Music and memories

Sometimes it’s snowing, sometimes it’s 80 degrees and the sun is shining, but it’s always a good time to get together to meet old friends and hear good music.

Every Memorial Day weekend, Larry and Brenda Olsen host the four-day Music Fest at their farm with the aid of about 30 volunteers. This year, they are celebrating the 20th music fest. In recent years the Music Fest has attracted a crowd of “2,000 or so,” said Larry, “from 38 states, including Hawaii.”

“One year it was 38 states just during that weekend,” Brenda added.

“There’s a couple from California who fly in to Sioux Falls, (S.D.,) every year,” Larry said.

“Some people make it their vacation,” said Iona Vandendriessche of Marshall, who is a longtime fan of the Larry Olsen Band. “They come in big campers.”

“Larry’s brought lots of people together with his music,” she said.

Larry said attendance is steady, but “we always hope to see more new faces. We want to keep it going.”

Larry said the Music Fest is “not all polka. It’s country, ’50s and ’60s. That’s why it’s called a music fest, not a polka fest. It’s music for all ages.”

The first Music Fest in 1995 was two days, Saturday and Sunday. It drew more than 650 people from all around Minnesota and seven states despite rainy and cold weather. On tear-down day that Monday, it snowed, Larry said.

“The second year was just as nasty,” Brenda said. “But the crowds were good.”

“The next year was beautiful,” Larry said. “But it’s usually dreary weather on Memorial Day.”

Luckily, the popular event takes place inside three buildings. What usually houses an RV, tractors and other farm equipment during the year is transformed into a main ballroom, a second stage and a middle room, which was added in 2010 that accommodates about 200 people.

“The in-between one is for refreshments,” Larry said.

In order to sell 3.2 beer, the liquor license has to be under a non-profit’s name. Since he is a member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, the on and off sales license is under its auspices.

A lot of snowbirds from Arizona and Texas come back to the Midwest in May and make the Music Fest their first stop on the dance circuit.

The musical line-up is based on recommendations from the fans.

“I go off of what the public wants (as far as selecting the entertainment),” Larry said.

“The Top Notchmen from Wisconsin have been coming to the Music Fest for the past 19 years,” said Brenda.

A highlight over the past 20 years is when the entire 18th annual Music Fest was recorded by Pioneer Public Television and it will be again this year, Larry said.

When Larry isn’t touring with his band, his 2,000-acre farming operation located just east of Lake Benton occupies most of his time.

Brenda, who co-owns Perfect Styles in Marshall, helps in the fall with the farming.

In addition to farming and making music, Larry likes to collect John Deere two-cylinder tractors. During the four-day fest, the tractors get kicked out to the lawn where people can wander around and admire them.

Larry has been playing old-time music since he was a kid. At age 11 he started playing concertina. Before forming his own band, The Larry Olsen Show, in 1982, he played guitar with the Marv Nissel band. In 1984, Larry’s dad, Arnold, joined the band as drummer and his sister, Lisa, played piano. Later, a guitar and horn player were added when Lisa left for college.

By 1995, Larry was used to playing festivals with his band and knew that there weren’t any music venues in southwestern Minnesota.

“Fans, you could say, were willing to help (put on the show),” Larry said.

Larry’s parents, Lorraine and Arnie Olsen, were among the music lovers who helped him get the festival going as well as Iona and Ray Vandendriessche of Marshall.

“We had been dancing to his music since he was a teenager,” Vandendriessche said. “After Ray passed away in 2006, I still went.”

The music fest continues to be a family affair, in addition to his mother and Brenda, their three children – Brady, Terron and Karissa – help out as well.

“Everybody has a part,” Larry said. “Karissa is in the fifth grade now and starting from when she was in the first grade, she gave her classmates free passes for their families. Many of her classmates come out. She’ll teach them the chicken dance or a polka.”

Brady said he does whatever is needed.

“I’ll bartend, give rides, park cars,” he said. “People ask me where things are.”

Visitors are offered rides on the four-wheelers to get from the parking lot to the Music Fest.

Whenever a little extra money is made from the event, it goes back into improving the accommodations for the fans, Larry said. One of the new amenities is the indoor bathrooms in the main stage building.

“People really love those,” he said. Previously, the Olsens had rented Port-a-Potties.

In recent years he has acquired a forklift. Larry can use it on the farm as well as for the Music Fest.

“Setting up is somewhat easier,” he said. “We use it to move tables.”

One thing that has remained a mainstay of the Music Fest are the American flags and banners that are set up in honor of Memorial Day.

On the last day, Sunday, there is a polka worship service every year led by the Rev. Richard Siemers of Tyler.

“The offering goes to different places such as First Responders of Lake Benton or Feed the Children,” Larry said.