The Book of Semrad: A Nebraska Music Family History

courtesy photo | Mike Semrad Jr.

by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

There is a great grandmother who played the cello before World War I. Stretching back five generations, there is a polka band with a Semrad tuba player in Abby, Nebraska.

In another life, perhaps the first Semrad roamed the European countryside with a lute. It would be appropriate.

Through the mid-20th century, stories from the Semrad clan are filled with associations to celebrity and road tales that sound like outtakes from That Thing You Do! One generation’s tour with George Jones becomes an influential friendship with Chuck Ragan in the next. When the ability to successfully shop a pop song to midwestern DJs dries up with corporate consolidation, the next generation embraces the DIY mentality of punk music. It’s a family story of musicians gigging into their 70s, of seeing Payola play out firsthand, of careers born alongside the birth of American rock ‘n’ roll. And all the family legends of Johnny Cash picking his nose and of unwittingly being signed to a mobster’s record label all lead back to places like Fremont, Norfolk and Lincoln.

In that way, the articulation of the Semrads’ musical story can be picked up wherever it needs to be: with holiday celebrations that boasted more singing than talking, with a cycle of wide-eyed children looking at their parents and aunts and uncles and wondering how they might captivate a full of people room in the same way.

“Growing up, I have very vivid memories of all my relatives, some since gone, smiling and laughing during a George Jones song, or making up their own words to a Kenny Rogers song, coming out in odd outfits during a family gathering only to have the crowd explode in laughter,” says Mike Semrad Jr., singer/songwriter for Lincoln’s The Bottle Tops. “Those moments are forever cemented in time and precious to me.”

The phrase appears with multiple Semrads: “I could write a book about…” This documented heritage, says Semrad Jr.’s uncle Dick Allison is the most unifying quality of coming from a musical family. In Norfolk, Neb., Allison remembers 60 years ago when family celebrations would turn into informal neighborhood choirs with his dad on steel guitar. When Allison won talent shows singing in Norfolk, his family’s lasting relationship to popular American music was instigated.

“You know how that always jacks you up,” Allison says. “I just never quit.”

Allison was known primarily for the quality of his country singing voice, the music he grew up around, joining country bands and becoming a household name around Norfolk and eastern Nebraska. But he was never sure why he asked to borrow Johnny Cash’s guitar.

“[Allison] approached a stage hand and asked to be a part of the (Grand Ole Opry) show,” Semrad Jr. retells his uncle’s story of driving from Norfolk to Omaha for Grand Ole Opry show around 1958. “Who does that?”

On that night in 1958, the organizers agreed to let Allison sing one song that turned into four or five. Johnny Cash lent him his acoustic guitar, the same one shouldered by Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line.

“To this day, I don’t know how that was possible, but I talked them into it,” Allison says. “It’s a crazy life. That was a hoot.”

That night was the springboard for Allison accompanying the Grand Ole Opry on a national tour. A few weeks later, the promoter asked Allison on to another Omaha billing and then on tour with George Jones, Hank Thompson and Little Jimmy Dickens. Allison dates the tour somewhere between 1958 and 1960, and that’s about all the detail that matters. When you ask Johnny Cash to borrow his guitar while the country icon is allegedly picking his nose and all he says back is, “Don’t break it,” the timestamp takes a back seat to the plot.

“Time back then meant nothing, so I didn’t care what year it was because I was on a high,” Allison says.

Across the family aisle and 80 miles southeast in Fremont, Neb., Allison’s brother-in-law-to-be, Mike Semrad Sr., found himself on the ground floor of an American art form. He was first chair trumpet player in his high school band — the son of a mother who majored in music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a father who played tuba throughout his adult life — when the band director made a life-altering decision on behalf of his students. At the halftime of a high school basketball game, Semrad Sr.’s class played an unprecedented rock suite with horns and no vocals in the vein of instrumental bands like Fireball and The Wailers.

“It was just like the Beatles or the Stones coming to town,” Semrad Sr. says. “No one had ever heard anything like that locally. Immediately we said, ‘Well, if this goes over this well’ … it wasn’t a matter until a couple of months until we had guitars and a bass, Fremont’s first rock band in 1962.”

At that time, unaware of the booming scene of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B blooming in North Omaha not an hour away, Semrad Sr.’s Fremont became its own miniature hot bed of rock music, spawning a half dozen bands, many of which achieved local notoriety. Semrad’s band, The Nomads, lived up to its name traveling the region and playing dances without a PA system or vocals for a year. When they eventually added singing, it was at a show in a high school cafeteria, commandeering the intercom used to announce menu items.

“It was a matter of we realized the chicks really loved [the music] and maybe we could actually get paid,” Semrad Sr. says. “So you’re fifteen and you’re going, ‘Let’s see. We attract women and we get money.’ I remember people in the hallway saying, ‘My god, did you see that? The Nomads sing? They sing!’”

The Nomads remained together through the mid-’60s when most of its members attended UNL and embraced a “looser” ‘60s aesthetic by changing their name to J. Harrison B. & The Bumbles. They ceased to wear matching outfits, donned fluorescent shirts and grew fu manchus.

“The Beatles did the same thing,” Semrad Sr. says.

The guitarist they called “Pinky” — a sticky nickname Semrad says he’s always despised — brushed with fame once he joined Norfolk’s The Smoke Ring in 1968. As a band that would pay established pop artists to come to Nebraska, learn all the visitor’s songs and then back them on stage, they traveled with Dickey Lee to Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., to record with Sam Phillips (the discoverer of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison among others). Ironically, their hit was a divergence from their standard, horn-laden Motown-esque sound. They sold 800,000 copies of an easy listening reinterpretation of “No Not Much” by the Four Lads. Their short-lived national success, Semrad Sr. explains, was a product of a very specific arrangement of 1960s music distribution. The Smoke Ring was accustomed to shopping around their music with Midwestern disc jockeys at a time when every city published its own Top 40 with little to no pre-programming.

