The bluegrass scene in Minnesota is alive and well, and at least for the next two weekends it will be living at the Parkway Theater.
Two rootsy string bands that were picking up steam before the pandemic, the Barley Jacks and Barbaro are hosting album-release parties at south Minneapolis' eclectic neighborhood theater on consecutive weekends. It seems like a good excuse to get to know these rising stars better.
Back story: Bandleader Brian Wicklund (fiddle/mandolin) started playing bluegrass with his banjo-picking dad while growing up in St. Peter, Minn. "I was playing bars with him and Tuesday night jam sessions by the time I was 13, 14 years old, and I just fell in love with it," he recalled.
After serving as a sideman to the likes of Stoney Lonesome and Kathy Kallick for many years, Wicklund formed the Barley Jacks in 2009 to showcase his own songs and perform closer to his home north of Stillwater. "We've played up and down the St. Croix Valley, and now we're starting to step out a little more."
Members: All middle-aged dads — Wicklund counted 10 children among them — the other Barley Jacks include versatile guitarist Mike Cramer, percussionist Joel Arpin and bassistKevin Rowe. "The verb 'play music' really applies here, because we have a lot of fun and really listen to each other and play off each other," said the bandleader.
New album: The quartet's Kickstarter-funded third album, "Coming Down the Mountain," shows off their impressive harmonies and feisty but not flashy string-picking across 10 original tunes plus one very fun cover, a twangy take on the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face." Said Wicklund, "It lends itself really well to bluegrass, and yet it's not the kind of song I would ever write as a bluegrass songwriter."
He laughed when asked about the title track coming from a band based in Minnesota: "Mountains are a great metaphor for a songwriter, even if we don't have any anywhere near us."
Release party: 8 p.m. Sat., Parkway Theater, 4812 Chicago Av. S., with openers Honeybutter (led by Wicklund's daughter Clara), $25-$50, theparkwaytheater.com.
Back story: Following his love for bluegrassy Minnesota bands Trampled by Turtles and Pert Near Sandstone, singer/guitarist Kyle Shelstad moved here from Montana to form Barbaro in 2017 with Winona-based banjo player Isaac Sammis. "I was listening to a lot of folk and jam-band music, and the crossover to bluegrass is kind of natural," Shelstad recalled.
Named after the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, the band has worked its way up from the 331 Club and brewery gigs to regional festival slots and (over the past month) trips to the Americana Fest in Nashville and World of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh, N.C.
Members: The quartet is rounded out by bassist Jason Wells and fiddler Rachel Calvert, who said she was "a Suzuki kid" trained in jazz and classical at a young age. She fell in love with bluegrass after falling for a guy who loved the music. "I really immersed myself in it and learned all the rich traditions of bluegrass, as I think we all have," Calvert said. "You have to be able to walk the walk, even if you're like us and don't play strictly traditional bluegrass."
New album: After issuing its debut album, "Dressed in Roses," just before the pandemic hit in early 2020 — "We were at least able to tour with it for three months, so we feel lucky," Shelstad said — the group filled its time during the pandemic recording "Under the Covers," a playful but heartfelt EP of cover songs with a rotating cast of guest singers. Tracks include Siri Undlin of Humbird taking on Gillian Welch's "Dark Turn of Mind," Gully Boys frontwoman Kathy Callahan doing Sheryl Crow's "If It Makes You Happy" and recently deceased Kind Country singer Max Graham (a Barbaro alum) covering Wilco's "Jesus, Etc."
Not just a fun excursion, the band dreamt up the EP specifically as a charity project to help Minneapolis recover from the chaos of 2020. All proceeds from it go to Our Saviour's Community Services of Minneapolis. Said Shelstad, "It was important for us for it to be a charity doing very tangible, hands-on work in the community."
Release party: 8 p.m. Oct. 15, $17-$40, with Good Morning Bedlam.