GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — It’s been years since musician David Huckfelt played a show with Trampled By Turtles’ Dave Simonett at Lutsen and afterward traveled up the North Shore to see the Spirit Tree in Grand Portage, Minnesota.
Along the way, they stumbled on a DJ named Rainbow Trout via his classic country program on WTIP-FM.
“We just turned it up and couldn’t stop talking about him for three years,” Huckfelt said in a recent phone interview.
That’s the way it is with Rainbow Trout, a longtime volunteer at the community radio station out of Grand Marais, and both the regular and random listeners who have encountered his "Winnie the Pooh"-style voice in the past 20 years.
A new feature-length documentary by DanSan Creatives digs into the life and legends of Rainbow Trout, a former railroad man who found his place in northern Minnesota, spinning a curated collection of country tunes for faceless fans.
“Colors of the Rainbow” screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, Trout’s 89th birthday, on Facebook Live. The event will start with tribute performances by musicians like Erik Koskinen, Annie Humphrey, Charlie Parr, Keith Secola and Gaelynn Lea and a Q&A with the filmmakers.
Before he ever imagined meeting him, which he still hasn't face-to-face, Huckfelt had a mythical origin story for Trout, helped along by the way radio leaves much to the imagination.
“After hearing his voice, I assumed no one was related to Rainbow,” he said. “I assumed a guy named Rainbow Trout was a magical creature who crawled out of Lake Superior.”
Then Huckfelt happened upon a Facebook post by one of his friends that mentioned her grandfather, Rainbow Trout.
So who is Rainbow Trout?
Rainbow Trout was born Sept. 30, 1932, in San Francisco during the Great Depression. His mother, he said, died by suicide when he was 4 years old, and his father was an alcoholic. He ended up shuffled from family, to foster care, to an orphanage.
This might be at the root of his appreciation for country music, specifically his current favorites, Hank Williams and Johnny Hartford.
“I suppose I had a not-too-happy upbringing and childhood,” Trout said. “I associate myself with the sadness of it all. There is something about the music, something that strikes a favorable chord in my heart, I guess. It’s real music.”
Trout said he went to high school for about two weeks — long enough to look out the window of his classroom, see a train passing, and decide that’s what he wanted to do with his life. He briefly considered hopping the rails, living as a hobo, but he knew that he needed a consistent home and meals.
Instead, he became an electrician just as railroads were making the switch to diesel trains. And then, when trains were out and planes were in, he went into construction — touring the country and developing a specific fondness for northern Minnesota.
Trout returned to the area when he retired, opting away from the hubbub of Duluth or Grand Marais in favor of Meadowlands — which in 2010 had a population of 134 people.
“I’ve got a log cabin at the end of the road in the woods,” Trout said. “It’s nice and quiet and peaceful. Meadowlands is nowhere. Draw a line from Hibbing to Duluth, it would be halfway. It’s a nowhere place. You have to want to be in Meadowlands. I like that.”
Trout started volunteering at the radio station about 20 years ago, a gig that required a three-hour drive to get to work.
“I would be in the radio station, I’d be the only one there,” he said. “I’d be wondering if there was anyone listening.”
'Rainbow is your grandpa?'
Duluth artist Ivy Vainio met Rainbow Trout five years ago, and it’s been more than three since he married her grandmother. She and her husband, Arne, make regular visits to the couple.
Vainio remembered getting a private message about her grandfather from her friend, Huckfelt.
“What?! Rainbow is your grandpa?” she recalled him writing.
Later, Huckfelt contacted her with an idea: to collect fans from the Minnesota music scene to record covers of classic country tunes as tribute to Rainbow Trout.
“Let’s say ‘thank you’ so that he knows his love of country music is appreciated out there,” not just by the general public, but by the touring musicians who have found his voice while on the road, Huckfelt said.
