By Ivan Raconteur
When Lester Prairie science teacher Greg Landkamer and former special education teacher Mick Bates formed their bluegrass band, “the Row Buckers,” they realized their take on “roots” music might disturb those who were comfortable with a more traditional approach.
This led them to adopt the mission statement, “Comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable.”
This philosophy has colored much of their work together.
They have reached a time in their lives when they are bored with playing rock and roll, and they are playing the kind of music they want to play.
To describe his feelings about the kind of music he played for years, Landkamer borrowed a phrase from Tom Hubbard, a jazz bassist who moved to New York in the 1990s.
“We got tired of playing ‘Stairway to Freebird’ every night,” he said.
The Row Buckers take their music seriously, but they definitely like to have some fun along the way.
Today, the Row Buckers play a blend of bluegrass and folk music, influenced by artists such as Peter Rowan and Tony Rice.
The band features Bates on guitar and vocals, his wife, Nancy Bates, on dulcimer and vocals, and Landkamer on guitar, mandolin, and vocals.
Mary McKennan joined the band for a performance at B’s on the River in Watertown Nov. 30.
McKennan is a Delano resident, and plays many instruments including guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, and dulcimer. Her resume includes work with Calamity Jane, an all-girl bluegrass band, during the 1980s.
The other members of the Row Buckers said they hope McKennan will join them, and continue to play with them for a long time.
Since September 2006, the band has been playing about once a month at the Crow River Coffee Company in Watertown.
Owner Adam Jochum broadcasts some of the performances via the Internet at www.cafn8ed.com/live.
The band said this has given them their first “international” audience, with a viewer in Canada, and another in England.
The band also plays at other venues and private parties across the region.
Building his own guitars
In addition to having its own approach to the music it plays, the band has its own way of looking at the instruments they play.
For most of his career, Bates was a bass player. When he switched to guitar, he found that standard guitars were not set up to accommodate the heavier strings that he preferred.
Bates looked at the price of custom-made guitars and decided that was not an option, so he fell back on his science training and decided to experiment with building his own instruments.
He didn’t have tools or a workshop, but he had plenty of imagination and some space in his garage, so he went to work.
“My first guitar was made from a sort of kit,” Bates said. The result left something to be desired, but eventually, Bates “achieved the ability to play it.”
He continued to experiment, making changes such as shortening the neck, which reduced the tension needed on the heavy strings he uses.
“I am into the sound, mechanics, and acoustics of the instruments,” Bates said.
He has built four guitars in three years.
Bates had planned to take some time off from building guitars, but then he read a story that said that the exceptional sound of Stradivarius violins may be due in part to chemical oxidizing agents that Antonio Stradivari used on the wood to prevent worm infestations.
This appealed to Bates’ scientific side, and he has started to think about how he could chemically treat wood to improve the sound quality of his next guitar.
Bates said his philosophy about building instruments is similar to that of Native Americans who made their own bows and arrows, and who were buried with these weapons when they died.
“If you buy an instrument, you “rent” it, but if you build an instrument, it grew out of you, and it will always be part of you,” Bates said.
Row Buckers history
Landkamer and Bates met when both were teaching in Lester Prairie.
Along with drummer Jamie Andrews, they started a rock band, “The Blatts” in 2001.
The band’s first few songs were adaptations of the themes from classic TV shows such as “Gilligan’s Island. One was a version of the Jimi Hendrix hit, “Purple Haze,” combined with the lyrics from the cornball comedy, “Green Acres,” a combination that likely disturbed a few people.
When Andrews left to take a position as education director of the Minnesota Opera, Landkamer and Bates carried on as an acoustic duo, “The Nightshades.” They used the stage names Joe King and Josh King.
“When you are on stage, it is a lot easier if you pretend you are someone else,” Bates said.
The Nightshades performed at local venues including the Porthole Bar in Lester Prairie and Gert and Erma’s in Glencoe.
In 2003, the band transitioned to bluegrass and folk music, and, in 2005, became the Row Buckers.
Bates said the name came from his grandmother, who referred to her false teeth as her “rowbuckers,” because she purchased them from Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Landkamer and Bates both had extensive music experience, and had played with many bands over the years.
Nancy joined the band for very different reasons.
“He (Mick) was spending too much time away with the band,” Nancy said.
Mick and Nancy were married Oct. 15, 2005, and Nancy’s first performance with the band was March 23, 2006.
She said she had no prior musical experience, and when she did have time to listen to music, it was usually classical music.
In addition to spending more time with her husband, Nancy joined the band because of a revelation she had when she attended the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old Time Music Festival in Richmond for the first time.
“I fell in love with the festival and the family atmosphere,” Nancy said.
She added that she enjoyed the way the music could change her mood.
The style of music played at the festival made an impact on Landkamer, too.
“Acoustic music really affected me. I realized that when I was playing rock music, I always felt angry. When I play bluegrass, I feel calm and happy,” Landkamer said.
The Row Buckers are in the process of looking for new members to fill out the group.
The band plans to begin work on their first CD this winter.
Bates said they will probably include 10 or 12 songs on the CD.
Bates said they do not have a projected completion date in mind for the project, but he hopes to at least have a demo CD ready by this spring to help introduce the band to some new venues.
Wherever the road takes them, it seems clear that the Row Buckers will continue to carry out their mission of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.
A musical life
Landkamer suffers from what he calls “GAS” guitar acquisition syndrome.
“Half of his house is filled with instruments,” Nancy commented.
He got his first toy guitar for Christmas 1964, and taught himself to play.
He got his first “real” guitar the following year, and he has been collecting instruments ever since.
In the early 1960s, Landkamer took piano and clarinet lessons. He studied music theory at Mankato State College from 1973 to 1975.
His first band, Odds and Ends (1966-1968), featured Rob Colby, who went on to do sound for the Grammys and Prince, and produce a Phil Collins live album.
Since that time, Landkamer has been involved in a series of bands for most of the past four decades.
He has recorded six CDs, the most recent of which was Lauderdays: Everybody and His Brother, released in 2003, for which he wrote all 14 songs.
When Mick and Nancy are not playing music with the Row Buckers, they divide their time between raising three children, eating sun-warmed apples and pears straight from the trees in their orchard, and getting dirty in their garden.
Mick’s day job is at Mount Olivet Rolling Acres in Victoria, and Nancy is employed at Elim Home of Watertown.