Deep into a glass of Buffalo Sweat, I didn’t notice the music had stopped until the bar owner suddenly broke off our loud conversation.
“Wait, Pete’s trying to tell us a story,” said Andrea Valentine.
Then Pete Rodenberg did something he, and many other singer/songwriters, avoid – he explained the next song. He told us a story about Howdy Holmes.
It was funny at first, of course, like a couple of rural dudes greeting one another, “Howdy, Holmes!” But then it gradually became clear that the president of the Chelsea Milling Company, the makers of Jiffy cornbread mix, provided Pete a sort of epiphany.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but here we were at a small downtown Warrensburg bar, witnessing the tail end of Pete’s five-year adventure to meet the subject of a song he wrote. It is a 30-something coming of age story that began as a running joke in a restaurant kitchen and culminates in a touching and extremely catchy, lowdown twangy tune.
Five years ago, Pete worked as a manager at Stumpy’s House of Bar-B-Que in St. Peters, a suburb of St. Louis, where they made huge sheet pans of cornbread. Well, one day Pete looks at the back of a Jiffy box and reads the thank you note from the company president, Howdy Holmes.
“Well, we thought it was hilarious,” Pete said during an interview.
“Howdy, Holmes” turned into a running joke with a co-worker that quickly became well played out. But not played out enough for his buddy to eventually bring Pete some research he found on Mr. Holmes. Turns out he is a former open-wheeled race car champ who eventually became president of his family’s flour milling business that dates back to the early 1800s.
“I’m looking at this and I say, ‘You know, I’m gonna write a song about this,” Pete said.
So, he wrote the progression and then wondered what to sing about. And from his co-worker’s research, he found the perfect hook from Howdy’s grandmother, “Now Miss Mabel, you tell your father them good hot biscuits will be ready in a jiffy.”
Apparently this was uttered by the family’s housekeeper. Later in life, the story goes, Mabel came to own the family business and saw two boys sitting and eating what appeared to be terrible sandwiches. She learned that their single father, who knew nothing about cooking, made those sandwiches.
That was inspiration enough for Mabel to create a product that was cheap and simple to make. They needed a name and Mabel remembered her housemaid’s words about the hot biscuits that would be ready in a jiffy.
Yes, so it all fit together perfectly. Pete basically put the history of Jiffy muffins to song. But he shelved the unfinished tune, and it wasn’t until he and his girlfriend split and Pete moved from St. Louis to Kansas City that the song became fully realized.
His roommate, Josh Bach, had a recording studio in his home. Pete pulled out the Jiffy tune, played the hook and Josh says, “Stop, get in the car.” They drive to a Guitar Center so Josh can buy a new Telecaster.
Pete is hesitant, but Josh insists it’s necessary. “Don’t worry about it. We need this.”
The next day, Pete returns from work and Josh had finished the song. There’s the Telecaster twang, organ, harmony, drums and Pete’s acoustic guitar and harmonica.
It’s brilliant. And it’s called, “(Now Miss Mabel) You Tell Your Father Them Good Hot Biscuits Will Be Ready in a Jiffy.”
The following year, Pete is teaching English as a second language at Western Illinois University in Macomb for the summer. He’s bored one day and thinking about a Howdy Holmes quote he remembered reading. So Pete looked up the Chelsea Milling Company address, wrote a note and sent the song in May 2009.
“I broke up from this long-term relationship, so I’m in disarray and I’m trying to figure out what I need to do,” Pete said. “I realize I made some poor decisions and I need to pick myself up and fix myself.”
The quote goes like this: “When I look back, I can’t believe I really did that,” Holmes said of his career as a racecar driver. “To be fortunate to be able to make a career out of what you love, very few people are able to do that.”
Soon Pete gets a call from Chelsea, Mich. The caller wants to verify that he is, indeed, the Peter Rodenberg who sent the company this song before Howdy Holmes calls. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, Mr. Holmes calls. The two share a long conversation and Howdy says how much they all love the song. Mr. Holmes sends Pete a package, including some witty T-shirts with sayings like, “If you don’t know Jiffy, you don’t know muffin.”
Pete eventually decided to get his master’s in ESL and, two years later, celebrated his degree by buying Phish tickets for Deer Creek, Ind. Four hours north is Chelsea, Mich., and Pete planned to visit the Jiffy factory before the two-night concert.
He makes it to the factory and he’s waiting for a tour. A lady tells him that, unfortunately, the tours for the day have ended. Pete then tells her why he’s really there.
“Oh my god, that’s you!” the lady exclaims.
It wasn’t long before Howdy walks in and they meet and share another long conversation. Howdy walks Pete through the plant, via the employee door.
“We started chatting, just like we did on the phone,” Pete said. “He wanted to know about me. I was, I don’t know. I wasn’t shocked. I was flattered, really.”
So, Pete gave him a condensed version of his life, including the job he has teaching ESL in China at the end of August. And Pete could tell Howdy was impressed that he has goals and he’s working toward them.
Pete hooks up with a company liaison who takes him out for lunch and, the next day, on a jaunt to The Henry Ford, the amazing museum of Americana and innovation in Dearborn.
Jiffy doesn’t advertise, so they really have no use for Pete’s song, other than to fully enjoy the cool tune. But Pete walked away with quite a story.
And it was that night, June 30 at the Neptune in downtown Warrensburg, when Pete was making his way back home from his jaunt to see Phish and meet Howdy Holmes.
“That meant a lot to me that you guys, the five people at the bar, were that interested in what I was saying, to be honest,” Pete said. “That’s what life is about – is to make these whole stories, is to do something, you know?”
You can hear the full version of the song here: http://www.reverbnation.com/peterrodenberg.