From West Bank bars with his band Cats Under the Stars to solo gigs at Nye’s narrow polka bar, Paul Metsa’s musical torch has burned for 25 years. The Iron Range rocker has won eight Minnesota Music Awards and continues to pack them in at local venues.
Or, as his 50th birthday party/concert invitation this fall, wisecracked: “5,000 gigs and liver still works.”
But Metsa’s music has often been mixed with activism. He’s performed benefit concerts for striking workers, played at Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid, and is now singing and fighting to save his beloved Guthrie Theater.
This month, Metsa’s releasing a new CD, Texas in the Twilight, a collection of acoustic remakes from his eight other albums plus four new songs. His new band, Paradise Alley, will make its debut December 21 at the Uptown Famous Dave’s. And on December 18 at Mayslack’s, he’ll perform an autobiographical one-man show of his songs, poems, and storytelling as part of his annual “Holiday on Icecubes,” which raises money for the food shelf at a senior highrise in his Northeast neighborhood.
“It’s a kind of low-rent version of Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain,” he laughs. “Working title: ‘Sometime Over The Rainbow.’ Call it a dry run of the show—though that’s really a misnomer—since it’s in a bar!”
An Iron Range Youth
Unlike the Iron Range’s most famous musical native son, Metsa unabashedly embraces politics and easily laughs at himself.
“Growing up in my town, you had people who were really vociferous on both sides of every argument—in church, school, city council meetings, bars, football games,” Metsa says of his youth in Virginia, Minnesota. “Where my musical, spiritual, and political lives start and end, I don’t know. It’s like breathing.”
His roots run deep in the Iron Range, proud site of some of the bloodiest battles of 20th century labor. During the major strikes of the 1970s, Metsa saw firsthand the struggle for safer mines and better wages. And it transformed his life and his music.
“Slow Justice,” which Metsa calls his “most enduring song,” was written for an album benefiting the Hormel P-9 workers during their 1985 strike that divided Austin, Minnesota.
Listen to Metsa’s whiskey-tinged voice singing anthems like “Wall of Power” and “Another Man’s Chain,” his “Second Avenue” tale of homelessness, or the elegiac “Kitty Genevese” about violence against women, and it’s clear that idealism and outrage propel his artistic vision.
“I grew up watching Westerns,” Metsa recalls. “As a boy, there was a lot of resonance in that lone figure doing right for his county. There were only a few black people on the Iron Range but the civil rights movement was on TV. Watching Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, I got turned on to Ray Charles, B.B. King, Richard Pryor, Jimi Hendrix—all this beautiful music that really resonated with my soul. Then, there was Martin Luther King,” he adds. “Just the power of his voice. The poetry and magic. You didn’t have to be very old to realize he was a very powerful figure.”
John F. Kennedy was also a major influence. After JFK’s assassination in 1963, Metsa followed the Warren Commission, acquired a “bookshelf of books” on the topic, and easily sidetracks into analysis of the evidence, arguments he’s eloquently put to music.
“I realized there was evil in the world. I grew up middle class. The assassination broke that bubble of safety. I saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald live on TV,” he recalls. “It was a one-two punch of violence into my life.”
The Poetry of Politics
Metsa calls himself a “great believer in democracy,” but says he has become disenchanted with the political process. “There’s not a lot of poetry left in politics,” he declares. “Washington seems to be nothing but a snake-oil grease-pit of backroom power plays. These politicians should know how kids take their cues from them.”
Metsa learned the art of political debate early on. His mother was his town’s only Republican.
“I miss the time when people of different political perspectives could talk to each other with respect. My mother and I always had very respectful, complex conversations about politics. She was conservative in the best sense of the word, and I’ve got a lot of conservative traits,” he observes. “I believe in conserving civil rights, conserving the environment, conserving my pocketbook. I believe in conserving liberty and conserving architectural and cultural history.”
Putting those values into action led Metsa to create an organization devoted to saving the Guthrie Theater, which is slated for demolition next year.
He recalls making a snowy drive from his Iron Range home in 1972 to see folk guitarist Leo Kotke at the Guthrie. “It was so magical, so uplifting. There was no doubt in my mind that this was what I had to do with my life—become a professional musician,” he says. Of his own performances at what he calls “the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest,” Metsa says: “Being on that stage is to commune with the ghosts of the 20th century.”
The Guthrie is “completely functional,” he argues, with perfect acoustics and no seat farther than 54 feet from the stage. Metsa envisions the Guthrie as a multicultural center. “Leave us a place where we can come to know each other’s culture, manners, and arts, and get to know each other as people.”
The Guthrie effort is just another way that Metsa is building community, using his talents as a musician and activist to make a better city. Like his musical hero, Pete Seeger, Metsa knows that the real work of an artist is “not about Hollywood. It’s about your hometown.”
For more information: www.paulmetsa.com and www.savetheguthrie.org