Jimmy Voegeli was 21 the first and last time he tried to sign up for formal piano lessons. It was 1985, and Voegeli was a UW-Madison dairy-science student ambivalent about his plans to become a fifth-generation Wisconsin farmer. Music was his passion, but he couldn't read a note and didn't have much interest in learning. He just wanted to play. Show him, and he could play.
That's not how the curriculum worked at the UW-Madison School of Music, where Voegeli was told he "had to have a certain amount of knowledge" before he could sign up for a beginning piano class in the second semester of his junior year.
"The professor put the sheet music in front of me," recalls Voegeli. "And I couldn't do it. So I said to her, ‘Okay, you play 24 bars, and then I'll play it back to you."
Voegeli proved his point and won his right to join the class. But ultimately, he never warmed to traditional instruction.
"Learning it that way scared me," says Voegeli. "To learn the structure of it seemed like it would distract from the feel of it."
More than 20 years later, Voegeli has mastered "the feel of it." He's one of the best blues musicians in Wisconsin, and he wrote 13 extraordinary songs for his recently released debut CD, "F" Is for Blues.
The star power backing Voegeli signals his status as a musician's musician. The tracks are embellished by Clyde Stubblefield, Mel Ford, Tom McCarty, Mary Gaines, Nashville songwriter (and Madison ex-pat) Jon Nicholson and former Georgia Satellites drummer Mauro Magellan.
In his choice of cover art and an album title, Voegeli suggests he's still processing years of rejection from "musical authority."
Like that time back in 1981 when he flunked his band class at Monticello High School. The report card bearing that failing mark has been recast as the CD's cover.
At the time, Voegeli's dad asked, "How the hell can someone flunk band class?" Now Voegeli looks back on the experience with humor.
"I was a jackass, and I deserved it," he says.
The offending teacher, Mike Korth, still directs the middle and high school bands in Monticello. Voegeli credits Korth with lighting a torch under him during aimless teenage years when he was good enough to play Supertramp songs by ear.
"It was the proverbial kick in the ass," says Voegeli. "There were these tiny practice rooms at the high school, and Mike always encouraged me to go there after school to use the instruments and just see what I could do. I would hang around, and he would show me the chords."
Poignantly, Korth is featured playing trombone on the track "So Go Love" from Voegeli's new CD. The song is reflective in a happy way - a fitting vibe for a jam with a childhood mentor.
Voegeli, 43, quietly logged nearly two decades as a player in the Madison blues-rock scene before finally releasing his own album. He played for eight years in the Monroe-based Johnny & the Gate Crashers. Later morphing into the Crashers, the band still gigs around Madison today.
Voegeli hooked up with the Mel Ford Band in the mid-'90s and continues to perform with them every Thursday night at the Hody Bar & Grill in Middleton.
Every Wednesday, Voegeli and Ford perform with harpist Ken Olufs in the Jimmy Voegeli Trio at the Hemingway Lounge in Fitchburg. The trio's blues has strong jazz influences.
"I get so much benefit playing with these guys," says Voegeli, "I can't imagine leaving them to do my own thing."
If Voegeli has thrived on "the feel of it," and not the structure, the same can be said for the lifetime he's spent on the Voegeli family farm in rural Green County. His grandfather and father were world-renowned dairy geneticists. His dad started the World Dairy Expo.
Jimmy helps his brother operate the 1,400-acre Monticello farm today, but he's more likely to want to talk barn cats than agri-biz. The liner notes of his new CD are backed by a picture of Voegeli puckering up to smooch a Brown Swiss.
The album's highlight is the instrumental track "Papa's Waltz." It's a tender tribute to his father, who died in 2003. Voegeli performed the song at his dad's funeral and replayed it to a packed Coliseum crowd at the 2004 World Dairy Expo.
Years after failing band, Voegeli earned his dad's pride not as a farmer, but as a musician who could entertain the community.
"People used to refer to you as my son," Voegeli's father told him before he died. "Now they refer to me as your dad."
He's still never learned to read music, but Jimmy Voegeli has earned his passing grade.