Local Current Blog

This town is becoming like a ghost town: Rich Mattson releases song about his disappearing Iron Range home

Sparta Sound. Photo by Ben Clark.

The small town of Sparta, Minnesota, is disappearing, and folk-rockers Rich Mattson and the Northstars have written a song about it.

Much of the town, which is located in the Iron Range, is built on land owned by a mining company. The land has been, until recently, leased out to the local residents. However, this year the company chose not to renew its leases, and the leased properties must be vacated by early next year.

In light of their impending evictions, Sparta’s people have been leaving en masse, taking what they need and abandoning the rest, according to Mattson.

“It was always a pretty small town, but now it’s down to just a few houses,” he said. “People are just kind of burning what they leave behind.”

Mattson is a Minnesota music lifer, having played with the Glenrustles, the Tisdales, and Ol’ Yeller, among others, during his 20-plus year career. Born in Eveleth, and formerly based in Minneapolis, Mattson moved to Sparta in 2005 and opened a studio, Sparta Sound, where he continues to record both his own music and others’. Mattson’s house and studio are not located on leased mining property, which means he will not have to relocate.

Mattson and the Northstars have released a new seven-inch single about Sparta’s situation. Side A is “This Town (Ghost Town),” which is about the mass-exodus of Sparta’s population. (Lyrically, the song nods to the Specials’ 1981 “Ghost Town,” a ska number about the decay of British inner cities.) Side B is “Points North,” a tribute to the natural beauty of the Iron Range, penned by Mattson’s wife and bandmate Germaine Gemberling.

Of “This Town (Ghost Town),” Mattson said it “came in one sitting,” and that it and “Points North” stood out among several things the band had been working on. As they continued to polish both songs, they noted “a theme” common to both of them: the Iron Range.

Mattson said it’s not unprecedented for old Iron Range mining communities to be dissolved this way—by the ending of longstanding leases on company land.

“I think it just happens,” Mattson said. “It’s kind of agreed upon…it’s part of the economy up here.”

As to whether Sparta will become what their new song contends—a ghost town—Mattson doesn’t seem optimistic.

“It’s kind of a ghost town now,” he said, adding that, regarding Sparta’s future, “all you hear is rumors,” including the possibility that town could be converted into a golf course.

Rich Mattson and the Northstars will play a release party show for their “This Town (Ghost Town)”/”Points North” single on Nov. 29 at Uncle Eric’s in Virginia, Minnesota. Beyond this single, Mattson says their plans are to play all over Minnesota, and to keep recording for a potential full-length album.

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Austin Gerth is a member of the class of 2016 at Concordia College. He also writes for Concordia’s student blog, The COBBlog; and Concordia’s student newspaper, The Concordian.