By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN It started with jam sessions at the Three Crows Cafe and Coffee House in Delano, and led to four musicians combining their different music styles, experience, and talent to produce bluegrass tunes as the Prairiegrass Band.
The group is to perform at Winsted’s “Art in the Park” at Mill Reserve Park, Friday, June 5 from 5 to 8 p.m.
They are looking forward to the opportunity to play in Winsted’s newly landscaped park and amphitheater.
“It is just fun to see how Winsted has changed,” band member Bonnie Hallett said.
“I have been coming to Winsted for 10 to 12 years because my boys live here, and I have seen the progress the town has made,” Hallett said. “I often thought that down by the lake if they could just fix that up it would be nice. Then, all of a sudden, last summer, they came up with the lake promenade. I think it is just wonderful.”
When the musicians of the Prairiegrass Band pool their various backgrouds, it is a blend of church, rock, blues, country, and classical music.
“Each of us brings our favorite music to the group,” Hallett said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to perform it, but we give everybody a chance. Not one person is the main performer. We want the band to be democratic.”
All of the years of experience and knowledge have led to some unique tunes for this group.
“We sometimes take songs like ‘Proud Mary’ and bluegrass them up, which is kind of interesting because “Proud Mary” is an old rock standard,” Hallett said.
Hallett plays the fiddle, mandolin, and sings for Prairiegrass. She is a retired public school teacher with a bachelor of science degree in art, music, and special education, who began taking violin lessons in the fourth grade.
Today, she is giving private violin and guitar lessons through the Community Education department at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Schools.
For many years, before moving to Winsted to be close to her sons, Eddie and Tom Swantek, Hallett lived in Thief River Falls, where she played violin for 25 years as a member of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony.
“I played a lot of classical music and it was challenging,” Hallett said.
When she became director of the historical society in Thief River Falls, she brought band music to the festivals in town. It was with one of these bands that Hallett was given the opportunity to play old-time country music.
“Hank Williams, Sr. was their favorite and I listened to some tapes and Hank Williams always had a fiddler in the background so I tried to copy that,” Hallett said.
Hallett has three violins. “I have a violin that I use for fiddling that is painted purple and it has a very deep kind of alto sound to it,” Hallett said. “It was made in China and not real expensive. Then I have another violin I bought a couple of years ago which is a German-made violin and has a beautiful sweet sound to it. That is for my classical music.”
Hallett’s third violin was her grandfather’s, who was also a fiddler. The fiddle had been stored in the attic of her parents’ home while she was growing up and was one of the incentives she had for learning to play the violin. She uses her grandfather’s fiddle for special occasions.
Band member Greg Landkamer, who plays lead guitar and sings, has a rock and roll background.
He grew up in the Mankato area, where he learned piano, clarinet, and later, the guitar.
He played in a rock band in high school and went on to study music theory at Mankato State from 1973 to 1975.
Since that time, Landkamer has been involved in a series of bands for most of the past four decades.
He has made his home in Watertown, and has been a physics teacher at Lester Prairie High School since 1996.
Previous to joining Prairiegrass Band, he had been in a band with David Rue, an elementary music teacher at Lester Prairie, and they recorded a CD in 2002.
Later, he was part of the Row Buckers, that played a mixture of bluegrass and folk music.
He has composed some songs that are mostly rock, and one rock song he has turned into a folk song, which the band enjoys playing. They have plans to make it into a bluegrass tune.
Gary Cobus of St. Michael is the banjo player and sings for the group.
He started listening to bluegrass music by way of the “Beverly Hillbillies” TV show in the 1960s and liked the sound of the banjo.
He learned how to play his brother’s acoustic guitar in 1968, and in 1976, he bought his first banjo.
Cobus attended college from 1976 to 1981 at the University of Wisconsin Platteville, where he had many opportunities to play with other bluegrass musicians.
Following college, Cobus lived in Austin, TX for many years, where he learned how to play electric bass and performed in a rock/blues band.
During his time in Austin, Cobus continued to listen to bluegrass music and practiced playing the banjo.
In 1996, Gary moved to Minnesota where he immediately became involved with the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association and today, he is the treasurer for the organization.
Gary and his wife, Janet, who is a singer and rhythm guitarist, have played with the Seldom Herd Bluegrass band for several years.
Gary also plays upright bass in a church group, “Inspiration” at St. Michael Catholic Church in St. Michael.
Sonja Johnson of Lester Prairie, the newest member to join the group, joined in November. She plays stand-up bass.
Johnson is an actor who “loves performing.” Recently, she was Ethel Banks in the play “Barefoot in the Park” at the Hutchinson Theater Company.
Johnson has taken organ lessons since before kindergarten and has been a church organist for many years at the United Church of Christ in Lester Prairie.
She began playing bass at a friend’s house about five years ago.
Since then, she has played and sung with the Row Buckers.
Johnson has tried electric bass, but liked the stand-up better. She bought her bass and named it “Caesar” because her friend told her watching her open the case to take out her instrument reminded her of a Caesarean section birth.
The band name, Prairiegrass, was taken from an earlier band in northwestern Minnesota which had played together for a number of years until two years ago, when Hallett left the area to move to Winsted.
The members of the original Prairiegrass Band were Darren Schmidt (banjo), Ed Olson (clawhammer banjo), Paul Tanberg, and Bruce Elseth who sang and played the guitar, and Hallett who played the fiddle.
Hallett asked permission to use the band name again, and all of the previous band members said, “go for it.”
Future plans for the group include composing and promoting some of their own songs.
“That is the signature of a good band,” Hallett said. “We are working on a couple of tunes that Greg and Gary have composed, and I have a couple of waltzes I have composed for special occasions.”
An upcoming event for the Prairiegrass Band will be at Riversong Festival in Hutchinson beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday, July 18.