Local Current Blog

Winona rocks: Growing up as a music fan on the Mississippi River

A spontaneous jam at last year's Boats and Bluegrass Festival. Photo by Molly O'Connor for MPR.

I can vividly recall the night I sped down Highway 61, blaring “The Great Gig in the Sky,” belting along with Clare Torry in an at-times-quivering falsetto, and thinking about the hometown I was soon to leave behind. With an impending transition to college life in the Twin Cities, I reflected on my time spent in my native Winona, Minnesota. This was the town where I spent my adolescence—the town that bred my appreciation for family Mexican restaurants, the great outdoors, and most importantly, music. Growing up as a music fan in Winona was a thrilling experience, as both live shows and musically-inclined friends were plentiful.

With an ever-growing music scene, Winona has become a home-away-from-home for artists and fans from miles around. Winona’s two major annual multi-day music festivals—Boats and Bluegrass and the Midwest Music Fest—help local talent to emerge and out-of-town artists to build their fan base. Since its inception in 2010, I have performed on two occasions in the Midwest Music Fest, and I’ve also enjoyed the festival as a spectator. The festival was always an exciting experience for me, since it attracted artists in genres—for example hip-hop, R&B, and EDM—that aren’t often heard in southeastern Minnesota.

In Winona, almost every day of the year you can hear live music in coffee shops and bars. I can recall many nights first fiddling with folkies at the Acoustic Café and later prowling with jazz cats at Ed’s No Name Bar. Though attending a show in town was always a fun way to spend the evening, what truly made Winona special for a me was the way the tunes transcended the venues’ walls.

I was able to surround myself with a lively troupe of friends that shared my musical inclinations. With my friend Mason, I was able to gig around Winona and the surrounding area as the acoustic duo Category U. Together, we spent many hours strumming guitars, straining our voices, and writing music to perform to friends and strangers alike. The biggest music fan I know is my friend, Sam, with whom I discovered much of the great music I listen to today. Between bouts of laughter, we were able to discuss not only the music we loved, but also the facets of life that we experienced from day to day. Getting into the passenger seat of Sam’s van was synonymous with musical exploration and a night of adventure on the streets of Winona.

In a town where music and adventure were undoubtedly akin, a day-long trek through the woods was incomplete without Bob Dylan’s ramblings, Frank Ocean’s crooning, or Jimi Hendrix’s electric wails played on a mobile-phone speaker. Most outdoor adventures culminated in a spontaneous gathering on the beach with bonfires, grilled food, and a game of pass-the-guitar with the remaining band of kindred spirits singing harmonies. I remember splashing about in the river one evening, only to hear I was missing out on an acoustic sing-along of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”, at which I jumped out of the water and sprinted up the beach to join in on the second verse in a wheezing tenor. It’s times like this that I remember now when I listen to the songs of seasons past.

Growing up as a music fan in Winona has instilled in me a sense of wonder when I listen to a new album, or see a new band live. I’ll draw on my Winona musical experiences for the rest of my life when looking for places to live—and friends to keep.

When “The Great Gig” ended that night on Highway 61, I turned off the road and retired to my home. I crawled into my bed, contented with the day’s adventure, ready for a new tomorrow, and thrilled to have been a Winona music fan.

Alex Miller is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, studying forestry. He loves good food, better company, and the best music.

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