What you can expect is talent…playing America’s music on America’s instrument…it’s the spirit of the music that is played…better referred to as Dixieland or Riverboat music…

Neil Duresky

Organizer, Midwest Banjo Fest

We chatted with the folks at the 58th Annual Midwest BanjoFest and Jamboree. We hit on the origins of the festival, what people can expect from the multi-venue music fest, as well as where they can join a jam! Finally, we dive into what is new at “America’s longest-running musical family reunion celebrating America’s Instrument”.

Amy Gabay 00:05
We chatted with the folks at the 58th Annual Midwest Banjo Fest & Jamboree. We hit on the origins of the festival, what people can expect from the multi venue Music Fest, as well as where they can join the jam. Finally, we dive into what is new at America’s Longest Running Musical Family Reunion celebrating America’s instrument. You can find more conversations, food reviews, live music and events on our website lacrosselocal.com. I’m Amy.

Brent Hanifl 00:31
And I’m Brent.

Amy Gabay 00:32
And this is La Crosse Local.

Neil Duresky 00:44
My name is Neil Duresky. And I was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, lived there all my life except four years in the Air Force and one year in Holmen. And so what brought me to the Midwest Banjo Fest is that I’m a member as commander of the American Legion in La Crosse. And for a number of years, the Jamboree show was held at the American Legion La Crosse. And I just happened to walk in one Sunday and heard all this banjo music in the other room and went in and sat down a while and listened. And that was about 15 years ago and I kept going every year to listen to the big Jamboree. And then about five years ago, I was asked to be a bass player who had played backup for some of the people who appeared on stage to do their performances. And also I became a member of a group known as the Banjo Busters that plays parlor music from the early 1900s, all arranged for banjo.

Brent Hanifl 01:43
Wow, so I mean being involved in it for 15 years. It’s actually 58 years old, right? This will be the 58th annual one?

Neil Duresky 01:52
That’s right, it’s 58 years old. And in the early 60s, a group of guys in Minneapolis area got together just as friends in the basement started playing and that turned into a Jamboree. And in Minneapolis and some guys from Wisconsin ended up going up there and about 40 years ago, those guys moved the Midwest Banjo Club from Minneapolis down to La Crosse. So it’s been here for at least 40 years.

Brent Hanifl 02:18
For people unfamiliar with the festival, you know, what can people expect? I hear you have crowds coming from different states all around Wisconsin.

Neil Duresky 02:26
What you can expect is talent from beginner to intermediate to professional playing America’s music on of America’s instruments. That’s really what got me involved in it is the spirit of the music that’s played. It’s probably better referred to as Dixieland or Riverboat music. La Crosse has a history of boats coming up here, it’s even rumored that Louis Armstrong may have been on the boats that came up and down the river here playing this kind of music. It’s just a bunch of people who love the instrument and who’ve made tremendous friendships over the years getting together for these events. And what people would see is, for example, Friday night last year and this year now it was at La Crosse Beer Haus, from six to nine where a local group called the Pearl Street Banjo Band started out by playing about a half hour to 40 minutes. And then other people just sit in and start playing along and have a jam session for another three hours. And that also happens at Houghtons, on Saturday it has for years at Houghtons. And then last year, we changed the structure instead of a Sunday show, we went to a Saturday night show at the Concordia Hall. And that’s where individuals can perform duos, quartets, a group called the Banjo Busters about eight or nine people that play this part of their music. Any level of talent is welcome to go up and try their stuff. It gives them the chance to start performing if they haven’t performed. Let them sit alongside some people who’ve been doing it for years. We’ve got three people who are referred to as La Crosse Kids on the website, Johnny Beyer, Paul Ericson and Debbie Schreier. All three are now on the Banjo Hall of Fame.

Brent Hanifl 04:12

Neil Duresky 04:12
They’ve all become Professional banjoists after their starts here.

Brent Hanifl 04:17
Just reading through your website, and I apologize I’m from La Crosse, and I’m born and raised and I’ve never been to this festival. And you know, it’s just something I’ve been able to check out over the past couple days and really dig into.

Neil Duresky 04:29
It is probably one of the best kept gems in La Crosse, as far as music, you know, across the country, the wealth and breadth of music, talent that we enjoy in all genres. But this yeah this group has been for over 40 years and the auspices of the Midwest Banjo Club, which is strictly an informal group. There’s no formal structure and it’s not incorporated. It’s just a bunch of people who have a nice loose Social Club, where they play banjo music. And the only place that’s generally been advertised as well, it has been advertising posters around town. And occasionally there’s media coverage such as yours that’s appeared. But the group has really never gone whole hog as far as advertising. I don’t know why, but it’s starting to do a little better on that last couple of years.

Brent Hanifl 05:22
So I mean, you just kind of talked about being a family in some sense on your website, you have as America’s longest running musical family reunion celebrating America’s instrument. So with that, last couple years, the pandemic has been around for 18 months. How has this festival weathered with that?

Neil Duresky 05:37
They’re basically have been historically four banjo festivals in the Midwest. The North American International Banjo Convention in Dearborn, Michigan. What’s known as All Frets Conference where it’s a formal nonprofit of fret instruments and includes all fret instruments, they definitely have a show. Then there’s been a group in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and then La Crosse. And last year, La Crosse was the only function as far as a banjo festival that had occurred. The other three didn’t happen. In fact, it’s my understanding the folks down in Hot Springs, Arkansas, sort of aged out. So that leaves the All Frets Conference, and Dearborn, and us. So last year, we were the only shows and we have people here from 10 states, from Florida to California to Michigan to Texas. There’s, you know, they’re younger, younger guys, not real young. Well, they’re having really young kids that are involved that they’re growing up, but it’s an attempt at preserving America’s music and American instrument. I think that’s what brings people together the most they’re proud of the music they play on. It’s kind of happy music. One of the guys that comes up from Texas also plays bass and he played bass with Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys on the Last of the Breed tour with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

Brent Hanifl 06:59
Oh cool.

Neil Duresky 06:59
So there’s some good instrumentalists. We’ve had a gentleman come every couple of years who is a dentist from the East Coast who’s appeared in Carnegie Hall playing violin. You know, just a large number of professional banjo players are accomplished banjo players and then beginners and intermediate. What drew me in, what still draws me is the camaraderie and just the good music.

Brent Hanifl 07:24
Happening September 16 through the 18th, 2022. You kind of, you listed quite a few there, but is there something specifically that you’re excited for this year?

Neil Duresky 07:35
I’m excited for it this year. I’m looking for a bigger crowd God willing, or doing advertising and some banjo publication so we’ll see what that does. I’m looking for a good time. I enjoy the friendships I’ve made with these banjo players. I even, since I’m a bass player, I took the next step and bought a bass banjo that I play. So one thing people really look forward to is the Sunday afternoon Banjo Cruise on the American Queen, or pardon me the La Crosse Queen.

Brent Hanifl 08:05
So if people want to find out more, what’s the best spot to send them to?

Neil Duresky 08:08
Best bet this to check out our website midwestbanjofest.com.

Amy Gabay 08:18
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse Local? Find out more about us at lacrosselocal.com and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.


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