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Follow along with our cruise journal for photos, videos, and notes from on board the Westerdam
Garrison Keillor was born in Anoka, graduated from the University of Minnesota (’66), and lives in St. Paul. He is the author of numerous books, including Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance; O, What A Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound (Grove Press); and The Keillor Reader (Viking). He is also the editor of the Good Poems anthologies.
One minute he’s mild-mannered Tim Russell; the next he’s George W. Bush or Ira Glass or Barack Obama. It’s pretty darn difficult to stump Tim. Want proof? Check out Tim Russell: Man of a Thousand Voices, a CD collection of favorite moments from his work on APHC. On film, his roles include the part of Al, the stage manager, in the Robert Altman movie A Prairie Home Companion and a detective in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. Tim is also a film critic; his reviews can be found at russellreviews.com.
Sue Scott has taken her talents from the stage to the airwaves doing “funny voices on the radio” with A Prairie Home Companion‘s Royal Academy of Radio Actors since 1992. Never short on versatility, she has played everything from overly concerned moms to Guy Noir femme fatales to black belt reference librarians to devastatingly beautiful super models to leathery crones who’ve smoked one pack of Camel straights too many. A highly regarded character actor who has appeared in movies and on theater stages throughout the Midwest, she is also well known for her extensive voice-over work on radio and television. Sue Scott, Seriously Silly, a CD produced by A Prairie Home Companion, highlights Sue’s best work … so far.
Fred Newman first learned to spin tales and scatter sounds from great storytellers in small-town Georgia. Today, he is an actor, writer, musician, composer, and sound designer for stage, screen, cartoon, and concert hall. He is also the sound-effects guy for A Prairie Home Companion. Author of the book MouthSounds, he has appeared on TV shows including Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, Disney’s New Mickey Mouse Club, and public television’s Between the Lions. His recent projects range from the debut of his first symphony in San Francisco to imagining, for the National Park Service, the sound of Old Faithful from five miles below to surface eruption — all done with his mouth.
Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound
Paul Cebar cut his musical teeth on the Milwaukee coffeehouse folk scene of the mid-1970s. He also spent time working in New Orleans, as a musicologist in Florida, and as a journeyman wanderer in Cuba. A decade later, his band the Milwaukeeans started to make its mark in the Midwest. Several years ago, the group got a fresh name. Now Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound brings forth a funky, lyrically charged racket that is explosive, yet intimate. Their 2014 CD is Fine Rude Thing (Groovesburg Joys). Paul Cebar (guitar, vocals), Reggie Bordeaux (drums), Bob Jennings (keyboards, saxophone), Mike Fredrickson (bass), and Paul Scher (saxophone)
From baling twine to border collies, Montana singer-songwriter Stephanie Davis’ favorite subject matter can be found right in her backyard. After a stint in Nashville, where her songs were recorded by Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, and others, Stephanie grew homesick and returned to her home state. Brimming with the romance of cowboy life, she poured her songwriting royalties into what proved to be one of the wildest, dumbest, most disaster-prone herds of cows to graze a hillside. Lessons learned, Stephanie is back doing what she loves best: writing and singing throughout the West.
Guitarist-songwriter-producer-teacher Terry “Goose” Downing began playing music in church as a youngster growing up in Jacksonville, North Carolina. After moving to Nashville, he worked with country artists Razzy Bailey and Ken Mellons. And when his focus shifted to the blues, he gigged with Roscoe Shelton, Earl Gaines, Marion James, Clifford Curry, and Chicago/Baton Rouge great Henry Gray. He is a long-standing member of Nashville’s Bluesiana party band Delicious Blues Stew, in addition to playing with the Shaun Murphy Band.
Originally from Sharon, Pennsylvania, Bernie Dresel has been in the percussion game since he got his first drum kit at the age of two. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, he headed to Los Angeles. He’s worked with countless artists, from Chaka Khan and Maynard Ferguson to David Byrne and Brian Wilson, and spent 15 years with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. He currently plays with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and heads up his own 12-piece funk band, BERN.
