With a 30-plus year history of playing together to the delight of many generations, Applegate & Co. has gone through many changes, but hasn’t forgotten its roots or lost its heart. The band began in February of 1973, playing in local restaurants like Mongas Italian Restaurant, The Art Gallery, The River Station, and, as many fans are well aware, a longstanding gig at Leonardo’s Pizza. The group could also be found at coffee houses, music festivals, private parties, civic centers, city parks, and the Peoria Courthouse, for its Brown Bag It concert series. Thirty-some years later, they are still out there, charming diverse audiences in Peoria and outlying communities. Applegate & Co. has played in Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, and more, but has always returned to its home base of Peoria.
Band spokesman Bob Applegate estimates the number of Applegate & Co. performances over the years at a mind-boggling 4,000 to 5,000 shows. He explained that the band became known as Applegate & Co. simply because the previously nameless band needed a moniker for a regular restaurant gig. “We didn’t start out to have that name, and in some ways it’s an embarrassing thing to me because we really are an equal musical partnership. Frankly at this stage in my life, I’ve come to realize that if anything, the band would be more accurately named something representative of the music rather than me. It would suit me fine to call it ‘Harlan, Mitts, Hatfield, and Applegate,’ but most people would likely think that’s too long to remember. The bottom line is I’m the founder and own the sound system, but beyond that everything is equal from the song selection and arrangements to the payment split for our services. The band just happens to be named after me because I was one of the members at a time when a local restaurant manager had to put something on the sign in front of his establishment—he named the band. In any event, the name has stuck, so it’s a little late to change it after 30-plus years.”
Currently, band members include Applegate (vocals, lead guitar, and mandolin, formed band in 1973), Bill Harlan (vocals and six-string and 12-string rhythm guitars, joined 1976), Rich Mitts (vocals and electric bass, 1980), and Steve Hatfield (five-string banjo, 1997). The band describes its music as a blend of contemporary and traditional folk and bluegrass. “In recent years, we’ve added some blues and ragtime pieces, which would fall somewhat outside that definition. Sometimes people think of us as a ‘bluegrass band,’ which isn’t accurate, though we do play and enjoy some bluegrass music. We’ve always tried to clarify that we’re not a ‘real’ bluegrass band. Sometimes people think of us as a ‘folk’ band, but most folk groups aren’t required to play the instrumentals we play—so that’s not totally accurate, either. I think an Australian music critic probably described it best when he called us a ‘modern day string band.’ We also have called ourselves a ‘crabgrass or bermuda grass’ band,” Applegate joked.
It seems this kind of non-specific genre has had a burst of popularity recently, as evidenced by sold-out venues, Grammywinning albums, popular movies, and this band’s generation-laden small-town gigs in or near Peoria. “I think folk music’s popularity changes somewhat with time,” Applegate reasoned. “Also, the public definition of folk music certainly has changed in my music experience of the past 40-plus years of playing. Originally, the term folk music was used to define music of the people as opposed to the music of the classical composers and the tinpan alley composers of the early pop music. Folk music was generally part of the culture and was passed down through common experiences; often times it wasn’t even written down, but rather passed along through hearing and repeating, much like the art form of storytelling. I suppose folk music could be described as storytelling with music. Under the broadest definition, some of the music of the current alternative [groups], indie bands, and rap artists could be viewed as new folk music.”
But we’re not just talking about folk music, but rather it’s combination with the sound of bluegrass. “Bluegrass music began about 65 years ago and has experienced surges of popularity among the general public, usually at the same time the music was used within the context of a television or theatrical event. Several examples come to mind: The Beverly Hillbillies theme song, Bonnie and Clyde (‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’), Deliverance (‘Dueling Banjos’), and most recently, O Brother Where Art Thou? (‘Man of Constant Sorrow’). The traditional fan of bluegrass music is often steeped in the music of the past, while embracing some of the modern elements of change. Bluegrass instrumental music requires a high degree of speed, dexterity, and improvisational skills.”
Applegate & Co. has produced two albums, 1977’s Live and 1979’s Applegrass, and Bob Applegate has a few solo CDs—Satisfied Mind (1980), Applegeezer (2004), and Liberian Hospital Benefit (2005)—as well. The band has performed collectively and individually with many famous stars, such as Suzy Bogguss, Bill Monroe, Hot Rize, The Dillards, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Louise Mandrell, Livingston Taylor, John Hartford, Linda Ronstadt, Dave Mason, and Black Oak Arkansas, and is considering a CD of their more recent work. It’s a safe bet to say that their fans will be thrilled after waiting more than 25 years—those eight-tracks and vinyl records are in need of some serious updating. Without a doubt, the new recordings will not gather dust on a warehouse shelf for long, as the band’s loyal audience will flock to purchase them. “We have great fans,” said Applegate. “Through the years, we’ve had some individuals that attended nearly all of our shows. Sadly, several of those folks are no longer with us. The ages that come to our shows often span several generations, which leads to a sort of continued tradition. That’s one of the things that make the playing and performing experience so much fun for us.”
The individuals in Applegate & Co. all have day jobs, which Applegate said allow them “to live normal lives with mortgages, car payments, and working utilities.” Harlan and Applegate are partners in an audio contracting company, Integrated Audio Systems; Mitts is a school psychologist for District 150; and Hatfield is a teacher at Peoria Heights High School.
“It’s worth noting that the other half of the band is our wives,” said Applegate. “These women tolerate us being gone evenings and weekends in search of our muse. The fact that they’re willing to let us play out without serious reservation or complications is certainly one of the reasons the band is still performing after this many years. We appreciate them a huge amount.”
Through the years, Applegate & Co.’s sound may have experienced change in respect to the number and variety of songs, but the style of the band hasn’t gone through much evolution. “The music we play has always been a smaller version of the music we all listen to and enjoy. As our individual tastes have changed through the years, some of the songs are added or modified as we see fit. Stylistically, though, we’re very similar to where we started. The music was and is still comprised of several melodic and rhythmic instruments playing improvised lead lines, while the singers sing the story-based songs. That much hasn’t changed, even though the specific songs may have.”
More recent gigs have included Morton’s Brick Oven, Peoria’s One World Café, and the Hickory Ridge Concert Series at Dixon Mounds Theater. “I’d heard of this performance venue for years, but have never been able to attend or perform on the concert stage due to scheduling conflicts with our weekly gig,” noted Applegate in a web journal entry on the band’s web site, www.applegateandcompany.com, “This was one for the record books. I wish I had recorded the night…Full house, great listeners, sound system sounded great and the band was really on fire. We ate pie on the break and got to chat with a lot of old friends. Standing ovation and an encore. We were stunned, as those things don’t occur in the pub and eating establishments. Reminded me of old times in the coffeehouse and concert series.”
Applegate said the band’s web site is the best way to find out about upcoming gigs, and whether or not they’ll be releasing a CD soon.. “The site has early band pictures (when we were young, thin, and had hair),” he joked. But don’t let his funny, self-deprecating sense of humor fool you—though their hair may be lacking, the band’s vast amount of talent and youthful outlook on music certainly isn’t. When asked about future plans and whether the band plans on playing together indefinitely, Applegate responded, “As long as it’s fun and possible!” For more information visit www.applegateandcompany.com.