, in Germany.

The band’s second trip was in August and September of this year and included performances at larger venues. During the second Germany tour, King of the Tramps played 21 shows in 21 days, sometimes as many as three a day.

McAlister was unable to go along on the second Germany trip, and Partridge’s son, Reilly Partridge, who plays in Minneapolis-based band The Further Adjustments, filled in on bass.

King of the Tramps already has shows booked in Germany for next summer and hopes to expand the next tour to other European countries as well.

“While we’re over there, we’re living our dream,” Ryan Audlehelm said. “We’re just playing.”

Backstage in Ames, the band members discuss some final adjustments to their set list.

“We should play some loose-y jam things,” Partridge said, adding to Ryan Audlehelm, “You always play perfect no matter what we do.”

As music from another band playing the show filters back into the green room, Ryan Audlehelm stomps his feet on the green room floor, tapping out the beat.

King of the Tramps is the headliner at this show — not always a glamorous booking, particularly when it means playing late when many audience members have trickled out.

But the size of the crowd doesn’t determine how well the night goes.

“We never have a bad show,” Adam Audlehelm said.

They cheer on the earlier bands, joining the mini mosh pit throughout the evening.

“Where are my dancers?” Partridge asks later, when King of the Tramps takes the stage. “I love when I know everyone in the bar by their first name so I can call people out.”

Soon, a group has gathered in front of the stage to dance.

“Iowa — where the corn’s so tall it’s like a corn canyon, and you open your beer, put your arm around your best girl, and put your other arm around your other best girl,” Partridge says as the band launched into its first song.

Someone flops to the ground to do the worm.

Boogying transitions into slow dancing for a slower song, and the band winds down the show with the song “Old Crow.”

“‘Love the world’ is the chorus, and we want everyone singing it,” Partridge says.

THE MAKING OF AN ALBUM

As they set up for a rehearsal at the band’s studio in Auburn — a repurposed woodshop in the old school Partridge bought 15 years ago and turned into a home for his family and a studio for the band — King of the Tramps’ members trip over each others’ words as they discuss the photos they saw of the most recent toy delivery to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

After the Ames show, they performed at a second show in Omaha that also raised funds and gathered toys for the drive. One donor brought a truck piled with kids’ bikes.

They’re at the studio this night to continue pre-production work for their upcoming album, their fifth — working out lyrics and timing as they move closer to the time to record.

“We’re trying out new songs, seeing what makes the cut, changing stuff up and seeing what sticks,” Partridge said. “And it seems when it sticks, we all know it.

“We’re not recording yet, but I think we’re getting close. We’re getting damn close.”

On one wall, next to a hodgepodge of colorful hats, a sign hangs: “God bless our pad.” Another sign hanging above the drum set reads, “Our house wine is Jägermeister.”

Guitars hang throughout the studio, and snare drums stacked against a wall serve as a pedestal for a pink tambourine. A single 15-pound dumbbell rests atop an amp. A sticker on a keyboard case reads, “Make art not war.”

A family-sized bag of cough drops is close at hand next to Partridge’s mic stand, which is covered with colorful artificial flowers, and an electric kettle keeps water hot for tea.

They prepare to run through one of the new songs, “Worry” — Partridge notes that he added a new line about a ladybug.

“I think the lyrics on this are good,” he said. “They’re solid — finally.”

After their first run-through, a few seconds of silence.

“I think we can do better,” Partridge said. “I know I can. A little rusty-dusty.”

Missteps are common at this stage of creating a new album.

“We try little things — you never know what will stick,” Partridge said.

“Even accidents,” Adam Audlehelm added.

“Accidents are the best,” Partridge agreed.

“Well,” Ryan Audlehelm amended, “musical accidents.”

Some songs are less developed.

“Are we ending the song there?” Ryan Audlehelm asks after one run-through.

“No, there’s another verse,” Partridge said. “Kick-ass verse, too.”

Conversations between takes touch on Dave Chappelle, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson and Gandalf from “Lord of the Rings.”

They discuss other bands — not just their members, top hits and scandals, but the way they used musical instruments.

Then they swing over to their next new song.

“There were some glorious moments in there — I think,” Partridge said.

“We got through it,” Ryan Audlehelm qualified.

Partridge switches to a mandola, a smaller, eight-stringed instrument he admits is less familiar, and later, an acoustic guitar.

“Let’s try to make it a little less Rolling Stones, a little more contemporary, more King of the Tramps,” Partridge said.

They put in several hours that night, getting a few steps closer to recording their new album, before they head home for a bit of sleep and work the next day.

“This is what we do all the time,” Partridge said. “Right here. For seven years.”

'WE HAVE TO DO THIS'

King of the Tramps’ members will keep at it, working through the days at separate jobs and making music all the times in between.

They can’t do anything else.

“Since I was 12, I knew I would be a musician — I never had a doubt in my mind,” Adam Audlehelm said. “I never looked back; I just kept going forward.”

The time they put in, the sacrifices the band requires and the meaning it carries make it more than a hobby, members agree.

“We’ve dedicated our lives to it,” Adam Audlehelm said. “There isn’t anything we wouldn’t do. It’s in our blood. We have to do this; we have to get this out — even if no one is in the audience, we have to get it out.”

Booking and recording are a major time commitment, and some shows bring in more cash than others.

“I don’t even have to make a ton of money,” Ryan Audlehelm joked. “I’m good at being poor.”

There’s one thing that keeps the band going through the hours of travel — they banked 1,000 miles during the week of the Ames show — and long, late nights.

“It’s always the music,” Partridge agreed. “It keeps you going.”

Adam Audlehelm added, “You can say, ‘I’ve had a hell of a week, it’s a s--- week,’ and we start to jam and have a great time.”

And they’re in it for the long run.

“We’ll be those old guys in our underwear on the front porch playing music,” Adam Audlehelm said.

As much as they enjoy working in the studio and recording music, there’s nothing like being onstage for a live audience.

“If people are listening to our music, that’s what makes it worth it,” Ryan Audlehelm said. “Especially the way the world is right now, when people can come, let loose and share some emotional space with everyone, it’s really beneficial.

I’m gonna continue to play music my entire life, and it’ll always be worth it.”