The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 17, 2013

Keeping the saddle warm

By Emre K. Erku Special to The Free Press
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Clothed in a pair of decrepit cowboy boots, dusty blue jeans, a western style shirt, and a 10-gallon hat with a thick mustache resting below the nose, folk musician Pop Wagner is a man who seems to have rode horseback onto stage from the bright eye of the blinding sun.

Cradling a shiny classic guitar in his arms, he plucks easygoing riffs that resemble products of a Mississippi John Hurt and Bob Dylan infusion, while singing about stories ranging from French impressionist painters to gathering cattle in Wisconsin.

“In the days when I grew up, folk was played a lot on commercial radio,” said Wagner, referring to his early exposure to music in his home state of Ohio. “… And my parents had records of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.”

Born in 1949, the self-described “pre-bluegrass” artist received his first guitar early in his life. Since then, he went on to form folk bands during his years at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., while also organizing the first annual Ashland Folk Festival in honor of Woody Guthrie’s death in 1968.

Using humor as an ingredient he blends into his anecdotal concoction of bluegrass, the cowboy poet is a profound folk comedian behind strings.

“Humor is a good lubricant – a sales pitch – for the audience,” said Wagner. “Like Utah Phillips and his reactionary political messages – he did this well with humor.”

This is why the folk singer has made several appearances on Minnesota Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” – a live variety show hosted by famous radio personality and Minnesota native Garrison Keillor, who once wrote: “Dear Pop …You are now a Peabody-Award-sharing performer, and you are welcome to say so on your publicity and also to tell your mother.”

Besides Wagner’s ability to arouse the crowd’s laughter with his guitar and his old-timey voice similar to a faster version of Pat Buttram, the performer is known for his skills at tickling fiddles and looping a mean lasso onstage.

Once backstage at a performance in the late 1970’s, Wagner witnessed singer Glenn Ohrlin playing around with a lariat. This influenced his interest in performing with a lasso during his sets. By twirling around a rope meant to entangle cattle, he provides an animated variety of entertainment, and he says that his greatest trick is “The Butterfly.”

Said Wagner, “It comes in three stages: First ‘The Caterpillar,’ then ‘The Cocoon,’ and then ‘The Butterfly.’”

Over the past four decades, the storytelling, rope-toting cowboy has performed all over the U.S., as well as in countries like England, Italy, France and Switzerland. Wagner noted that countries such as these all have fans fascinated by the genre of bluegrass and folk.

Now it’s time for him to ride into New Ulm, Minn. to perform his wild set at The Grand Kabaret inside the historic Grand Hotel Saturday.

If You Go What Pop Wagner performance When 8 p.m. on Saturday Where Grand Kabaret in New Ulm More information Visit