Keyboardist, composer, and arranger Richard Dworsky is music director for A Prairie Home Companion, where he leads the band, composes themes, improvises script underscores, and collaborates with such diverse guests as Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor, Brad Paisley, and Sheryl Crow. Vocalist Kristin Chenoweth included his song “Goin’ to the Dance with You” on her album Let Yourself Go. Rich has released many recordings of original material, including So Near and Dear to Me (Prairie Home Productions), and has provided music for documentaries on HBO and PBS.
When Twin Cities jazz singer Connie Evingson was a kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, she loved listening to her dad’s record collection — Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee. Then she grew up to be an adventurous and inventive artist in her own right, known for her work with the vocal jazz group Moore By Four and her solo appearances on concert and club stages worldwide. She is the creator of Fever, A Tribute to Peggy Lee, which she has performed throughout the U.S. With a repertoire that ranges from jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards to the Beatles, Broadway, bossa nova, blues, gypsy jazz, and more, Connie has numerous recordings — ten, to date — heard on radio stations across the globe.
Growing up in Texas, you had better learn to love country music, and guitarist Ricky Ford certainly took that mandate to heart. He started his own country band at the age of 17, gigging for several years in the Houston area. Then, during his college days at Texas A&M, he and his Sundown bandmates played around College Station, Texas. Today Ricky continues to perform every chance he gets. And he always looks forward to Sundown’s reunion gigs — wherever those may be.
Sarah Jarosz’s debut album, Song Up In Her Head, was released in 2009 — at just about the same time she was graduating from high school. She went from cap and gown to a round of summer music festivals, then pulled up stakes in Wimberley, Texas, to enroll in the New England Conservatory of Music. Since earning a degree in Contemporary Improvisation in 2013, this multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo) makes her home in New York City. Build Me Up From Bones (Sugar Hill) is her most recent recording.
Versatile soprano Maria Jette can sing opera one minute, then make a sharp turn to pop songs, chamber music, oratorio, or show tunes the next. She is often a guest on A Prairie Home Companion and has appeared with orchestras nationwide, including the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Minnesota Orchestra. She has collaborated with choral groups across the U.S. and has been a frequent performer at the Oregon Bach and San Luis Obispo Mozart festivals and the Oregon Festival of American Music. Among her recordings is In Our Little Paradise: Songs of P.G. Wodehouse, with pianist/accordionist Dan Chouinard.
Mary Louise Knutson
Minneapolis-based jazz pianist and composer Mary Louise Knutson can be heard regularly in the Twin Cities performing with area vocalists and with her own group, the Mary Louise Knutson Trio. In addition, she has toured regularly with trumpeter Doc Severinsen and his big band. And she has performed with other jazz greats — Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Nicholas Payton, Slide Hampton, and many more. In 2005, she was a finalist in the Kennedy Center’s Women in Jazz International Piano Competition. Her 2011 jazz trio CD, In the Bubble (Meridian Jazz), made JazzWeek’s Top 10 and remained on the chart for 19 weeks straight.
Minnesota-based multi-instrumentalist Richard Kriehn has been playing on A Prairie Home Companion since 2010. He has also performed in symphony orchestras, bluegrass bands, baroque ensembles, pit orchestras, cover bands, and country bands. While living in Nashville, he toured with Travis Tritt, Aaron Tippin, and Michael Peterson, all the while, playing in the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble and the bluegrass group 1946. He made numerous appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, and you may have caught him on Prime Time Country — or even an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. Prior to moving to the Twin Cities, Richard and his family lived in Eastern Washington where he was a faculty member in the School of Music, Washington State University.
