A Prairie Home Mandolinist
by Hermon Joyner
The mandolin is no stranger to A Prairie Home Companion, the long-running, live-radio-broadcast, variety show from Minnesota-based writer and humorist Garrison Keillor. Sam Bush and Chris Thile are frequent musical guests and mandolin virtuoso Peter Ostroushko was once a member of the show’s house band. Texas native and recent Minnesota transplant Richard Kriehn now plays mandolin and fiddle in that show’s The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, which is the current house band and has been since 1993. The show makes good use of Kriehn’s experiences in playing a wide variety of musical genres.
Richard Kriehn recalls that there was always music being played in their house in Houston, Texas, while he was growing up—his dad liked country music while his mom enjoyed 1950s doo-wop classics—his family didn’t turn to performing until after he came along. Though to be fair, Kriehn has fond memories of his dad playing the guitar when he was growing up. But it was through his mom that he was introduced to the mandolin. He said, “At one point, she went out to a music store store and decided she was going to learn to play the mandolin, so she bought a little $85 A-model mandolin, brought it home, and played on it for about 15 minutes. Well, it really hurt her fingers, so she put it back in the case and stuck it under the bed. That’s when I started begging her to see it and play it. I don’t think I even knew what a mandolin was. So she let me sit on the end of her bed—she wouldn’t let me run around with it, cause I might drop it or break it or something—and I played it.”
This instant attraction to the mandolin eventually affected the rest of his family. Kriehn explained, “After I started messing around with the mando, my dad got his guitar out more often. We worked our way through the Mel Bay books, learning chords and tunes like “Long Black Veil,” just over and over. My younger sister, Gina, when she got a little bit older, picked up the bass and we started a little family bluegrass band, My mom sang, my dad played guitar, my sister played bass, and I played mandolin. There wasn’t much music before, but it started around the sixth or seventh grade for me when we put together the family bluegrass band.”
It was almost the same time that Kriehn decided to pick up the violin and play in the school orchestra. He discovered early on that it complimented the mandolin very well. He said, “It was the summer before I went into the fifth grade that she brought that mando home and I started playing on it. Then I got into orchestra in fifth grade and I started playing the violin. It had the same tuning as the mandolin. So I went through the whole orchestra system in high school and played classical music on the violin and bluegrass or whatever on the mandolin. Eventually I tried to play a little fiddle. The fiddle music that I listened to and wanted to play was Bobby Hicks and Chubby Wise. That was bluegrass fiddling, not contest fiddling.” Being in Texas, contest fiddling was more the norm.
While he was thoroughly schooled in playing the violin, starting in grade school and continuing on through college, Kriehn never had any official teacher for the mandolin. Like a lot of players, he went the route of buying records and learned to copy the solos from the albums. He especially connected with the recordings of David Grisman, Bill Monroe, and Sam Bush.
After graduating from high school in 1984, Kriehn worked odd jobs and played music in bands around Houston and Austin. Then in about 1991, Kriehn and a musician friend of his, Tim Williams, decided to go on a road trip. He said, “We wanted to go to Weiser. It was Idaho, it was an old time fiddle contest, so we figured it was the place to get away from Texas-style fiddle contests, so we went to Weiser and discovered that it was the biggest Texas-style fiddle contest, anywhere. We were surprised when we got there.”
However, Kriehn appreciated the change in scenery from Texas, and hung around the area and met his future wife, Danette, in Boise, Idaho. But the desire to see new parts of the country led him and his wife to move to Nashville, where they lived for five years. It was there that Kriehn met and worked with Butch Baldassari. Kriehn said, “We were in Nashville from 1996 until 2001. I had read a magazine article about Butch Baldassari and the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble. So when we moved to Nashville, I found Butch’s number and called him and told him I played the mandolin, I read music, and it sounded like a lot of what they did was right up my alley, so if they ever needed somebody, here’s my number. Well, they had a show coming up in Cleveland and they needed an extra mandolin player, so I went and sat in with them and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ Their motto was Bach, Beatles, and Bill Monroe; a little bit of everything. That was my first experience meeting Butch and we ended up being really good friends. It was just a great experience.”
Kriehn played on three albums with Butch Baldassari and then moved back to the Boise area, living just across the state line in Colbert, Washington. Kriehn finished his bachelor’s degree in violin performance from Boise State and then enrolled in the master’s program in nearby Pullman, Washington, at Washington State University. He majored in violin performance and conducting.
