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On the road through Minnesota – Ben Olson

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By BEN OLSON/for The Herald  —  The third time I joined US Highway 2 heading east, it was in northern Minnesota, not far from Thief River Falls. The road went through Bemidji, with its lumberjack theme, past an enormous concrete fish, longer than 2 school buses, and on to Grand Rapids. The nostalgia began to kick in.

In 1986, I was a young buck, managing a cocktail lounge that was open for four months during the year in a Wisconsin summer  resort town. I was also a bass player. I was working with singer-songwriter Tuck Pence. He was a northwoods legend, playing in my club several hours each night.

An interesting proposition

We got a call from a friend in Minneapolis. He wanted to know if we would be interested in being part of a band on a European USO Tour. It sounded like the most interesting thing that had been passed in front of either of us in a while. The details were simple: Marvin Rainwater, rockabilly idol of the 50’s, was making a comeback and he needed a band. Tuck and I were intrigued by the idea. Summer would be over soon and we had to get our offseason booked. 

The devil is always in the detail. We were to back up Marvin at the county fair in Grand Rapids, Minnesota the weekend before Labor Day. The plan was simple. Our band would play a set on the main stage and then Marvin would come out, and we would back him up for a set.

On Friday, Tuck and I drove to a suburb of Minneapolis to rehearse with the rest of the band. There was a drummer, a lead guitarist and a lady who could really sing. She was to sing 6 songs and Tuck was to sing 6 more as the lead singer. The rehearsal went smoothly. We were, after all, professionals. We worked out our parts but we had no way of preparing for the songs on which we would back up the headliner. 

Getting ready for the gig

Pre-internet, we had no way of knowing anything about Marvin Rainwater’s songs, tunes, keys or chord changes- none of us had one of his greatest hits cassettes or 8-tracks. His 1957 number one hit, “I’m Gonna Find Me a Bluebird”, was nothing any of us had ever heard. We all assumed that we would get all of the necessary information on the Saturday afternoon practice with Marvin the next day.

Arriving in Grand Rapids mid-afternoon on Saturday, we were told that there would be no practice with Marvin. We arrived at the fairgrounds at 6:00 for our 7:00 show. Our set went well, with an enthusiastic crowd whooping it up after each song. We still hadn’t met the man we were going  to back up during our next set. When we got done, we headed backstage to ready ourselves for what was to happen next.

Just follow my lead, boys

Marvin was waiting for us, gushing about how well we had done. Now we had to go on stage with him. This is the guidance we were provided with: “while I’m chatting with the crowd or telling a joke, I’ll be strumming a chord on my guitar. That’s the key that the next song will be in.” No information on whether the song would be a foot-stomper or a waltz. The set went remarkably well. Our instincts carried us through and we sounded like we knew what we were doing.

We got paid and the tour to Europe never happened. We drove back to the Dells to play for our regulars for a few more weeks. That winter we headed for parts unknown and worked in the Rocky Mountains. We played Summit County and Steamboat in Colorado, stints at a lodge in West Yellowstone, Grand Targhee and many memorable nights at Jeep’s in Alpine Junction, Wyoming.

Europe, finally

We played one more summer at my bistro in the Dells and then booked ourselves passage to Europe the following fall. Two Cheeseheads with backpacks, one with a guitar, and the other with a mandolin. The mandolin wasn’t the first choice of instruments he would choose to play. It was a grand adventure; busking in the streets and living from hand to mouth for six weeks. Upon our return stateside, we went our separate ways; Tuck to the early season ice fishing in the northwoods and me to another slow winter in a summer tourist town. We’ve shared a stage a number of times since then, but our working partnership was over.

I hadn’t been through Grand Rapids, Minnesota since that day in 1986. Traveling through town a couple days ago brought some memories rushing back.

Ben Olson, musician and Oakridge Resident, with his standup bass Ben Olson photo

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