Artists signed on: Low, Rich Mattson, Teague Alexy, Mary Bue. Most of the musicians also created music videos, like the three minutes of black and white footage by Brothers Burn Mountain playing Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway.”
“They’re so cool,” Ivy Vainio said. “I think I watched all of them 100 times when they came through, just on repeat, on repeat.”
Trout’s home radio station hosted the tribute during its March member drive, an event that brought together the honoree and musicians such as Barbara Jean, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker into Zoom squares for a conversation that was supposed to last five minutes, but went on for about 45 minutes.
“We took over the pledge drive,” Huckfelt said.
Will Moore, host of the program, had sent invitations to musicians to join in on the conversation. People just kept coming, he recalled.
“Erik Koskinen said it was the first time he was ever on a Zoom call during the entire pandemic,” Moore said.
The Vainios listened to the program while at home, boiling down their maple sugar.
“After that happened,” Ivy Vainio said, “I was like, ‘This has got to be a film.’”
'Colors of the Rainbow'
The Vainios had produced a film in the past. As Arne Vainio, a physician, neared age 50, he chronicled his own journey through the same age-related medical tests that he had coaxed onto his sometimes reluctant patients.
He will tell you that he and Katie Couric, formerly of the “Today” show, have something in common: Both televised their colonoscopy, though Couric didn’t have the prostate exam that Vainio did.
In 2009, the Vainios released the men’s health documentary “Walking Into the Unknown,” which played on more than 210 public television stations.
For “Colors of the Rainbow,” they commissioned DanSan Creatives, with artists Daniel Oyinloye and Jeremy Gardner behind the cameras.
“They do amazing work,” Arne Vainio said.
“They’re magic,” Ivy Vainio added. “They’re amazing filmmakers. And we just love them and have respected them for so many years. All the things they produce — working with the youth, and racial and social justice issues and putting that into words and prose, and spoken word and film.”
DanSan Creatives interviewed employees of WTIP, and the fans who have been moved by his programs. They incorporated some of the music created by the Minnesota musicians who created a tribute to Trout.
And they visited with Trout multiple times, taking COVID-19 precautions, to talk about his life.
“He’s literally a storyteller,” Oyinloye said of the subject. “He had a really great way of telling his own story and didn’t need much prompts. It was so natural, so easy. It flowed so well.”
The trailer for “Colors of the Rainbow” features footage of Trout by a fireplace with a dog, telling his story while musicians pop in with their own Rainbow Trout experiences.
Simonett, of Trampled By Turtles, describes his voice as “ethereal.”
Huckfelt, on screen, says: “The more you learn, the more you want to learn.”
'This guy is real, holy cow'
Huckfelt tours all over the country and keeps a list of the independent radio stations he finds — the reservation radio stations and the voices of mountain towns.
“I feel like these hidden gems are all over,” he said. “Ultimately, I was not surprised to find that a lot of Minnesota musicians had heard (Trout’s) show and found it pretty incredible. His voice slows down time. If you’re a musician, you’re always in a hurry.”
Moore, the music director at WTIP who also hosts a few programs, started at the station in 2014. He heard the name Rainbow Trout and saw signs of him around the station, but he thought the character was an in-station joke. It took a while to finally meet him.
“He was wearing a bolo tie and I was like, ‘This guy is real, holy cow,’” said Moore, who then made it a point to tune into Trout’s shows. “Hearing his voice is like having your grandpa next to you by a fireplace, that soft voice of his.”
Trout described himself as a recluse. He isn’t quite sure why he is getting the attention. He likened it all to hopping a freight train — you’d hang on and away it would go, he said.
While doing his classical country program, Trout would only identify himself once during the four-hour gig.
“They don’t care who I am; they want to hear music,” he said. “If they do want to find out, they will.
“And I guess they did.”
What: "Colors of the Rainbow," by DanSan Creatives, produced by Ivy and Arne Vainio.
Premiere: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30, on Facebook Live at www.facebook.com/events/2652481181720960.