Herald JournalHerald Journal, July 11, 2005

Chuck Thiel and Jolly Ramblers release two new CDs

By Ryan Gueningsman
Staff Writer

Some people think polka music is dying, but for Chuck Thiel of Lester Prairie – it’s just the opposite.

He and his group of musicians recently recorded two new projects – a Christian album and a polka album.

“I constantly hear that polka music is dying,” Chuck said. “In 2000, I played for 89 engagements. In 2005, I’ll play for close to 200.”

His two newest releases were recorded in January at JBM Sound in New Prague, produced at Encore Productions in Minneapolis, and released to the public in April, Chuck said.

With the exception of their Christmas CD/cassette in 1999, their last five recording projects have included a Christian CD/cassette and a polka/variety CD/cassette.

“It’s much more cost-efficient and much less time-consuming to do two at once,” Chuck said. “Studio costs are based on number of hours required and materials used. Once you’re set up to record and all sound settings are established, it goes quite well.”

“Also, it’s easier to schedule musicians to three or four sessions in one time period than it would be to extend it for separate recordings,” he said.

One of two recordings, “I Am the Vine,” is the group’s fourth Christian recording, and the polka project is called “The Tradition Continues.”

Past and present members of the band

Current members of Chuck Thiel and The Jolly Ramblers include:

Chuck Thiel – concertina, vocals. With the band 42 years.

Ken Schmidt – trumpet, saxophone, valve trombone, vocals. With the band 34 years.

Jerry Kahle – trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, wind synthesizer.With the band 15 years.

Jason Thiel – percussion, keyboard, vocals. With the band 10 years.

The fifth member could be any of the following on different days:

Gary Baggenstoss or Larry Roepke – tuba;

Gary Schmidt – bass guitar;

Myron Muehlbauer, Leon Haefner, or Benny Gilbertson – horns;

Jay Johnston or Dave Kroells – percussion.

The three-to-five piece band will play approximately 100 dates this year in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. They have also played in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, and Illinois.

Thiel and his son, Jason, will play about 125 dates (two-piece work), and Thiel will play about 200 dates of single work.

“We play for about 65 church services/polka masses and church celebrations each year,” he added.

Through the years, the band has done 16 recordings, Chuck said. The first album, “A Barrel of Polkas,” was recorded in 1974 at Little Crow Records in Hutchinson, with musicians at that time being Albert and Chuck Thiel, Ken and Gary Schmidt, and Dale Klaustermeier.

Chuck’s father, Albert, who passed away in 1994, started the Jolly Ramblers in the early 1960s. In the 1950s, the group was known as the Merry Makers. Regular members in the 1960s were:

Albert Thiel – percussion and concertina;

Merle Zuehl – accordion and vocals;

Ralph Littfin – bass;

Otto Kuntz – banjo.

Chuck began traveling with the band at age 12, filling in on drums and doing vocals with Zuehl.

“In 1968, I became the concertina player for the band,” Chuck said. “Many musicians worked with the Jolly Ramblers through the years, but there has actually been very little turnover for the past 15 years.”

Chuck has watched the band progress to its current state, first working with his father, then his nephew, Matt Mohwinkel, and now his son, Jason.

He said he is continuing to make music for the group’s loyal friends and followers, and noted he doesn’t like to call them “fans.”

“The people we’ve met through the years is one of the biggest highlights,” Chuck said. “Working with many ministers and priests and learning that, although each church where we perform has its unique qualities, we’re all worshiping the same God.”

Some things Chuck has noticed throughout the years is the fact that “you find politics in just about any situation.”

“It’s extremely difficult to get booked for certain venues, not because we’re selling an inferior product, but because some organizations are too stubborn to accept change,” he said.

He has also noticed the crowd is getting older, there are fewer polkas and more modern music, and that many of the historic ballrooms are gone, but some very nice ones remain.

“We began doing polka services/masses in 1992, and could easily do over 100 each year if there were enough Saturdays and Sundays,” Chuck said.

Where it all began

Chuck Thiel grew up in Lester Prairie and graduated from high school in 1969.

He went on to graduate from Mankato State University in the fall of 1973, and returned to teach in Lester Prairie for 25 years, leaving the profession in 1999.

Chuck currently provides weekly music intervention for hospice patients through ConnectCare in Hutchinson, as well as scheduling one-day tours for Travel Easy in Waconia.

He has also been the host of Polka-Bration Show on KDUZ Radio of Hutchinson for 16 years, when the band is not on the road.

Chuck is the father of Jason, Jeremy, and Jamison, and is “single and available,” he said with a smile.

For bookings, recordings, schedules, etc., contact Chuck at PO Box 607, Lester Prairie, MN 55354, call (320) 395-2746, or e-mail at jollyrambler@excite.com.

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