Composer, arranger, producer, guitarist Dean Magraw has honed his style of music through years of playing with some of the finest musicians in the United States and Europe. His first recording, Broken Silence, came out in 1994 and won the NAIRD award for Best Acoustic Instrumental Album of the Year. Dean has since turned out several dazzling albums, including his latest, Reservoir (Acoustic Music Records), a collaboration with renowned Hungarian guitarist Sándor Szabó. ECM recording artist Steve Tibbetts aptly described Dean’s music as “so liquid, lyrical, and effortless, it’s like listening to a dancer.”
Hailed by The New Yorker as “funny and touching, ceaselessly clever, and scarily talented,” singer, songwriter, actor, and activist Nellie McKay has amassed quite a following with her quirky musical approach. The London-born, New York-based performer has released half a dozen albums. The latest, My Weekly Reader (Savoy Records), is a collection of favorite songs from the 1960s. For her portrayal of Polly Peachum in the Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, she won a Theatre World Award. And the Humane Society honored her with a Doris Day Music Award, in recognition of her dedication to animal rights.
Mickey Mills and Steel
Mickey Mills has been called “the fastest steel drum soloist on earth.” He recalls first hearing the instrument when he was eight, growing up in Port-of-Spain Trinidad, West Indies. At 12, he was performing with the Solo Harmonites Steel Orchestra. He moved to New York in 1970, where he worked with Mick Jagger, Johnny Mathis, percussionist Ralph McDonald, and Calypso artists The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, among others. Now making his home in North Carolina, this vocalist, composer, actor, and steel drum ace keeps up a busy performance schedule while also leading an educational program called Steel-A-Rama, where students learn steel drum history, construction, and technique.
Missouri native and North Carolina transplant Joe Newberry has played music most of his life. Known for his powerful banjo work, he is also a prizewinning guitarist, fiddler, singer, and songwriter. He plays with old-time music legends Bill Hicks, Jim Watson, and Mike Craver, in a duo with mandolinist Mike Compton, and — along with Mike — performs with Bruce Molsky and Rafe Stefanini as the Jumpsteady Boys. Joe writes songs that consistently show up on the Bluegrass charts, including “Singing As We Rise,” which took the songwriting prize for Gospel Recorded Performance at the 2012 IBMA Awards.
Songwriter and vocalist Aoife O’Donovan grew up in a musical family in Massachusetts. In her teens, she took an interest in the American folk tradition, and after graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, she formed the progressive bluegrass band Crooked Still and the trio Sometymes Why. The stunning versatility of her voice has led to collaborations across a wide variety of genres, including a role as vocalist on the Grammy-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions alongside Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan. Her debut solo album, Fossils, was released in 2013 on the Yep Roc label.
Mandolinist/composer Peter Ostroushko grew up listening to tunes played at family get-togethers in the Ukrainian community of northeast Minneapolis. It’s the music that provides the basis for many of his compositions. His first recording session was an uncredited mandolin set on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Since then, his works have been performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra, among others, and his music is featured on public television specials such as Ken Burns’ The National Parks and Minnesota: A History of the Land, for which Peter won an Emmy. The Mando Chronicles, Peter’s three-CD boxed set, was released in 2012 on Red House Records.
Singer-songwriter-science geek Lynn Peterson is a native Minnesotan whose career took her to New York City, where she spent eight years as a performer, composer, and studio vocalist, before returning to the Twin Cities. And the science geek part? She studied chemistry as an undergrad and now continues graduate work focused on chemistry and sustainability, with a particular concentration on methylmercury, a bioaccumulative environmental toxicant. But back to music: Her Norwegian roots and love of Norway are inspiration for an upcoming recording project: Songs of the Sognefjord. A recent four-song EP is titled Opus III.
From bluegrass to big band jazz, Chris Siebold knows his way around a guitar — or bass or banjo or mandolin or lap steel or a bunch of other instruments, for that matter. And did we mention his vocal chops? Based in Chicago, this composer-arranger-instrumentalist-vocalist draws from a deep well of influences and styles, and has put his talents to work in ensembles such as Howard Levy’s Acoustic Express and Kick the Cat. In 2010, he formed the band Psycles, a large and extremely versatile group whose album Live at Martyrs’ was released the following year.
