Music on the Mississippi
In southeast Minnesota, an unusual medley of rural and small-town venues draws delighted audiences.
© Torsten Muller
Singer Prudence Johnson and pianist Dan Chouinard play a Valentine's concert at the Oak Center General Store.
In southeast Minnesota, along the Mississippi and in its bluffs, fans of folk music and the blues will realize they're really
Country as in friendly and down-home. Country as in far from the bright lights and big city.
Out in the countryside, music sounds different. In an old general store in Oak Center, it's toasty warm, like late-afternoon
In the airy loft above a harp-building workshop near Red Wing, it rings out like a church bell on Sunday morning.
And in Zumbrota, at the smallest Carnegie library in the state, it's just really, really close.
In Zumbrota, the musicians are so close the owner's dog brushes their knees when it steps onto the stage to beg for cookie crumbs from the audience. But the intimacy doesn't deter musicians — on the contrary.
When I was there, all 100 folding chairs were filled for the first appearance of Peter Ostroushko, the popular fiddler who has performed in theaters and concert halls across the nation and whose evocative compositions often are used in television series and played by orchestras.
"When I saw he was playing here, I thought, 'Oh, my, Zumbrota's coming up in the world,'" said Karen Brooks of nearby Frontenac.
On the tiny stage at the Crossings in Zumbrota, Ostroushko played fiddle and mandolin, told stories, traded quips with pianist/accordionist Dan Chouinard — and had a grand time.
"I love it," he says. "You're playing right to the faces of the people, right there in front of you."
As Ostroushko was performing in Zumbrota, fellow "Prairie Home Companion" regular Prudence Johnson was with Garrison Keillor
in the western Minnesota town of Morris, singing for a live audience of 2,350 and a broadcast audience of 4 million.
But the next afternoon, Johnson drove down to a little blip on the road 15 miles from Zumbrota, where she and Chouinard played for a delighted crowd of 85 at the Oak Center General Store.
"It's so unpretentious and so affordable, and it has such a nice vibe," she said. "We've always had a lot of fun playing here. It's warm and receptive, and when people come, they really want to be there, they really want to hear you."
Four unlikely venues
The slightly scruffy Oak Center General Store near Lake City is one of four venues that bring a raft of astonishingly good musicians to a small but scenic part of the state.
From Oak Center, it's just half an hour down bluffs and along the Mississippi to Red Wing, where the lovely little Sheldon Theatre has a completely different atmosphere — but hosts many of the same musicians.
© Beth Gauper
In Zumbrota, Crossings at Carnegie hosts folk musicians.
Ten minutes outside Red Wing, in a renovated barn on the road to Cannon Falls, Gary Stone also showcases such favorites as Pat Donohue, Claudia Schmidt and Ann Reed, who holds her birthday party there every December.
Stone, who opened his Hobgoblin Music store in 2001, makes harps, banjos, mountain dulcimers and Irish bodhrans in the ground-floor workshop and holds concerts in an all-wood loft. In summer, he holds bluegrass and folk festivals on an outdoor stage.
"There are more of these music venues than there has ever been before, which is good, because people need live music," he says.
From the Music Loft, it's 20 miles down winding County Road 6 to Zumbrota, just off U.S. 52.
Tiny but lively in Zumbrota
Zumbrota, famous for its 1869 covered bridge, also has a pretty Victorian bed-and-breakfast, the Barteau House. Scott Jensen, who runs the inn with his wife, Kim, says many guests come to attend concerts or classes at the Crossings, which includes an art gallery, shop and studio.
"It's just a small-town place, but there's a lot of action going on there," Jensen says.
The 1895 Queen Anne, at the edge of town in a grove of trees, made a good base for a weekend of music. Downtown at the Crossings, proprietor Marie Marvin was finishing up a reception for an exhibit of collages by senior artists and getting ready for the sold-out concert.
"Five years ago, I bought this building with a friend, and I had no idea why or what for," said Marvin, a Zumbrota native who returned after careers in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.
"Within a year, it had transformed into a gathering space; we've got writing and yoga and Spanish lessons and all kinds of art classes. It's kind of a magical space, really."
In the basement clay studio, potters sat over wheels. Upstairs, Mozart and Beethoven sonatas played as shoppers looked at
paintings, bronze figurines, handmade tiles, art glass and jewelry made by local artists.
Like the gallery, the Crossings' musical calendar grew out of an appreciation for fine artistry.
"I went to see 'Gales of November' and saw (Peter Ostroushko and Dan Chouinard) playing, and I thought, 'I have to have them here together,'" Marvin said.
© Torsten Muller
Accordionist Dan Chouinard and fiddler Peter Ostroushko play music and tell stories at the Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota.
Just before the evening concert, I nabbed a chair under a window glowing with paper lanterns. Next to me, Richard and Karen Brooks said they had been to hear Dan Newton at the Accordion-o-Rama concert the previous week and were planning to hear Prudence Johnson in Oak Center the next day and Wylie and the Wild West at the Sheldon in Red Wing the following week.
"We go as often as we can," Karen Brooks said.
"We lived in Chicago for 30 years and went to a lot of concerts, but you'd need binoculars for that," her husband added.
For more than two hours, we listened to Ostroushko and Chouinard weave tales of rural Ireland pubs and Italian villages with tunes from all over the world; by the time they wrapped up, our heads were filled with dreamy images of old Europe, and we all were yearning for a cold Guinness.
