Before Matt Whipkey journeys back in the halycon sunset of Omaha’s most iconic amusement park, there’s the cold, suburban present to encounter first.
The Big Red Restaurant, 8100 Cass St., sits in a building long since renovated past its life as part of the Peony Park grounds. There’s not a trace of that history in the building, which is now a shrine to keno and flat-screen sports telecasts.
Behind the building lies an expansive parking lot and a Hy-Vee grocery store, erected on what once was a summertime Mecca for Omaha’s teenagers — Peony Park.
That’s where Whipkey transitions to the past and the story of his new album, Penny Park: Omaha, NE: Summer 1989.
Whipkey’s album bursts to life with an opening line that sets the scene and introduces his main character, almost all in one fell swoop.
“School’s out summer 1989, Penny Park with her pirate eyes. The boys swore she was out of sight.”
The album cruises Omaha’s streets from Cass to Blondo to Howard and then tracks back south onto Center Street. Through those thoroughfares, Whipkey unwinds a narrative of the girl all the guys fall in love with, from nights at Peony Park to movies at the now-defunct Cinema Center, just off 84th and Center.
The life of the album began with a shared idea between Whipkey and Fizzle Like a Flood’s Doug Kabourek.
Initially it was going to be a split album, with one half written by Kabourek and the other half written by Whipkey.
Whipkey ran with the idea though and ended up with three extra sides worth of songs.
“At the end of this last summer it kind of became clear it was going to be two records,” Whipkey says.
Whipkey says he took the task of writing a narrative about Omaha’s amusement park and those who flocked to it as a personal challenge.
The time and place where Whipkey set the songs also opened up new songwriting avenues. Whipkey, whose catalogue tracks towards an Americana, roots and bar rock vein, began working on a few songs with beats, synth lines and other sonic signifiers that connected to the late 1980s timeframe of his new album.
Whipkey’s own Peony Park memories fall a little bit later, as the park closed when he was in 7th grade and therefore, he missed out on experiencing the amusement park in his teenage years.
“I didn’t get to fully enjoy those bright nights and those cool, cool concerts that came through,” Whipkey says.
But he both heard stories from those who experienced the park and combed through newspaper archives to fill in some details on what Peony was like during those twilight 80s. For many Omahans, the park was a central location of their adolescence.
“Some kids just flat out grew up here,” Whipkey says.
While Whipkey says he zeroed in on 1989 for these tales, he feels like the themes of the album could place these stories at any time.
The album’s whole sound is tied to the vibe of the park’s vital June through August peak.
“We definitely we’re going for a summer sound,” Whipkey says.
The songs ride on major key arrangements and the vibrant musicianship of Whipkey’s cast of musicians, anchored by collaborators, drummer Scott “Zip”
Zimmerman and bassist Travis Sing. Whipkey says the two have been fixtures in his band for last three years, with Zimmerman playing in the band for the past six.
“Their ability is second-to-none,” Whipkey says, adding that they’ve been consistent and diligent about making Whipkey’s songs excell.
The main character in the songs is basically a combination of the most memorable traits of all those summertime teenage crushes, Whipkey says.
It’s something about the girls at the park that cemented the summertime allure of amusement park rides and hanging out at the sprawling pool. Whipkey says his hope is that between the widescreen narrative and the bits of lyrical specificity in certain songs, that listeners will find a common connection to Penny Park.
Just about everyone that experienced Peony Park had their Penny Park, he says.
“Most people can figure out who she is for them,” he says.
As Whipkey began crafting new songs for the album, he also gave new life and meaning to older songs that hadn’t found a correct place on older albums. But now the messages of these unreleased songs were not too far off from the themes rising up on the story of Penny Park.
“They concerned a certain sense of youthfulness,” Whipkey says.
To fund the release of the album, Whipkey then turned to the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, where he raised $6,000 to help pay for the vinyl pressing of the double album.
The end result of the Kickstarter campaign is that Whipkey pressed more than 200 copies of the album on colored 150-gram vinyl and has them enclosed in a double-gatefold sleeve with a full-color insert and a CD.
It was a big turn for Whipkey, who says he had mixed feelings about crowd funding before making the album. He did more than a half dozen releases without needing Kickstarter, so why was this different?
That answer also came from the park, as he was tapping into a piece of Omaha’s history. It was more than just a Whipkey album, he says.
The main thought is that people outside of his usual audience might care about hearing these songs and reliving their own summertime memories. It’s those personal connections to the park that Whipkeys says is important.
“It’s practically public domain in what it means to folks,” Whipkey says.
The Whipkey Three play their album release show with Moses Prey, Jessica Errett &Tara Vaughan and Fizzle Like a Flood Saturday, June 22nd at the Waiting Room Lounge. Tickets are $7 at the door. For more information, visit onepercentproductions.com.