Bassist Larry Steen grew up in California’s Napa Valley, where his extended family founded several wineries. In high school, he decided to play the bass so he could be cool and play in a rock band. (“There were enough guitar players,” he said.) Turns out, his mastery of the instrument has led to performances with renowned artists like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Mel Tormé, and others. Currently, Larry co-leads Sip of Soul, a soul-R&B project with his wife, vocalist Nikki Steen.
Calling themselves Storyhill, acoustic duo Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson are longtime musical collaborators beginning when they started performing together as teenagers in Bozeman, Montana. (Chris still makes his home in Montana; John is based in Minnesota.) Their 2007 recording — simply titled Storyhill — was named Best CD of the Year by the Indie Acoustic Project and led to their winning the prestigious Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition. In 2010, they released Shade of the Trees, a collection of old-fashioned storytelling songs with hauntingly spare acoustic arrangements. They sing about love, war and the many sorrows that accompany them. Storyhill is currently in the process of working on their third disc on Red House Records, slated to be released in 2015.
Vern Sutton has collaborated with major musical organizations as a singer, actor, director and educator. He was a founding member of the Center Opera Company, which became the Minnesota Opera, and composers Dominick Argento, Robert Ward, Conrad Susa, Libby Larsen and others have written for his voice. For 36 years, he taught at the University of Minnesota School of Music, and for four summers he was artistic director of Opera in the Ozarks. At the Guthrie Theater, he has appeared in productions of A Christmas Carol and 1776. Vern was a guest on the very first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion.
Funny how things come together. Born in Rome, Italy, to parents from Minnesota, Hilary Thavis grew up loving music — especially folk music — from Woody Guthrie to Italian folk singers like Fabrizio De André and Francesco De Gregori. But it was the blues that ultimately captured her attention. Trouble & Truth is the 2011 recording from her band Gaia Groove. Now making her home in the Twin Cities, Hilary is working on a solo album of original songs.
Pianist and clarinetist Butch Thompson has earned a reputation the world over as a traditional jazz and ragtime master. Born in Marine-on-St. Croix, Minnesota, he was playing Christmas carols on his mother’s upright piano by age three. Still in his teens, he began making frequent visits to New Orleans to learn from veteran musicians like clarinetist George Lewis. He played American and European festivals and by 1974, he had become A Prairie Home Companion‘s house pianist. In the decades since, he has traveled the world, from Cairo to Tokyo, as a soloist and with his trio and eight-piece Jazz Originals Band. His many recordings include Vicksburg Blues, a collaboration with guitarist Pat Donohue.
Pianist Sonja Thompson enjoys a varied professional life as performer, educator, church musician, theater musician, conductor, and vocal coach. Based in the Minneapolis area, she keeps busy as a recitalist and chamber musician, frequently conducts musicals and operas, and is often found on the organ bench for church and chapel services. She has recently appeared with Frank Theatre, Skylark Opera, the Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota, the City of Lakes Chamber Music Festival, and Open Eye Figure Theatre. In addition to performing, Sonja is Assistant Professor of Music and College Organist at Augsburg College.
When Chuck Thorp takes time from his CEO duties at DoubleDave’s Pizzaworks — an Austin, Texas-based chain of pizza restaurants — you’re apt to find him sitting at a drum kit. Even as a youngster in Temple, Texas, he was drawn to percussion, running multiple lemonade stands until, after three summers, he’d amassed enough money to buy his first drum set. In high school, his garage band, Runnin’, landed the occasional nightclub gig. (Don’t tell — Chuck was only 16.) These days, his group The Plants can be heard at various Austin-area venues, and he picks up gigs with other rock, blues, and country bands.
