Wisconsin to Wyoming - and all in between
Roots guitarist Mike Dowling

March 9, 2002
By Russ Ringsak
He has a school in the valley of the Wind River in Wyoming, a couple miles east of the town of DuBois. A name you might be tempted to pronounce D'Bwah', but you'd have the uneasy feeling they wouldn't call it that out there and they don't. The accent is solidly on the first syllable and it's a heavy 's' at the end, as in Two Boys from Doo Boys; fitting the grand American tradition of ignoring European protocol every chance we get. A remote town of 895 citizens thumbing its nose at France is mild amusement for truckers and cowboys. It may irritate certain others, most likely Easterners, and that naturally just makes it all the better.

Mike has gotten past all of this, of course; he chose the place for the tranquility and the trout fishing. Up until last year they lived in the mountains just to the south of them, near Union Pass, 9210 feet high, a triple Continental Divide: snow melt from there can end up in the Colorado, the Columbia or the Mississippi. Mike said, "Very confusing to those old surveyors, when they first stumbled upon that."

He grew up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where his father was a college professor; he said, "The first time I played for money I was in high school and I had a guitar band that played instrumentals - we liked the Ventures a lot - and we didn't even have anybody that sang. We later got a drummer and a singer and played our way through high school that way. In college I was introduced to a lot of different kinds of music, blues and bluegrass and so forth; had an electric blues band and an acoustic string band."

He found the Piedmont guitarists like Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy and the amazing swing guitarists like George Barnes and Jimmy Bryant and the whole rich buffet of great players we've been favored with here, and he forged it into a style of his own. He moved to Nashville and became a sideman, a session player, band leader, a solo act and a composer. He played with the real heavies, like jazz violinist Joe Venuti, and was hired to play on dozens of albums including Vassar Clements' "Nashville Jam;" Vassar said later, "Mike's one of the finest guitar players there is, anywhere."

He had a string of song-writing successes there, tunes recorded by Emmy Lou Harris, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tim O'Brien, Kathy Mattea, Claire Lynch and Del McCoury; he and his wife Jan wrote a #1 hit for Canadian country artist George Fox. And if you scan the writers of the songs on his own albums you see, besides his own originals, a terrific cross-section of American music: songs by Chuck Berry, the Delmore Brothers, Wynonie Harris, Willie Dixon, Ralph Stanley, Fats Waller. A quote on his Web site (www.mikedowling.com) sums it up: "Traditional blues, vintage swing, ragtime and originals played with grace, wit, and dazzling proficiency."

They stayed in Music City ten years and then in the fall 1996 moved out west, to the mountains, where he set up a school to teach master classes in swing guitar, fingerpicking and slide guitar, all the time staying in contact with "the business;" still touring, still recording, and mainly, these days, still composing. He plays mostly acoustic but occasionally will play some electric swing as well, and when he does it's often on the 1956 Fender Pro amplifier that he used on his first gig with that high school band back in 1965.

If you are a good player and feel the need to get better, and he can find a place in his schedule, you might be able to spend a week at the Wind River Guitar in a small class where you will be allowed, according to authentic testimonials, to work until you're sore, to eat until you're full and do a little trout fishing besides. And, one assumes, come out of the experience with your chops polished. But if you can't do all that you might check out his three instructional videos on the Homespun label: Bottleneck Blues and Beyond, and Swing Guitar, Volumes 1 and 2. His fourth CD album, String Crazy, on his own Wind River Guitar label, was released in 2000.

He's been doing some driving lately, playing in Billings, Bismarck, Denver and Bozeman; in April he'll fly to England, doing 12 gigs in 17 days. And he'll be in Minneapolis on May 17 at the Cedar Cultural Center for a gig with our own Pat Donohue.

The reporter commented on what Jethro Burns had said about Mike after working with him: "I don't play guitar when Mike's in the band. You don't take the game warden fishing."
Mike said, "Those guys do have a colorful way of putting things. Joe Venuti told a musician one time at a recording session that '...if he played another cut like that he should be paid in a dark room.'"

We've had a terrific series of musicians on our show this season, and we've not paid a single one of them in the dark; and we will surely pay Mike Dowling in a well-lighted room. He's used to that.

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974.

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