“A local band like us could lobby or make friends with people,” Semrad Sr. says. “We never did Payola, i.e. here’s 50 bucks and a quart of whiskey and a joint. We never did anything like that. I remember sitting in Joe’s living room up in Norfolk and remember four or five national labels calling in one day: RCA, Buddha, Capitol, Columbia.”

In a familiar story, The Smoke Ring signed with Buddha Records, but their follow-up single “Portrait of My Love” sold well, but not too well, making a small splash regionally, but not charting. Only after the advent of the internet 30 years later did Semrad Sr. further realize the oddity of the whole experience when he discovered Buddha Records served as a money laundering funnel for New York mobster Sonny Franzese.

“I said, ‘You’ve gotta be shitting me. We’re working for Sonny Franzese?’” Semrad Sr. laughs.

Semrad Sr. is clear that the creation of this overnight hit simply wouldn’t be possible given the current structure of music distribution in which his son Mike Jr. came up. The pop music industry doesn’t operate with nearly so many entry points to an audience.

“How does a good original local band make it? I don’t know,” Semrad Sr. says.

It didn’t stop his singing and dancing son from almost appearing on The Tonight Show as a young child with a beat-for-beat Michael Jackson impersonation. Mike Jr. was raised as a child steeped in roots music until his affinity for percussion and rhythm led him to a drumming audition with Justin Kemerling, Jason Hardy and Luke Rustermier in the summer of 1998. Here, as a member of the Wahoo punk rock band Hootnanny, Semrad Jr. described a continuing rock education where quintessential names such as The Clash, The Ramones and Dillinger Four supplemented those of The Beatles and The Byrds.

“Punk rock changed my life,” Semrad Jr. says. “I was so used to singing songs with little lyrical weight ever since I was four years old. I had no idea the underbelly world of rock even existed. I fell face first into punk rock and never looked back.”

With roots music as the family trade, though, punk rock was a stylistic and tonal departure. Semrad Jr. says his father was focused on rock music pre-Led Zeppelin. Allison describes the range of his rock music experience as “middle of the road,” nothing heavier. But looking back at the makeup of the family and their outlook on performance, there was no real threat that Mike Jr.’s punk music wouldn’t be accepted with open hearts.

“I actually remember the first time my father came to see my punk band play,” he remembers. “I was nervous he’d hate it, but I also knew he was into weird stuff. The show was at Dairy Queen in Wahoo. Afterwards he had a huge smile on his face and asked me, ‘What was that?’ I instantly knew he loved it.”

Semrad Jr. went on to perform his bands with Rocket FM and Haywood Yards into the 2000s and touring nationally. Even through his current writing in Lincoln’s The Bottle Tops, in which he sings Cash-Carter-esque duets with his wife, Kerry, the social consciousness and lyrical gravity of punk music is an influence. He’s also been joined in The Bottle Tops by his brother Drew. His brother Nick, formerly of Omaha’s The Jazz Holes and Lincoln’s Son of ‘76, currently plays keys in the Brooklyn band Alice and the Glass Lake.

From the perspective of the current generation of musical Semrads, Mike Jr. points to family gatherings where people like his uncle Dick could hold a room of his own kin captivated with a “caramel smooth voice,” as when he first realized the emotional gravity that musicians could wield. He recalls humbling, formative experiences, comparing it to a kind of voodoo, where the power of performance united his association of musicians and magicians.

It’s a force he’s cognizant of with his own son and daughter, the way they observe him and Kerry.

“I am aware of them watching me and how it affects them,” Semrad Jr. says. “I can tell, with my daughter Annie especially, that she lets the music take her. She is such a free spirit and it’s amazing to see her move and glide to our music when we practice or perform.

Mike and Kerry’s son Jackson recently performed Fun’s “We Are Young” at his first-ever talent show.

But as is the tone of the family’s musical crest, there are no stage fathers and mothers prodding their children under a limelight.

“I think at some point [Jackson] will understand how cool it is to have a musical family,” Semrad Jr. says. “That hasn’t happened yet. But if he decides not to perform, that is OK, too. He is talented in so many ways and unbelievably smart.”

This holiday weekend and again through the Christmas season, expect to find the Semrads reuniting their larger family band, the one doesn’t go by any one name. Find everyone playing their parts, whether they still open for bands like The Beach Boys (as Semrad Sr. does), or whether they play a few months out of the year in South Texas (as Dick Allison still does) or whether they’re a cousin humming along. On December 8 in Fremont, Nebraska, they’ll hold the Annual Semrad Family Jam at the Tin Lizzy Tavern.

“No matter what,” Mike Jr. says, “someone is playing something. It’s not to say we hate communicating through words with each other. But there is always a sense of urgency to communicate through music rather than words. I love it. I understand my father and ‘how he is doing’ and ‘what is new’ through song. When it’s all happening, I feel a warmth unlike any other.”

There’s a deep and mobile oral history to that warmth: a family mythology that has Semrad Jr. remembering Johnny Cash’s borrowed guitar as a dreadnought Gibson and Allison remembering it as a Martin. The exuberant voices of fathers and sons conjure images of small-town Nebraska teeny boppers with mouths agape at young horn players trying to exhale their first breaths of rock music, the imagery of an inherited musical bloodline. Maybe it’s better if no one writes the book.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone. Reach him at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer (@chance_s_p) is a contributing writer at Hear Nebraska, and its former managing editor. Reach him at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.