Singer, songwriter, fiddle player Sara Watkins was only eight when she, her brother Sean, and Chris Thile started the genre-bending, Grammy-winning trio Nickel Creek. Two decades later — with Nickel Creek on hiatus — she struck out on her own, and as one reviewer put it, “Watkins isn’t afraid to pluck at the heartstrings by whatever means necessary, be it a handful of well-placed words or a rosin-powdered bow.” In 2012, Nonesuch Records released Sara Watkins’ second solo album, Sun Midnight Sun, and she has guest-starred on recordings by Béla Fleck, the Chieftains, Richard Thompson, and others.
When he was 12 years old, Sean Watkins co-founded the California-based bluegrass group Nickel Creek, kick-starting a career that would take the guitarist-singer-songwriter to the top of the charts and the stage of the Grammy Awards. By the time Nickel Creek decided to take an open-ended break, Sean had spent decades being a band frontman or sideman. It was time for him to “step out of supportive roles” and claim his own turf. In 2014, he released his first solo album, All I Do Is Lie (Roaring Girl Records). “This feels like starting over, in a way,” he explains. “It’s the beginning of the next phase.”
Robin and Linda Williams
“Individually their voices can melt cheese, and in duet they can do all-purpose welding,” Garrison Keillor has said of Robin and Linda Williams. Singing the music they love, be it bluegrass, folk, old-time, or acoustic country, these two have carved out a more than four-decade career that has taken them from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. Robin and Linda made their first appearance on A Prairie Home Companion in 1975, the same year that they recorded their first album. In 2013, they released their 23rd, Back 40 (Red House Records), a celebration of their 40th year of making music together.
Texas native Tim Williams grew up on bluegrass and Texas Swing. While attending Texas A&M, he performed with the band Sundown, and after college, Tim made his way to the northwest, playing acoustic folk and bluegrass with Prairie Home regular Richard Kriehn. Now this singer/songwriter/instrumentalist — trained in the honkytonks of the East Texas — is based in Idaho. Folks who hear him will tell you, he has a knack for making a song his own.
Maine-based pianist Jed Wilson first gained attention for his musical abilities when performing on the Portland, Oregon, jazz scene as a teenager. Later, while studying at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, he was part of a prodigious cohort of students that included future luminaries Heather Masse and Aoife O’Donovan. Jed became a favorite accompanist of both singers, and in subsequent years, performed widely with each of them. Additionally, he was a member of the Wild Band of Snee, an innovative project led by legendary cello wizard Rushad Eggleston.
Cuba-born career diplomat Frank Almaguer has more than 40 years of experience working on international development and cooperation issues in the Americas, starting with his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize in the 1960s and culminating with his appointment as United States ambassador to Honduras under two American presidents. He has earned numerous honors and recognition for his service, including two Presidential Meritorious Awards. His personal insights on the Caribbean region’s history, culture, and socioeconomic challenges highlight the importance of the area beyond its “fun in the sun” reputation.
Kim Christensen is a knitter, a spinner, and — as luck would have it — a teacher. Based in Minnesota, she has taught at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, and any number of yarn stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Kim’s classes will provide lots of inspiration for novice knitter and “dyed-in-the-wool” expert alike!
Billy Collins was twice appointed United States poet laureate and also served as New York state poet laureate. In 2004, he was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s Mark Twain Award for humor in poetry. Among his other honors are the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize, and the Levinson Prize — all awarded by Poetry magazine. The poems in Sailing Alone Around the Room, The Trouble with Poetry, Aimless Love, and his other best-selling collections have sparked a firestorm of interest in the art. His latest is an illustrated poem for children, titled Voyage (Bunker Hill Publishing).
Joy Davina and Todd Paulus
Joy Davina and Todd Paulus are from the Social Dance Studio in Minneapolis, specializing in group class education in Salsa, West Coast Swing, and Ballroom. The two compete and perform in Minnesota and on the national level, and they are thrilled to bring dance to the Prairie Home Companion cruise. Joy and Todd emphasize that dance is great exercise and fun for all, and they encourage everyone to attend their sessions — with or without a partner.
