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Is Northfield truly becoming ‘Music City, Minnesota’?

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — In short order, a small but committed group of musicians and music supporters have made a little big scene on the prairie.

Jessica Paxton
Courtesy of Jessica Johnson Paxton
Jessica Johnson Paxton

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — Ten years ago, Jessica Johnson Paxton returned to Northfield. The lifelong music lover had briefly attended St. Olaf College in Northfield in the early ‘80s, but transferred to the University of Minnesota and ended up working as a music consultant for Twin Cities Public Television. In 2002, looking to raise her son in a small town “with an urban-hipster but Mayberry-Americana vibe,” she became enchanted with the small college town in the Cannon River Valley.

“I initially was very cynical; I wanted to be within an hour of the Twin Cities, and Northfield just seemed a little too precious for me,” she said of Northfield, which lies 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities on I-35W. “But then I saw something that referred to Northfield as ‘Music City, Minnesota,’ and I was like, ‘OK, well, that’s the place for me!’

“I moved here and quickly realized there was no music scene whatsoever – or hardly at all. But over the years, people like myself – transplants from the Cities and also passionate about music – we’ve been able to take that moniker and make it a reality. I truly believe, in the last couple of years, that Northfield is, finally, on its way to becoming Music City, Minnesota.”

Signs of a cohesive scene are everywhere

And maybe beyond. For a town the size of Northfield (population: 20,000, with nary a single movie theater to be found), the live music activity is impressive, and signs of a cohesive scene are everywhere — from the area’s fertile roots (The Nightcrawlers, The Big Wu, Something Fierce, Gospel Gossip, Casey Wasner, Rogue Valley, Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, Storyhill, Spymob, Afternoon Records, and many more got their start in Northfield dorms, clubs and coffeehouses, including Carleton College’s seminal new music club The Cave), to the current crop, which includes The Counterfactuals (made up of three area professors), Alison Rae, Meredith Fierke, Jon Manners, Mr. Sticky, Dirty Petrov and the Gentillionaires and producer/songwriter Michael Morris’ many projects.

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Throw into the mix a healthy house concert scene; an insatiably curious and well-educated populace; a pipeline of music-mad high schools and colleges; Johnson Paxton’s must-hear free-form radio show “All Wheel Drive” on the locally owned and truly independent KYMN-AM; and the lure of Division Street in downtown Northfield, where several clubs host free live music seven nights a week and which Johnson Paxton likens to Austin, Texas’s 6th Street, and it becomes clear that Morris’ claim that Northfield “could be a mini-Olympia, Washington, or Athens, Georgia” in the making isn’t just a boast of provincial pride.

“When I moved down here in 1995, I was playing gigs with Lori Wray in the Twin Cities, and it never ever crossed our minds to book gigs down here, because this was the realm of old guys playing cover songs,” said Doug Bratland, who plays with his twin brother Don in the Johnny Cash-influenced Matt Arthur & The Bratlanders

“We never considered Northfield as a possibility of playing the same kinds of gigs as we were playing in the Cities. Now, look at it.”

During my recent trip to Division Street, a rack of flannel shirts – de rigueur for the coming winter – sold for five bucks outside a boutique, while the owners of the High Noon tattoo and art gallery hung a new exhibition, and a few quiet souls gathered in the Northfield Prayer Room

At the same time, music spilled out simultaneously from the stages of Hogan Brothers Acoustic CafeThe Tavern, the Contented Cow,  and the Upstairs Rueb ‘N’ Stein

‘Packed shoulder to shoulder’

“I’ve seen the Tavern Lounge, which is a long bowling alley of a room, packed shoulder to shoulder to see a goofy little ‘80s cover band. I’ve seen 300 people on the back patio of the Contented Cow to watch Trailer Trash,” said Rich Larson, a St. Olaf alum, bartender, booking agent, and columnist for The Northfield Entertainment Guide. 

“People in Northfield love music the way people in Wisconsin love cheese.”

“Overall, we’re a town of people that care passionately about the arts and we do something about it,” said Johnson Paxton. “We make it happen. We support it. We don’t take it for granted, and as a result, things have really begun to blossom.”

The newest addition to Division Street is The Chapel, arguably the best little listening room in Minnesota. Its high walls and no-nonsense décor make for an extremely intimate concert experience, and it doubles as an art gallery, loft, and recording studio for Michael Morris, an intense and timeless soul who not-so quietly is going about the business of making something – everything – happen.

