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Dick Kimmel, writer...

Bluegrass musician not only performs, but also writes about, his favorite genre

January 15, 2012
By Kremena Spengler - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - How often do we take familiar faces for granted?

Many people around here (not to mention far beyond) know renowned bluegrass musician Dick Kimmel.

But perhaps not as many are aware that Kimmel is a talented, internationally published writer, with a strong interest in researching and documenting various aspects of his beloved genre.

(He also has a doctorate in wildlife management, which says something about versatility.)

Kimmel started writing about music in the early 1970s. He was in graduate school at that time and could use the extra cash, he now laughs.

He has since written for many trade and connoisseur publications: specialized magazines such as Bluegrass Unlimited and Pickin' in the United States, a mandolin magazine, Mandolin Notebook, in England, a banjo magazine, Banjo Package, in Japan...

Fact Box

Dick Kimmel has been associated with traditional bluegrass and old-time country music for more than 50 years as a performer, recording artist, workshop instructor, historian and songwriter. Kimmel is a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist playing guitar, mandolin and clawhammer banjo.

Over the past five decades, Kimmel has made more than two-dozen recordings and performed extensively in the United States, Canada and Europe as a solo performer, with his band Dick Kimmel & Co, and as a duo with either Prairie Home Companion musician Adam Granger or Jerilyn Kjellberg. In 2008 Kimmel was inducted into America's Old-Time Country and Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. In 2010 Kimmel was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.

Kimmel is involved with the Grand Center for Arts and Culture in New Ulm, as Vice Chair of the Board. He was involved with helping with the music at the Grand (the Rhein River Arts Center) when it first began and recorded a live CD there with Granger. Kimmel is looking to launch a stronger musical presence for New Ulm at the Grand that could blossom into music lessons, sound recording, seminars and workshops.

(Japanese publishers initially contacted him with a request for a translation; he has since written specifically for Japanese audiences.)

He did a monthly column at one time for Inside Bluegrass, published by the Minnesota Old-Time and Bluegrass Music Association.

Kimmel's writing went through a relative hiatus during a 30-year "day" career with the Minnesota DNR as a wildlife research biologist, but resumed a more focused, less incidental direction in the 1990s, and especially since his retirement in 2010. This is evidenced, among other things, by recent articles, as well as a future book on bluegrass and bluegrass festivals now in the making.

Kimmel's earliest pieces on music, written in 1972, were book reviews for a Virginia-based magazine, Bluegrass Unlimited, which remains a favored venue for his writing. From book reviews, he expanded into record reviews and original articles.

Bluegrass Unlimited publishes an annual instrument issue each March, and Kimmel's submissions include articles on instrument builders and players, their history and characteristics, even the physics of instrument sound...

He shared with me a recent research piece on the history and technical aspects of the mandolin family of instruments, inspired by his own long-lasting interest in mandolins.

(That interest, and the article's personal relevance for Kimmel, is perhaps a small story in itself:

While on tour in New England during the 1970s, Kimmel happened upon a matching set of odd-sized early 20th century mandolins "reverently displayed behind a velvet theater rope" at a vintage shop, he recounts. The shop owner referred to his collection as a "plectral choir." It was a quartet of mandolin family instruments which parallel the violin family stringed quartet - a mandolin, mandola, mandocello and mandobass.

Fascinated by these instruments, Kimmel purchased a blonde-top, also called natural-finish or pumpkin-finish, mandola to pair with a similar mandolin he already owned. He "had the bug" to complete a blonde-topped plectral choir. A blonde mandocello was not hard to find, and, after years of searching, he also located a blonde mandobass.

Without proper space to display his plectral choir, he sold the instruments to a guitar center in Rochester, New York.

"The blonde plectral choir still resides there, displayed alongside other odd-shaped mandolins and instrument rarities," writes Kimmel.)

As a researcher and writer, Kimmel relies on his own extensive knowledge and contacts in the industry - including personal interviews of musicians, industry insiders, instrument builders, aficionados and historians... But Kimmel also bases his writing on formal book and computer-based research.

Kimmel has unearthed many story gems.

One recent article, for example, documents the life and history of German-born Lothar Meisel, a violin maker from Owatonna; the last of nine generations of Meisel violin makers.

Meisel's life was shaped by turmoil in Europe and Hitler's rule of Germany, followed by Russian occupation, writes Kimmel. The violin maker escaped eastern Germany in 1949, "to have the freedom to make violins."

Kimmel learned of Meisel through a personal contact.

"A friend showed me a beautiful book which literally gave me chills," Kimmel writes.

"The pages were adorned with superb photographs of ancient violins and more modern instruments with wonderfully figured maple and straight grained spruce.

"The photographs were museum quality, each with the sharpness of an Ansel Adams photograph.

The photographs were of violins from the National Music Museum and the Smithsonian; the violins themselves had been crafted by generations of violin makers with the surname Meisel.

Meisel violins date back to the 17th century in central Germany, Kimmel found. The first Meisel violins were constructed during the same time period when the famous Italian makers, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppi Guarneri, were working in their shops.

Musicians who play these violins today are enchanted by their superb quality and "dark, rich, pure tone," documents Kimmel, as he goes on to explain the specifics of Meisel's craft.

Kimmel writes clearly about the technical aspects of his chosen subjects, and he also writes with evocative simplicity and grace. He switches from the technical and factual to personal impressions, to achieve a more intimate tone.

Here are samples from Kimmel's article on Lloyd LaPlant, a "gentleman and luthier from northern Minnesota."

"A common theme from owners of a mandolin or guitar built by Lloyd LaPlant is that they highly value knowing the man that constructed their instrument. Their praise is constant for the superb tone and quality craftsmanship of a LaPlant instrument; LaPlant instruments eloquently speak for themselves."


"My first reaction when holding a LaPlant mandolin or guitar was the quality of the construction. When I first picked up a LaPlant mandolin, I was immediately taken by the scroll, which to my eyes is flawless, very tastefully designed. I was equally taken by this wise, humble instrument builder working out of a small, cluttered workshop in the basement of his home."

Kimmel generally chooses his own topics. He does, however, take suggestions from his publishers if they present a personal interest.

He also likes to write along his own timeframe, taking the time to know and understand his subjects. It may take him "three, four, five months" to research a story.

Kimmel says he enjoys getting to know the subjects of his articles on a personal level, through informal conversations. Sometimes, as a relationship builds up between him and the person interviewed, Kimmel's own interest in, and caring for, a subject "ramps up to a much higher level" than expected.

It's a feeling many writers know...



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