Dan Johnson has been immersed in the world of medicine all his life — a small-town internist married to a nurse, and the son of a small-town GP and nurse. He is many other things: active in healthcare IT development and quality assurance, a good writer and editor, a mediocre musician (recovering trombonist), an airplane and glider pilot who writes on aviation medicine, a retired sailor, a skilled photographer, and a grower of grapes. He’s grossly ignorant of popular culture, but has been able to function as a responsible, independent adult regardless, even able to shop for groceries by himself. He’s not good with plumbing, but can glue toys and dishes back together pretty well.
John Saucke is a “a Scotch connoisseur of the highest order.” So says the Campus Club of the University of Minnesota. How did he get that status? John explains: “It was luck. Back in the ’90s, I was in a bagpipe band, where the members introduced me to good Scotch. That led to my evolving into an enthusiast. I have since become a presenter of outstanding Scotch whiskies at Whiskyfests in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.” In addition to leading the Scotch whisky presentations, this former member of the Minnesota Police Pipe Band will serve as the cruise bagpiper.
“Spy Guy” Jon A. Wiant returns to cast an intriguing light on espionage in the Caribbean. Jon has more than three decades in the business of foreign intelligence/espionage — in both hot wars and cold wars and a few sub-war dust-ups. He has served in senior positions at the Departments of State and Defense, the CIA, and the White House. Some colleagues characterize him as a mission-driven man of sharp judgment and analytical acuity; others recall his love for complicated practical jokes and raucous humor. Whatever the mixture, the Director of Central Intelligence presented him with the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, the highest recognition for a guy in the espionage business.
Saxophonist Vincent Wright is an associate professor of music in the School of Visual and Performing Arts at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. Previously, he was assistant director of education at Lincoln Center, founded the Richmond Saxophone Quartet, and taught at several elementary schools and colleges. And when he’s not teaching or performing music, he pursues his interest in photography. An award-winning photojournalist whose work has been exhibited in a number of museums, Vincent has traveled the globe capturing striking images of the landscapes and people of Russia, Greece, China, Curaçao, Senegal, and more.
Naturalist Rich MacDonald fancies himself a bird nerd. Wherever you fall on the birding spectrum, from casual interest to globe-trotting life-lister, Rich will help you see something new. He has long been involved in ecological and ornithological research spanning much of the western Atlantic, from the Dominican Republic to Newfoundland (and New York’s Adirondack Mountains, too). He teaches ornithology at College of the Atlantic and leads nature tours around the world, including Antarctica. Rich has been on hand for all eight of the Prairie Home cruises, helping passengers discover local birds and rack up impressive lists of species. Along with his wife, Natalie Springuel, he operates The Natural History Center, a bird and nature tour business and retail store based in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Lytton John Musselman earned a Ph.D. in botany from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and was chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where he holds the Mary Payne Hogan Chair of Botany. A passionate botanist and teacher, he is author of The Quick Guide to Edible Plants, and is working on books on plants of the Adirondacks and on using native plants for bitters and cordials. Lytton has studied plants of the Bible and Qur’an, and he contributed to the Second Qur’anic Garden Forum in Qatar in 2014. He recently received a Fulbright Specialist Grant in environmental sciences at the University of Brunei Darussalam.
Naturalist Natalie Springuel combines her passion for the marine environment and coastal heritage with a love of teaching and adventure to assist people in discovering the ocean and coast — from whales and dolphins to fish and even fishing boats. She works for the Maine Sea Grant College Program, creating programs on the ecology and culture of coastal regions. She has led thousands of visitors on ocean and coastal adventures, by land and by sea. Part of the Prairie Home Cruise team on all the trips except Norway (when daughter Anouk was only two months old), Natalie never loses her enthusiasm for helping passengers decode the mysteries of the deep.