As a teen growing up in a Chicago suburb, Joe Nosek began listening to his dad’s old Rolling Stone’s records.
And, when he examined the song credits, he discovered that along with Jagger/Richards, there were songs credited to blues musicians such as McKinley Morganfield (better known as Muddy Waters), and Chester Burnett (better known as Howlin’ Wolf).
“The early Stones records were almost blues cover records, really,” said Nosek, 44, who founded the Cash Box Kings, a Madison blues band, in 2001, and, since 2007, has co-led it with Chicago vocalist Oscar Wilson. Nosek trades off singing duties with Wilson and plays harmonica and guitar.
When Nosek was discovering those blues legends, he couldn’t just Google their names, he had to go to the library to look them up. The Stones were cool, he thought, but the blues musicians really spoke to him.
He was 14 when his family moved from Whitewater to Elmhurst, Illinois, where he had easier access to the Chicago Blues Festival every June. “A lot of these originators were still alive back then when I was 14, 15. And I’d go from sunup to sundown every day,” Nosek said.
Later in his teens, he started sneaking into famous blues clubs like the Checkerboard Lounge, Rosa’s Lounge and Buddy Guy’s Legends. He’d been in bands, mainly playing rock or punk rock. But, then he wanted to dedicate himself to playing Chicago blues.
Flash forward almost 30 years, and now the Cash Box Kings — named for a music industry magazine which existed from 1942 to 1996 — are signed to the prominent blues label Alligator Records. The band regularly headlines venues like Buddy Guy’s and Rosa’s.
Not only are they regulars at the Chicago Blues Festival, they’re on the national and international festival circuit, playing the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, the Doheny Blues Festival in Southern California, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, among others.
They’ve also played international festivals, including the Cambridge Folk Festival in England, the Moulin Blues Festival in the Netherlands, the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland, the Baltic Blues Festival in Germany and the Edmonton Blues Festival in Canada.
Regularly play Madison
During peak summer festival season, Nosek, who during the academic year teaches in the English as a second language program at UW-Madison, said the band does more touring, playing 10 or 15 shows a month.
For the rest of the year, it’s four to six shows a month. The band plays Madison once every month or two. Its primary local venue is the Knuckle Down Saloon, but the band also enjoys performing at the Crystal Corner Bar, where it will play Saturday.
Nosek came to Madison to attend UW-Madison, where he got his master’s in English linguistics. Legendary blues and roots musicians would come through town and play the Crystal when he was an undergraduate, and soon the underage Nosek was sneaking into shows there.
“It’s still a great bar, great staff, but it’s not as blues-centric as it once was,” Nosek said. The Knuckle Down has filled that void.
Dave Leucinger, a local blues writer who works the door at the Knuckle Down, said in the band’s early days, when Travis Koopman was on guitar, the group had a “friendly energy,” which drew out younger fans who loved to dance and were new to blues music.
Leucinger, who hosted the WORT-FM/89.9 show “Two for the Blues,” from 2000 to 2015, was impressed that band members wrote their own material from the start.
After Koopman moved away, Nosek seemed to take a more serious approach to the band and to his role, he said.
Jimmy Sutton and Kenny Smith, both from Chicago, became the rhythm section for a time, letting the group’s sound develop. It then earned attention from the now-defunct record label Blind Pig, Leucinger said.
Wisconsin natives Joel Paterson and Billy Flynn traded time on guitar, both bringing extensive experience with Chicago’s historic blues, jazz, and jump R&B, he said. “They’re among the best anywhere. Meanwhile, Joe continued to develop as a songwriter and instrumentalist,” Leucinger said.
Nosek’s collaboration with Wilson really elevated the band, making it “world-class,” Leucinger said. Wilson was guided in music and life by many friends of his late bluesman father, who died two months before he was born. “Oscar’s powerful, soulful voice has few rivals. And his stage presence can light up a room,” Leucinger said.
Respected Chicago music critic Howard Reich came to a 2017 Cash Box Kings show and wrote an article describing the band’s sound as “tough-and-sinewy” and “devoid of sentimentality or nostalgia.”
Nosek, who’s read Reich since he was young, was honored when the writer came to a show in support of the band’s last album, “Royal Mint.” The CD is a mix of covers and originals, such as the politically-charged “Build That Wall” and “Blues For Chi-Raq” to the fun, socially-astute, “If You Got A Jealous Woman Facebook Ain’t Your Friend.”
He’s gotten hate mail “from both sides” after writing the satirical “Build That Wall,” in November 2016, days after Donald Trump was elected president, after pledging to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border.
Lyrics include: “You can ignore what Jesus said, you know the poor are better off dead.”
Some people, who don’t pick up on the song’s irony, want to know how they can be “such racist bigots,” Nosek said. Then, there are Trump supporters who want to know how the band can insult a president “who’s trying to make this country great again.”
The song is as relevant today as it was when it came out, said Nosek, whose wife has been subjected to comments because of her Latina heritage that she hadn’t experienced until the last two years.
Nosek’s wife of 10 years was born in the United States to Bolivian parents. She’s a physician and the couple have sons ages 2, 6 and 8.
The band’s next album, due out in late spring, will tackle other social topics, including racism and police brutality, he said. It will also include the humorous song, “Joe, You Ain’t from Chicago,” with Wilson giving Nosek flak about being from the suburbs.
Meanwhile, “Build That Wall” is a song that keeps on giving. The president’s wall never leaves the news, Nosek said. “It just keeps coming back.”