Right inside the front door of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame stands a towering replica of the state-shaped award for inductees. “This way when people walk in, you don’t have to tell ‘em where they’re at,” says executive director Dodie Wendinger. “We are in the heart of the town,” she adds.
The town in question is not Minneapolis or St. Paul, but New Ulm. The south-central Minnesota city of 13,000 has been home to the Hall of Fame since its founding in 1988. The first floor of what used to be the Brown County Museum houses hundreds of artifacts related to the institution’s hundred-plus inductees.
“This picture is on one of his albums,” said Wendinger, indicating a photograph of country-rock veteran Sherwin Linton, posing in stage costume high on a rocky hilltop. “Everything in that picture is here, from the shoes to the hat to the coat. What’s missing is that guitar. He said, ‘Someday you’re going to get it, but I’m playing it now!’”
For all the richness of the Minnesota music scene, the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame is a rarity: a permanent institution dedicated to celebrating the best in Minnesota music. The state otherwise no longer has an all-encompassing annual awards ceremony, and most other museums feature music-related exhibits only occasionally.
While the Hall of Fame’s founders were originally looking to honor old-time legends like “Whoopee John” Wilfahrt, they’ve since inducted Minnesota-tied artists ranging from Lorie Line (one of her red costumes, with boa, is a showpiece of the museum’s lobby) to John Denver (a former Edina resident) to Prince and Bob Dylan.
“I was one of those advocating, ‘We need to go for all nine yards,’” remembers Wendinger about the institution’s genesis. “If we just go to old-time, I can see it depleting. Who are we going to induct any more?”
“Old-time music” is what explains the Hall of Fame’s location in New Ulm. The heavily German-American community has long been a national hotbed of social dance bands, particularly those drawing on the Eastern European polka tradition. In the Southern U.S., “old-time music” suggests banjos and fiddles—but in Minnesota, it tends to mean concertinas, accordions, and brass.
“Minnesota was one of the largest states of ballrooms,” says Wendinger, indicating a map with pins marking historic dance halls. “They’re gone. Why? We’ve got too many different types of entertainment. We’ve got all these sports, we have TV. In my day, as a young teenager, it was ballrooms and dancing.”
Each year’s inductees, determined by committee, are honored with a concert and banquet in New Ulm. The 2017 ceremony took place this fall, and Wendinger was delighted to have all six inductees represented. “That doesn’t happen all the time!” she says proudly. “Musicians sometimes are very busy. And that weekend is hunting […] that’s another one of our problems, and we’re not changing it for hunters.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when Minnesota had multiple high-profile music award ceremonies each year. The Minnesota Music Awards were presented from 1981 to 2006, going to an eclectic range of artists ranging from The Time to Spider John Koerner to jazz, classical, and gospel artists.
“I will never forget Nachito Herrera opening up the award show,” remembers Kate Galloway, who headed the awards’ parent organization in its final years, about the 2006 ceremony. “At least half the people in the room had no idea who he was, or that this amazing Cuban jazz pianist was in the Twin Cities. It was so much fun to bring new and different music to people who otherwise would not go out and see these people.”
African-American music from Minnesota was celebrated, from 1982 to 1998, at the Minnesota Black Music Awards. Launching at St. Paul’s Prom Center and later moving to venues including Orchestra Hall and the Orpheum Theatre, the awards spotlighted an especially visible period in Minnesota black music, when the Minneapolis Sound ruled the airwaves from coast to coast.
“Some of the special moments were the Prince performances, for certain,” says Pete Rhodes, who founded the awards and led their revival in 2010–11. “1987 was a good one, with the reunion of The Time after they had disbanded.” Rhodes also fondly cites 2010, when Mint Condition returned to rock the ceremony they’d first graced when they were just teenagers.
Despite the fact that Minnesota music has continued to make waves, both of those annual awards ceremonies are defunct. Why? “Life happens,” says Galloway about the way the Minnesota Music Awards petered out. Although the awards haven’t been revived, subsequent conversations have led to constructive developments like the founding of the Minnesota Music Coalition.
The end of the Minnesota Black Music Awards, says Rhodes, was due to “basically the whole music market changing, as well as a lack of real support from some of our cities. The music scene overall really did not give us the support that we needed to sustain, from a monetary standpoint, the awards.” Rhodes says a documentary about the awards, drawing on archival video footage, is in the works.
City Pages (under its previous name, Sweet Potato) was the founding sponsor of the Minnesota Music Awards; now, the publication is one of many that name annual best-ofs. City Pages also runs the yearly Picked to Click poll, a high-profile roundup of promising new acts. Another influential poll is the Star Tribune’s Twin Cities Critics’ Tally, evaluating the year’s best local albums.
Over the years, other organizations and publications have stepped forward to honor the best in Minnesota music. There were the 1969 Jackie Awards (African-American music honors bestowed by label owner Jackie “Daddy Soul” Harris), there were the late-1960s Connie Awards run by journalist Connie Hechter, and from 2004–12 there was the Minnesota Rock and Country Hall of Fame. The Twin Cities Hip Hop Awards called it quits in 2013, after seven annual ceremonies.
Meanwhile, Wendinger and her colleagues remain hunkered down in New Ulm. “We have two benefactors, from passing away, estates,” she says. “That’s how we’re surviving, pretty much.”
Dylan’s award is waiting for him in New Ulm—and so is Prince’s, although if the late icon’s estate ever wanted it, it might have to be a family member making the pickup. “I’m not just going to give it to any Tom or Dick,” says Wendinger.
Wendiger tried once to deliver Dylan’s award to him in person, when the Minnesota native was playing in Mankato. Connected by phone with Dylan’s representative, “I said who I was, and I have his award here, if I could come backstage and present it to Bobby. His answer was, ‘We’re not interested,’ and hung up on me.
“I look at it this way,” Wendinger continues. “We get more out of it than he would’ve.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.