From rock to opera to ukulele, 'Prairie Musicians' showcases the sounds of the region

Prairie Public series starts Jan. 27

Aaron Tinjum (center) and the Tangents play "Prairie Musicians" on March 17.
Contributed / Prairie Public

FARGO — Sometimes it pays to wait and sometimes it's best to go ahead.

That’s how Barb Gravel, producer of Prairie Public’s “Prairie Musicians,” feels about the new season, which starts on Jan. 27.

For the past 13 years the TV station has brought regional musical artists into its downtown Fargo studio in January or February to record a mini concert for broadcast later that year. Last year the pandemic prompted the show’s creators to push back taping until April and limit performances to just solo musicians. This year Gravel thought there might be a good window in the fall to record full bands. She jumped at the chance and is glad she did.

“Oh my goodness. To have a front row seat to live musicians in the studio, it’s amazing,” she says about being able to record bigger acts.

One such band is Minneapolis-based Aaron Tinjum and the Tangents. The roots rock act was originally booked to record in February 2020, but a winter storm kept him from making the trek and missing out on that season’s lineup. Last year with the parameters limited to solo artists the band had to pass. This year, the weather and other conditions worked to bring in the band and the results paid off, as viewers will see when the segment runs on March. 17.


“It was great after two years to finally get him here,” Gravel says.

She was also able to scratch another item off her wish list, bringing opera to the show.

Soprano Heather Hjelle (right) plays "Prairie Musicians" on Feb. 10.
Contributed / Prairie Public

“That’s one genre I’ve always wanted to have was opera,” the producer says.

She found her performer in Heather Hjelle , who was working in Chicago until the pandemic prompted her to move back home to the family farm in Barrett, Minnesota, west of Alexandria. Now teaching and performing in rural communities, Hjelle brought her big voice to the Prairie Public studios. That set airs Feb. 10.

“I’m really excited for the audience to see that show,” Gravel says of the dramatic soprano. “She’s a dreamboat.”

Valley City country singer Greg Hager plays "Prairie Musicians" on March 24.
Contributed / Prairie Public

Prairie Public even brought in a baby grand piano to accompany her performance.

“To me, this is the bonus of the show. You never know what you’re going to get. That’s the representation of our region,” Gravel says.

Artists include North Dakota acts like Fargo’s eclectic act The Cropdusters , Bismarck rock band Wildly Appropriate and Valley City singer/songwriter Greg Hager . Minnesota is represented by Moorhead ukulele player Rachel Meyer , Gary country singer Terry Mackner and Staples gospel pianist Gary Timbs .


Annie Mack (right) and her band play "Prairie Musicians" on Jan. 27.
Contributed / Prairie Public

The series gets a jumpstart with Minneapolis powerhouse singer Annie Mack .

“It was neat to have her style of soul and blues. It was such a big sound,” Gravel says.

The program allows the acts to show what they do, offering more exposure than just a YouTube clip. Due to copyright issues, artists must perform original tunes.

Gravel looks at all of the acts before booking them, but finds out even more after getting them in the studio where she conducts an interview with them. She points to Blue Red Roses from Battle Lake, Minnesota, as an act she better understood after their visit.

Blue Red Roses, Mary and Daniel Olson, play "Prairie Musicians" on Feb. 24.
Contributed / Prairie Public

“Whatever I’d seen didn’t do them justice,” Gravel says of the acoustic duo.They are the cutest couple. They really are endearing. I’m really glad to have them on.”

That episode airs Feb. 24.

Gravel says the artists are usually in the studio for about four hours, allowing the musicians and the recording crew some time to better understand each other.

“After four hours, you’re best buds,” she says. “They are musical treasure troves and the graciousness they show in sharing their music, these are really good-hearted people.”


While she’s working on other projects throughout the year, she’s always keeping her eyes and ears open for next season’s featured artists.

“It’s really fun to work on this,” she says. “I’m always looking for bands. I’m always open to hearing new sounds.”


WHAT: “Prairie Musicians”

WHEN: Jan. 27 - April 14

WHERE: Prairie Public

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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