Hearing Music Everywhere
Peter Ostroushko

March 23, 2002
By Russ Ringsak
His parents came to the US from the Ukraine in 1952, the year before he was born. At first his mother worked in a mattress factory and his father had a shoe shop in Northeast Minneapolis, up on Lowry and Stinson Boulevard, and they lived in a dilapidated Victorian on Nicollet Island. The place was a magnet for new immigrants, in a time when old brownstones lined Hennepin Avenue and the big Great Northern depot sat just across the river. The house his godfather lived in is still there, along with the shed behind it wherein the godfather's father made musical instruments - mandolins and balalaikas - and where for many years they would have huge jam sessions every weekend. This was back before the building of Minnesota's only suspension bridge on Hennepin; back when folks on the north end of the Island kept goats, and the children had the run of the neighborhood.

In time they moved into Northeast, near Adams and Broadway, and kept up weekend visits to the Island. He didn't speak English until he got into first grade because he didn't need to; the neighbors all spoke Ukrainian. And he grew up around music. "Even ice fishing, my father and his friends would bring instruments and play music, and I'd go along. They had a shack and a little coal-burning stove, and if they got fish, great, and if not, nobody sweated it... In the summer my dad and I would go fishing on the Mississippi a lot. I don't think we kept too many; my dad just liked to fish. And we'd go over to the St. Croix, too; there were pike over there, and other things. There were just a lot of fish to catch in those days."

The Senators became the Twins in 1961 and he's been a fan ever since. Asked what he thought of the prospects for baseball staying here he said, "Well, I've said it many times - and I don't know how serious I'll be about it until it happens - but I've said, if the Twins go, I'm going." He laughed and said, "It seems like I'm one of the few Minnesotans who'd gladly pay my taxes to build a new stadium... It's always been there, in my lifetime, and I just can't imagine the city without it. I just can't. But the prospects don't look that great. I'm just glad they're here for another year; and they're gonna have a good team. I think they'll put up a good fight."

He has never been to the Ukraine but he's thought about it. He was in Moscow a couple years back, a place he was dreading to go. "I was thinking the Russians might throw me in prison and throw away the key... but actually, when I went out, I felt more at home there in some respects than over here; it was just the smell of the place; it reminded me of my mother's kitchen. And the people were - it was just like when I was growing up - and between English and Ukrainian I was able to communicate with the people there. If I went into a store and spoke Ukrainian they'd understand me just fine, even if I wasn't always able to understand them because of the dialect and so forth. I can read Russian better than I can understand it spoken."

He still carries a guitar when he does concerts, but he says there are so many good guitar players out there now that he concentrates more on mandolin and fiddle, claiming that he stopped growing on the guitar 30 years ago. (There are a lot of us who would like to be now on the guitar where he was 30 years ago.) About the differences in the instruments, he said: "I've been doing a lot of school things in the past couple of years, and I explain it to the kids, because most of them don't have any idea what a mandolin is: if you took a guitar and a violin and made one instrument out those two, that's what the mandolin is. It's basically the size of the violin, it's tuned exactly the same as a violin; but what makes it like a guitar is that it sits in your lap, you play it with a pick, and it has frets on the fingerboard."

His latest album is Meeting on Southern Soil, with Norman Blake. There are eight previous, all works of great beauty - there's no other way to say it - interspersed with wry humor, with song titles such as "Rumba de los Holsteins", "Whalebone Feathers", "B-O-R-S-C-H-T", "Unknowingly She walked With Grace Among Tall Men", "Sluz Blues", "Too Tight Polka", "Corny Dog Ramble", "Puppy Belly Dance", "The Pig's Eye Reel." Live, people are often frozen; a few seasons ago, "Puckett's Farewell," on the retirement of Kirby Puckett, so stunned the audience that there was a long moment of silence before the applause.

He was asked how many albums, besides his own nine, that he had played on. "Played on... well... Hard to say, exactly... 500 is the number that comes to mind. It would be right around that..." He's currently working on a project of old live tracks of the Mando Boys, and transcribing music of the great Irish fiddler John Dougherty to put in book form. He recently took a trip to Ireland, particularly to County Donegal and to the archives in Dublin, to track down his works; said he liked Ireland more than he ever expected. Others have said that same thing.

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

Interview Archive

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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