by Sarah Squires
James "Mudcat" Grant's parents first took him to a guitar lesson when he was in the fourth grade, when the local rock legend's hands were too small to grip the neck. It was the mid-1950s, and young Grant was captivated by the touch of the needle to the 45s, to the rock and roll that was magic to his ears. "I just sat and listened incessantly," he explained.
Once Grant entered junior high and his hands had a chance to catch up to his growing musical dreams, he started again on the guitar. By high school, he had formed the Wescotts, later changed to the Fabulous Ferraris, with classmates Chuck Rogers, Bill Ford, Bob Kuhlman, and Sam Nottleman, and the group played their first show in 1963 at The Country County bar in Winona.
Fifty years later, Mudcat and the Bottomfeeders are a fixture in the local music scene, and will celebrate half a decade of rock and roll with a concert on Saturday, November 30 at Wellington's Lounge at Westgate Bowl. Music, featuring a variety of local bands, will begin at 7 p.m. and end at midnight. There will be no "official" cover charge, and all are welcome to come, enjoy the music, and share a memory.
After the first 1963 gig, Grant opted for the swim team over the rock and roll life, but by The Beatles performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, he yearned to get back on stage. "That turned me around, I got back in the band, and I never looked back," he recalled.
That summer of 1964 was alive with music for Grant and his cohorts. With parents of the other band members helping to book shows, Grant remembers playing 25 shows in just the month of July of that summer. Venues in Winona and La Crosse offered live music nearly every night, and the teens spent their days driving in an old station wagon pulling a trailer full of gear around the region, nights on stage playing to a packed house. Back then, the drinking age was 18, and the group would travel to Houston, Plainview, and other small towns in the area, rent a VFW or other building, and hold their own concerts. "For a kid in high school, looking for part-time work, we were very fortunate; we didn't have to flip burgers," said Grant. "And of course, you're a rock and roller, and we had all the adulation of the girls."
The group started off as a surf band, then began covering British rock and roll — the Kinks and the Beatles, some hard rock and punk. The group wore flashy outfits in matching colors: red blazers, sparkling toreador jackets with matching cummerbunds, to be later replaced by the flowing garb of the summer of love. "We ran the gamut of musical styles and musical dress," remembers Grant. Later, under the monicker the North Country Band, the group had more of a country rock sound and look, Grant said.
When Grant was a senior in high school, the Minnesota Twins had a pitcher, also named Jim Grant. That "Mudcat" Grant later started his own band under the name "Mudcat and the Kittens." Kids at school started calling Winona's James Grant "Mudcat," and the name stuck, Hence the musical group "Mudcat and the Bottomfeeders."
Mudcat and the Bottomfeeders play covers that stretch across genres and decades, along with originals that Grant has written and recorded over the years. Today, the group is a trio, with Grant on guitar and lead vocals, Tom Moncrieff on bass, and Allen Neuman on drums.
Grant, an advocate for live music, has some advice for young musicians exploring the stage themselves. "Be a student of the styles of music that you're interested in. I still feel like I'm a student. It's important to keep learning; that's how you're going to get better," he explained. "If you can find that passion, then enhance it in any way you can, it will help you with confidence when you perform. Money can make life easy, but passion — that can make life worthwhile."
The drive to continue making music for five decades is due to in large part to Grant's love of the stage. "To me it's about giving to people," he said. "It's a thrill to perform music for people and have them dance and applaud and connect with you. Music gives us the ability to sort of leave our troubles behind and experience the nature of people, which is this rhythm," Grant explained. "That's what I'm all about."