The stars are aligning in Mineral Point this Saturday bringing three of my favorite things together under one roof in the town my husband, Erik, and I have called home since May.
The Rural Musicians Forum (“RMF”), which for more that 25 years has been bringing world-class music and musicians to rural communities in southwestern Wisconsin (and, in full disclosure, for which I serve as Board secretary), is hosting a “January Thaw” concert at the Mineral Point Opera House.
The show, meant to provide a musical escape from winter that supports RMF’s excellent annual Music for a Summer Evening series and associated costs, features Mineral Point’s own Katie Burns (shown at right) as the opening act for what is surely to be an enjoyable evening. (RMF’s January Thaw concert in Spring Green last year featured three acts including Mineral Point’s Cupola and the rocking quartet Better Daze. Half of the latter call Mineral Point home; you can catch the group at Gray Dog Deli on Feb. 13.)
I first experienced the richness of RMF and its impact on community in our part of Wisconsin at a concert at Spring Green’s Unity Chapel more than 16 years ago. A hallmark of the RMF summer concerts is that they are not ticketed and instead a freewill donation is requested. Concerts like “January Thaw,” which are ticketed, are critical to supporting the programming RMF has planned for 2015.
In addition to bringing amazing performers to our rural towns and villages that we might not travel elsewhere to enjoy, RMF also provides nonprofessional singers and musicians opportunities to come together to create beautiful music in summer and winter. For the last several years my husband and I have performed as members of the Taliesin Chorus at RMF concerts at Taliesin’s historic Hillside Theater.
Mineral Point’s Monica Dunn and Leslie Damaso have been featured soloists at RMF summer and winter concerts.
On Saturday, after Katie Burns performs on vocals and guitar along with bandmates cellist Eric Miller (who often performs with RFM’s community ensembles) and Michael Sherry on drums, RMF presents Graminy, a Madison Area Music Association-winning quintet that will bring their “eco-acoustic” or “class-grass” fusion of classical and grassroots music to the stage. Graminy’s name is rooted in the botanical word for the grass family, Gramineae, and its music is drawn from grassroots’ deep-earth traditions, from places and ecologies near and far.
Graminy are Shauncey Ali, a champion fiddler with a degree in botany and a lifelong fascination with the viola; Michael Bell, who plays mandolin and is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; multi-instrumentalist Chris Wagoner and his wife, Mary Gaines, who perform together as The Stellanovas and host the weekly “Mad Toast Live!” music show every other Tuesday at the Brink Lounge in Madison and broadcast Fridays at midnight on WORT-FM; and guitarist Chris Powers, a professional acoustic musician for more than 30 years who has played and recorded with many string bands in folk, bluegrass, country-blues and jazz. He hosts a weekly radio program on WORT-FM and performs locally with several bands.
In an interview published in this month’s issue of Voice of the River Valley (which, in full disclosure, I edit and publish), Powers explained Graminy’s fusion of classical music with grassroots traditions thus: “It’s a sad truth that bluegrass is still widely disparaged as ‘hillbilly’ in popular media, almost always by people wholly ignorant of that music’s true power and beauty. So, when Mike [Bell] assembled this group, he combined the classical sound of the string trio — violin, viola and cello — with the driving bluegrass rhythms of the guitar and mandolin. The violins double as fiddles, and the cello plays bass lines. You put the classy clichés of classical music on top of the bluegrass stereotype, and voila, people are hearing music in a whole new way.”
Powers said Graminy is finishing their third album, so Saturday’s concertgoers will be treated to new songs with titles like “Dance of the Plants,” “Blackberry Love” and “Mr. Fancy Pants.” They’ll also feature songs from their “Bluegrass Symphony in D,” which won a MAMA for “Best Classical Recording” in 2014.
Powers also told Voice: “We’ve heard nothing but great things about the Mineral Point Opera House, and can’t wait to hit that stage next month!”
I’m pretty sure Graminy will leave Mineral Point with a few new favorite things of their own!
The Rural Musicians Forum sponsors a “January Thaw” featuring Graminy and the Katie Burns Band at 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Mineral Point Opera House, 139 High St. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, or free for kids 12 and under. Advance tickets are available at http://www.ruralmusiciansforum.org and at Mineral Point’s Longbranch Gallery. For details of RMF’s upcoming summer series, see the website and follow them on Facebook.
Contributed by Sara Lomasz Flesch