Michael Morris
Courtesy of Michael Morris
“I think Northfield has had a lot of the ingredients that you see in small towns with strong scenes for a long time, but it’s never quite happened,” said Michael Morris.

Morris is a font of Northfield activity unto himself, with his bands Dewi Saint and The Rice County Roosters, his label, Plastic Horse Records, his recording studio, The Barn, and his booking/promotion agency Rocking Horse Touring & Promotion.

“I think Northfield has had a lot of the ingredients that you see in small towns with strong scenes for a long time, but it’s never quite happened,” said Morris. “I think there’s more going on right now, but I don’t think its quite taken hold to call it a blooming scene. It’s more like, there’s a lot of intentional planting and gardening going on. Hopefully the Cannon River Valley will prove as fruitful a place to plant music as it is to plant crops.”

Jesse James, colleges and Malt-O-Meal

For the moment, the area is best known for its annual celebration of Jesse James, whose bank-robbing gang was infamously thwarted in a shootout with Northfielders on Division Street in 1876; St. Olaf and Carleton colleges; and the Malt-O-Meal plant, whose sugary aroma, if the wind is just right, permeates the town like chocolate fairy dust and reminds all concerned how sweet life can be. 

Speaking of which, the other night at the Chapel, Don Bratland treated all comers to a bucket of his sweet and super-succulent apples, plucked from his own farm. “I picked eight buckets of these this week,” he whispered during Charlie Parr’s set, as several Chapel-goers munched on the fruits of his labors, including two over-the-Minnesota-moon French filmmakers behind the forthcoming documentary “Meeting Charlie Parr.”

Charlie Parr plays the Chapel
Courtesy of Charlie Parr
Charlie Parr playing the Chapel

“I love Northfield,” said Parr. “When I play here, I always come down and walk over the bridge and down by the river. My dad used to bring me here when I was a kid because he loved Jesse James Days, and so did I. It’s the greatest story ever: ‘Gimme all your money.’”

To be sure, something outlaw and Wild Wild Midwest is baked into Northfield itself, and reflected in much of the insurgent country music that has taken root. Morris notes that Son Volt recorded “Trace” in the winter of 1994 at nearby Salmagundi studios. A couch from the old Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls now resides at the Contented Cow, and there is more than a Minnesota-whiff of Duluth’s Trampled By Turtles and Hibbing’s Bob Dylan in the air.

Inspired by its history as an epicenter of dairy farms, Northfield’s official motto is “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment.” From the sounds of it, the wide-open prairie provides unique inspiration. Similarly, the area seems to be populated by particularly good listeners – nurtured by a studious landscape and spiritual silences.

“Nashville squelched me,” said singer/songwriter Alison Rae. “I moved there when I was 18, sang with a band, and signed with a label. But I couldn’t sing, because I saw everybody doing it everywhere. And there’s something about Northfield that’s washed me. Being the kind of person I am, I needed space. Northfield is wide open, and you can breathe. It’s a place you can grow.”

‘There’s definitely something going on’

“I don’t know if it’s a scene, but there’s definitely something going on right now,” said songwriter/producer/engineer Ray Coudret, who heads up the 4-year-old Red Barn concert series in Northfield that in recent months has showcased Dan Wilson, Eliza Gilkyson, Chris Smither, Chastity Brown, Gary Louris, and more. “Quite honestly, not all of the music is perfect, but you have a good chance of seeing something really cool at any given show. People bring a lot of passion.”

Northfield’s biggest musical export thus far has been Marilyn Sellars, whose Kris Kristofferson-penned single “One Day At A Time” knocked Elvis Presley off the country charts in 1974. The Monkees’ Peter Tork and Trailer Trash’s Nate Dungan attended Carleton, and at the moment, an enthusiastic mélange of students, professors, townies, and transplants are reaping an unprecedented arts-academia harvest that might actually one day live up to its moniker of Music City, Minnesota.

“In the next 12 months, Matt Arthur & The Bratlanders, Alison Rae, The Counterfactuals, Meredith Fierke,  and Michael Morris’ bands Dewi Saint and Wesley Church and the Fabulous Vanguards are all releasing albums,” said Larson. “I’ve heard a little bit of what’s coming, and what I’ve heard is impressive. I just think 2013 is going to be a big year down here.”

Um, just not too big.

“I want people to keep thinking Northfield is just Malt-O-Meal and Jesse James,” said Morris; “so they don’t all hurry down here and throw a wrench into what we have going on, because it feels very special right now.”