Chouinard's droll jokes led more than one person in the audience to follow him the next day to his afternoon concert with Prudence Johnson at the Oak Center General Store.
"We thought, 'Hmmm, that's pretty good — got another one?' " said Linnae Glestad of Wanamingo.
A progressive outpost
Standing almost by itself amid rolling farmland, the Oak Center General Store is an unlikely music venue.
After former Mayo medical student Steven Schwen bought the abandoned store in 1976, it again became a store, selling organic produce from the adjoining farm, but it also became a forum for people committed to peace and social justice as well as sustainable agriculture.
"It was a cultural void," Schwen says. "The whole idea was, we wanted to create a mini rural university."
The late U.S. senators Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone were among those who attended the workshops and discussions. Schwen has built a loyal roster of musicians, such as Greg Brown, who comes regularly, despite his agent's objections to the low ticket prices, and Peter Ostroushko, who calls it "my favorite gig in Minnesota."
Before introducing the musicians, Schwen gets up on stage and urges the audience to work for a better world. When we were there, the stage was adorned with Valentine's Day balloons and heart-shaped twinkle lights, and Schwen tailored his message to match:
"That's what will transform the world, when they can see the love in our hearts when we stand up for our principles and for people who are a little less advantaged than us," he said.
At the intermission, as guests nibbled on homemade cookies and freshly made popcorn, Linnae Glestad pronounced the store "cool" and said she couldn't wait to go downstairs and rummage around. She was happiest about the music: "This is the kind of stuff we like," she said.
Relaxed in a pair of jeans and blazer, Prudence Johnson first used Gershwin and Cole Porter as a showcase for her gold-standard voice, then joined Chouinard in a goofy comparison of the Italian chestnut "O Sole Mio" to Elvis' "It's Now or Never" and the sign-off from "The Jack La Lanne Show."
She wound up by indulging her inner diva, channeling Connie Francis in "Where the Boys Are," Patsy Cline in "Crazy," Tammy Wynette in "Stand by Your Man" and Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose."
It was love from A to Z — perfect fare for a valentine's Sunday. When Johnson and Chouinard finished, sunlight was still slicing through the curtained windows, and nobody wanted to go home.
© Beth Gauper
The Sheldon in Red Wing was the nation's first municipally owned auditorium.
The musical double-header made for a fun weekend. And sometimes, people who plan ahead can catch a triple-header.
It's an amazing quantity of great music for an area that basically is farmland.
Ostroushko, who has played at all four venues — at Oak Center, he makes Schwen pay him partly from his private stock of pickled green beans —says musicians can't resist the natural acoustics and intimate, family-friendly atmosphere.
"All the musicians I know love to play these gigs," he says. "For Minnesota to have that many venues clumped in that small a place, only an hour from the Twin Cities — that's actually pretty remarkable."
Trip Tips: Music along the Mississippi
Concerts may sell out and schedules may change, so always call in advance.
downtown Red Wing: Tickets generally are $7-$29. To reserve, call 651-388-8700 or 800-899-5759. Members of Minnesota
Public Radio may get a discount. The ornate theater, the first municipally owned auditorium in the nation when it opened in
1904, is in downtown Red Wing, a block off U.S. 61 on West Third Street.
For more, see Roaming in Red Wing.
Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota, Minn.: Tickets generally are $12-$27. To reserve, call 507-732-7616. The Crossings is a block off Main Street on East Avenue. Gallery and gift shop hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.
Oak Center General Store, near Lake City, Minn.: Tickets are $5-$15, depending on what people can afford. They're sold at the door and can be reserved. Children are welcome and can sit on carpet next to the stage if they like. There's usually a buffet, available by donation. Call 507-753-2080.
Music Loft at Stoney End, on Minnesota 19 west of Red Wing: To reserve tickets, call 877-866-3936. It's on Minnesota 19, a mile south of U.S. 61 west of Red Wing.
Accommodations: In Zumbrota, the Barteau House has four attractive rooms, three with fireplaces and two with whirlpools, including a very nice breakfast. Proprietors provide an evening snack, very tasty cookies and sodas, as well as a small but well-chosen stock of CDs, books and games. Call 507-732-4466 or 866-227-8328.
Red Wing has many places to stay: the 1875 St. James Hotel has 60 individually
decorated rooms in old and new wings; some people prefer the older rooms. There are two restaurants and live music on Friday
nights at Jimmy's pub. An inside court is lined with small shops. 800-252-1875.
There are four B&Bs within walking distance of downtown: The Pratt Taber
Inn is an 1876 Italianate, 651-388-7392. The Candlelight Inn is an
1877 Victorian, 800-254-9194. The Golden Lantern Inn is a 1934 Tudor Revival,
888-288-3315. The 1874 Moondance Inn, 866-388-8145.
Dining: Near Zumbrota, the Rainbow Cafe on Pine Island's Main Street serves a basic menu of soups, sandwiches and burgers, but also a large menu of specials. Decor is minimal, but service is fast and portions large.
The beer list includes some nice microbrews. Reservations are taken only for groups of five or more, 507-356-2929.
Red Wing has many good coffeehouses and restaurant. Overlooking the marina in Lake City, Nosh is very good.
For more about eating along Lake Pepin, see A spin around Lake Pepin.
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