Obviously, a lot of things have changed over the 50 years I’ve enjoyed music at Summerfest. To attempt to list them would be ludicrous.
Just one of the major shifts in popular music has been how we discover both new sounds and new musicians. As a radio host for much of this half century, I like to think it’s a format that can still assist in delighting an audience with something they are not familiar with. Especially if said host has the freedom to experiment. But I’ve been around long enough to know it’s now the exception rather than the norm.
Back in the early days of Summerfest in the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, radio was probably the go-to means of discovery for new artists. Sure television would expose an unknown artist and it’s also possible you may have ordered 12 records for a penny from Columbia House and found an unfamiliar gem. Of course, many of our favorite artists come to our attention from friends, family and assorted others. In a way, that was also the communal situation of radio in those days. You and your friends had your favorite stations and when you heard something you shared it.
When someone asks me to recount my favorite Summerfest memories, I don’t hesitate to share the fact that I first discovered one of my lifelong favorite artists by walking the grounds of the festival back in 1974.
If it were recreated as a cartoon, I would abruptly stop in my tracks and spin around like a punching bag. The details are fuzzy. What I distinctly remember is stumbling across a man with a guitar on the Schlitz Country stage. Bear in mind at that point I’m a Beatles influenced Zep loving teenager. So the country stage wouldn’t have been a destination point.
But that guy with the guitar told stories in song unlike anything I had ever heard. That guy was John Prine.
Prine has gone on to write countless powerful songs. He was the first singer/songwriter to perform at the Library of Congress. He is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan called him one of his favorite artists. He won a few Grammys. And I have every single one of the many albums he has released.
That warm afternoon at Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1974 I discovered what would become the soundtrack to much of the rest of my life. At the time he had released three albums. While I went back to not only buy but wear out those records, I almost felt ashamed that I missed his 1971 debut. It is probably one of the most powerful displays of songwriting you can find. And that’s the point. I missed it. And I discovered a favorite voice that day I had never imagined between a beer and a mozzarella stick (actually they probably didn’t have them back then, but I’m no John Prine when it comes to similes and metaphors).
Milwaukee photographer Rich Zimmermann was working for the Bugle American that afternoon and recalled that they gave away free Schlitz backstage from a barrel. I’m glad he took photographs to document not only a young John Prine, but the moment of my personal musical discovery.
Years later I actually had the opportunity to ask Prine about his affinity for Milwaukee. “I’ve always liked big little towns. I’ve got a place in Ireland in Galway. Galway you can just about park and walk around the whole town. It’s still big enough in Ireland to be a big town. And I like working class towns. Milwaukee is definitely that.”
The fabric, image and sophistication of Milwaukee has certainly changed over the years. Just as how we discover our music has.
However, that afternoon in 1974 when I first saw and heard one of America’s treasures in John Prine is forever stamped in my mind. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Almost 20 years ago I was walking around the Summerfest grounds and heard another unique sound. The next day I looked into buying the work of that artist, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who I had not been familiar with. And last year as my 26 year old son Joe and I killed some time before a Marcus Ampetheater show, he had us stop to see Moon Taxi. Gotta say, I might have been the only one there that didn’t know them. But it sure made me reaffirm that one of my favorite parts of Summerfest is discovering new music. I guess over 800 bands in 11 days might have something to do with that.
And as John Prine once wrote, “Give my stomach to Milwaukee If they run out of beer.”