MUSIC | Party for Life Session 2 to benefit ailing singer-songwriter Michael McElrath


There’s folk on the Twin Cities independent music scene who truly care about each other. You saw it with Party For Life when friends of Jazzy J flocked to BarFly in the summer, rallying to throw a benefit for the cancer-stricken owner of Twin Cities Radio. Artists from all walks—singer-songwriters, poets, strippers, fashion designers, models, you name it—pitched in to constitute a bill that pulled in enough cash to considerably help with Jazzy J’s treatment.

Now, there’s Party For Life II on February 23rd to help out ailing Michael McElrath, a popular folk performer who’s contending with cancer. There’ll again be a cross-section of skills, most of the performers being musicians, including MJ Kroll, who hosted and sang at Party For Life. Jazzy J will host this time around, with McElrath headlining.

McElrath’s CD Keep On Drivin’ is the work of a beloved veteran who’s been performing in the Twin Cities area for years, both in public venues and for private parties, singing and playing 6- and 12-string guitar and harmonica. Among his career highlights, he had the distinction of opening for blues legends Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.

Michael McElrath reflected on his life and career, commenting in messages we sent back and forth over a social network.

For those who don’t know you, what’s your bio like?
My parents played records of classical, big band, and folk music like the Weavers and the Almanac singers. I started listening to the radio when I was about seven and would figure out pop song melodies on the church basement piano. At age 11, my cousin Barry Jens gave me my first guitar and taught me country songs by [artists like] George Jones and Johnny Cash. The first one I could play was “Wolverton Mountain” by Claude King. Then Bob Dylan started happening and I got back into folk music, which was enjoying a resurgence with vocal groups like the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters, culminating with Peter, Paul, and Mary, after which came the Beatles and the Stones to rev things up again.

All that while you were a kid?
During high school in Wausau, Wisconsin, I was always simultaneously in a folk group and a rock band. Ever since the Everly Brothers brought harmony to rock’n’roll, I was drawn to musicians who combined different elements, like Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. After a year at Luther College, I moved back to Madison, where I’d been born, to find it a hotbed of sociopolitical upheaval. Which really fueled the music scene. But, I figured California was the place I oughta be.

Yeah, you and the Beverly Hillbillies.
So, I headed west. A quick stop in Decorah, Ia. turned into a year when I reconnected pals Kyrl Henderson and Jane Thiele, who had gotten married. We formed the acoustic trio Boulder Roll and played colleges in the Upper Midwest until we finally trekked out to San Diego where we played for a couple of years and had a few close calls but then things stalled out. So, my wife Reenie and I wound up back in Wisconsin in 1973. I wasn’t happy in my hometown though. I knew it wasn’t gonna happen for me there, so, we moved to the Twin Cities. After two kids and constant struggles, we split in 1978. I met Mary Ellen later that year and we’ve been together ever since.

Any more?
Around that time Lonnie Knight, who’d been playing the same solo folk circuit, started a band and I played with him until he went to Texas. Jimmy Allen was starting to write songs but was having trouble finishing them, so, he and I collaborated them to completion and recorded an album engineered by Steve Wiese at Creation called The Ticket and played with Dick and Larry Wiegand, among others. When Lonnie returned to Minnesota, we sang together for awhile. In the early 80s, I had a band called the Salty Dogs in which Lonnie played lead guitar occasionally. After that I returned to performing solo but soon discovered the more lucrative but eventually unfulfilling world of party bands, including variety band Right Time and country band Fancy Free. It was fun, but it involved playing all popular covers and I wanted to play original songs.

I was accumulating a considerable catalog of my own tunes and there seemed to be nowhere to play them. I drifted away from music in the early 90s, doing only the occasional solo gig. Kyrl and Jane stopped by the Malt Shop, where I was playing, and we kick-started Boulder Roll, which played numerous parties until their divorce a few years ago. Since then I’d been playing solo again around the Twin Cities at venues like the Driftwood and Mayslack’s until I got cancer in 2007. It was under control until it came back last year, which was also when Kyrl offered to record some of my songs—which eventually became the album Keep on Drivin’ and here I am today, with my first CD under my belt.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011
8 p.m. ’til close
Party for Life Session 2: A Benefit for Michael McElrath
The Loft above BarFly
711 Hennepin Ave. S. in downtown Minneapolis