As a kid, Ian Middleton loved listening to the classic rock and blues albums his parents played when they went on car rides.
For him, the lyrics and melodies of the rock and blues genres brought his family together.
“I attributed music to family and happiness, and that kind of music started to become attractive,” Middleton says.
From there, it didn’t take Middleton long to recognize that music wasn’t just a rite of passage for him and his loved ones.
In the sixth grade, Middleton’s passion for music became evident when he started playing guitar.
“For a while it was just me playing guitar in my room, but eventually I met other people who played music,” he says, adding that during this time he began taking lessons, and it wasn’t long before he had the basic mechanics of his instrument memorized and ready to be put on display.
But like many musicians, Middleton wasn’t inundated with opportunity as soon as he became a competent guitar player.
After high school, Middleton enrolled at IPR (Institute of Production & Recording) in Minneapolis to further explore his talents. It was there that he learned the finer points of performing, as well as a plethora of skills related to music production that would later afford him his first break in the industry.
That opportunity came in the form of Chris Hawkey, who is a co-host and producer of the Power Trip Morning Show on KFAN, one of the most popular radio shows in the Twin Cities. Hawkey also moonlights as the lead singer for the Chris Hawkey Band, a group who performs a unique brand of music that is referred to as “North Country.”
Fortunately for Middleton, the two used to be neighbors, and while Middleton was visiting family one day, he had the chance to reconnect with Hawkey.
As the two began to catch up, Middleton told Hawkey that he was interested in becoming a musician and that he was attending IPR.
Seeing a chance to help a young artist, Hawkey offered Middleton a role as a tech for his band, an opportunity that Middleton gladly accepted.
Says Middleton of that role:
“I learned the ropes, like how to set up a show, getting gear there, getting everything hooked up, but then also being the troubleshooter so when something goes wrong, I am the one who runs out on stage and gets people back to what they were doing.”
For the next couple years, Middleton remained a tech for the band, helping out on weekends and traveling to concerts around the Midwest when his services were needed.
Then one day, Middleton was informed that one of the band’s guitar players was leaving the country, and they needed someone to fill his spot.
“Do you think you could cover for him?” Middleton remembers Hawkey asking him.
“Yeah… maybe,” Middleton recalls saying, at the same time feeling an overwhelming sense of joy now that another opportunity was coming his way.
Middleton immediately was thrown into the rotation, and after two stellar shows, he continued on as an auxiliary acoustic player before over time graduating into becoming the band’s lead guitar player.
And that’s how things continued to transpire for Middleton, until 2020 hit.
For the band, and everyone else in the entertainment industry, things came to a grinding halt.
At the time of this article’s publication, it’s October 2020, and there is still little sign that the music landscape will return to normal.
“The COVID land isn’t helping things,” Middleton says, yet he remains optimistic about the future of his band, especially with Chris Hawkey at the helm.
Middleton says that through Hawkey’s connections, the band has historically been able to land some larger gigs, adding that, “through that you end up connecting with corporate sponsors.”
He mentions how these sponsors have been the driving force behind the band landing shows in the music hot spot of California, as well as a gig for a NASCAR event in Las Vegas.
“All of a sudden you’re playing cover tunes, and then you see Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,” says Middleton. “It’s fun and humbling, almost like, `I don’t know how I got here, but I can just soak this moment in.’ It’s cool.”
Even with all those great memories, the reality still remains that this year will test the mettle of every band currently performing on the independent circuit.
“Chris is still trying to figure out what he wants to do,” Middleton begins. “I’ve been with him for seven years, and every year there are a number of shows that are really interesting, whether it’s fan reception or playing on a stage with someone I never would have expected. We’re trying to figure out a way to keep the music going for the fans, but also keep the music going for us.”
So far, the band has played around a dozen shows in 2020, and the lack of touring certainly has had its effects on Middleton.
“Playing guitar is something that gives me a sense of joy that I don’t get anywhere else.”
But he’s also embraced the change, throwing more time and energy at his personal life. Just recently, Middleton got married, and since he no longer gets home at 4 A.M. after a show, his weekends have taken a more relaxed approach.
“It’s nice to wake up at home and make breakfast and do whatever you want,” he mentions.
Beyond the Chris Hawkey Band, Middleton also plays in a band with a friend from college. Their name is Fur Coats and Barfights, and while they have created a lot of material, the timing hasn’t been right for putting a record out.
“You want to promote the music, but then when you can’t play it in a scenario where people can see it, it’s a little deflating,” Middleton says in response to why his band has not yet released their album.
“This time has made me realize I need to put more effort into writing music on my own, even though I feel like I’m more creative in a group.”
But despite the challenges 2020 has thrust upon him and so many other musicians, Middleton states that he hasn’t lost that artistic spark, and that when a shed of normalcy returns, he’ll be prepared.
“Be ready for when you get the green light to play again,” he says of that futuristic moment, one that hopefully will arrive sooner than later.
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