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Ostroushko at UMM

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Minneapolis musician Peter Ostroushko is considered one of the giants in acoustic music but still found time to be a fairly frequent visitor and performer in Morris.

Ostroushko has played for decades with greats in the music industry, and he has been coming to town for various shows since 1974. A 1981 gig at UMM proved especially memorable.

Ostroushko was a member of the New Prairie Ramblers, the house band for Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. The band was scheduled to play a combination square dance and concert at the university in January. The musicians knew it was cold but set out anyway. At about St. Cloud, a blizzard began blowing in.

"It was insane that we kept going," Ostroushko said.

Cars littered the ditches, with just the roofs visible and the snow piled up. The band crept along, eventually pulling into its hotel. The driver, guitarist Tim Hennessy, was a mess after the harrowing drive and said he needed a stiff drink. Ostroushko had a bottle of Jack Daniels in the back of the vehicle and dug it out.

"It was like Heinz ketchup," Ostroushko said. "It was a Jack Daniels freezee. That's the first time I'd ever seen whisky freeze."

Every event in Morris seemed to be cancelled because of the storm. Everything, of course, except the UMM dance and concert, he said with a laugh.

"We did the concert and dance and it was fantastic," Ostroushko said. "The students were cabin crazy."

Ostroushko, a mandolin and fiddle player, will be among the artists entertaining the Symposium on Small Towns participants at the University of Minnesota, Morris' Edson Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 3.

Ostroushko will be joined by Ruth MacKenzie and Dan Chouinard.

Ostroushko has long performed on "A Prairie Home Companion," and also has appeared on "Austin City Limits," "Late Night with David Letterman," even Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. He has also performed with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

MacKenzie, dubbed the "Janis Joplin of folk" in Finland and Sweden, may be best known as the creator of the concert event, "Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden."

Pianist, accordionist and occasional storyteller Dan Chouinard is a Minneapolis native who regularly creates special programs for Minnesota Public Radio, which blend storytelling, interview and music.

Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance by calling (320) 589-6080. While the concert is held in conjunction with the Symposium on Small Towns, the concert is open to the public.

Ostroushko, 52, grew up in Northeast Minneapolis among Ukrainians who blended music seamlessly into their daily lives. Along with many relatives and neighbors, Ostroushko's father played mandolin and the community regularly gathered for live folk music performances.

"It was just kind of a natural thing," Ostroushko said. "I thought all dads played mandolin. I didn't think it was special until it was gone."

As he aged, Ostroushko gravitated to rock and roll and played in various bands until the noise literally drove him to concentrate solely on acoustic music in 1976.

"I've done time in electric bar bands and I lost some hearing," he said. "I was playing with the Sky Blue Water Boys and after a show the ringing in my ears wouldn't stop. That's when I decided I had to quit. I like any kind of music and I've played any kind of music, but I prefer acoustic music."

Ostroushko deemed it "sheer luck" in 1974 when Keillor asked him to join "A Prairie Home Companion," and he played on Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album.

"At some point you have to decide, since God gave you the talent to do this, if you can make a living at it," Ostroushko said. "People have to make a decision how they're going to do that. In some ways, ("Prairie Home" and the Dylan work) made life easy for me. It opened up a world of opportunities for me in the recording scene."

Ostroushko has played all styles of music with a wealth of talented -- and well-known -- musicians, and in the last 15 to 20 years he's focused on performing his own compositions. Now, about 90 percent of his songs are original works.

Despite the growth of technology in the music business, Ostroushko composes his music "with a No. 2 pencil" and he admits he's still honing his skills in writing music out.

While technology has allowed younger musicians to be exposed to almost endless sources of music, Ostroushko said he hopes they take the time to understand and feel their music. Just like the wintery car trip and concert in Morris almost 27 years ago, creeping slowly along can lead to something special at the end.

"You still have to learn how to play it," Ostroushko said, "so you sell your soul, put in the hard work and hopefully get good at it. Things today are so fast. No one wants to take the time to learn how to get good."