Throughout his life, Kriehn has moved back and forth between bluegrass and classical genres. While he was growing up, the mandolin was mainly used in bluegrass while the violin was used for classical music. As he grew older, the lines began to blur them, and he played more bluegrass and folk on the violin and sometimes classical music on the mandolin. The two genres have influenced each other, when it comes to technique and expressive performances.
Kriehn explained, “It’s pretty profound. It’s great from the aspect of all the etude books I went through and as far as left-hand technique goes and maybe the ability to think of different fingerings. I don’t feel like I’m stuck in first position or third position. I try some things in second or fourth or fifth positions on the mandolin to help me with the writing or the execution of a piece.”
He then explained how it affected his approach to performance. He said, “In classical music, there are a lot of dynamic contrasts and there is a lot of phrasing and there are a lot of things to pay attention to, so I’m sure that’s found its way into whatever I’m doing, whether it’s bluegrass or Brazilian or whatever. It’s also nice to at least have a decent grasp on theory on what I’m playing. If I know what the chord progressions are and I know the common tones between two different chords, I can come up with something that sounds smooth and has a nice transition. If I didn’t have the theory background, that might be a little more difficult.”
Kriehn’s current position in The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band capitalizes on another aspect of his background for being able to effortlessly move between genres, playing a bit of old time music and then some ragtime and then some classical and then some show tunes and then some classic rock ‘n roll. A Prairie Home Companion is known for its wide variety of musical guests and Kriehn feels right at home in this setting. The mandolin that best seems to handle all the different musical genres is the Ellis A-style that Kriehn currently plays.
He said, “As far as the show goes, it’s all about whatever is going to help the song that we’re playing. It’s less about whether or not I get a solo or not. It’s more like what is the finished product going to be and how did I contribute to that? And not detract from it. It’s more about the song and what fits stylistically in that song. I try to be a chameleon and fit my playing to the style of the music. I think the mandolin goes with anything. It’s not just an old time, bluegrass instrument. It can fit just about anywhere, if it’s played the right way.”
But getting on A Prairie Home Companion was a mix of random opportunity and sheer tenacity for Kriehn. He had just finished his Masters Degree in 2006 when his wife heard about the show coming to WSU and suggested he approach them about playing on the show. So that’s what he did. Kriehn put together a sample CD of his playing along with a letter telling about his growing up in Texas listening to A Prairie Home Companion. And then he forgot about it. Six months later, he happened to catch a radio announcement saying that there were some seats left for the upcoming radio show and the very next day he got a phone call from Sam Hudson, one of the producers on the show.
Kriehn said, “Sam said that they had heard my CD and wanted to know if I wanted to sit in with the band for the show and it would be pretty much all day Friday and all day Saturday.” He, of course, said, “Yes,” so the radio show happened and he also sat in on the live concert version after the radio show. Kriehn admits he remembers little about the performances, but they seemed to go well. Those shows happened on October 2006 and for Kriehn, that was it. Life went on.
But in 2010, Kriehn heard that PHC was coming back to the area and doing a show in nearby Spokane, Washington. He called up Rich Dworsky, the leader of the house band, and pitched his return. Kriehn explained, “So Rich said, ‘Bring your mandolin, bring your fiddle, bring your guitar, and I’ll talk to Garrison and make sure it’s okay.’ So I went up and played the show with them in Spokane. And then after the show, Garrison invited me to come out the next weekend in Ohio. So I went out the next weekend with them to Cayuga Falls, Ohio, and played that show. Everything seemed to work great.”
It wasn’t long before they asked him back. Garrison Keillor, the master mind behind the show had an idea for a special tour the following summer. Kriehn said, “A couple of weeks later they called to ask if I wanted to go on this Summer of Love Tour, where they were going to do 26 shows in 30 days and we’d just get on a little plane and fly, do a show, load the plane, fly to the next place, and do a show. It was just live versions, no broadcasts. I went on the Summer of Love Tour in 2010, and then I started doing the broadcasts. I did maybe 15 or 20 out of the 35 for the next year, and then I got more and more after that.”
But this job has had numerous other benefits for Kriehn. He’s currently working on a new album of original bluegrass and old time music with a few of the musicians from the show. This album should available in March of this year.
And Kriehn’s gotten to meet and perform with a number of stellar musicians, including some of his own personal heroes. He said, “The one for me that comes to mind is Sam Bush. He was on the show and we were both staying in the same hotel and by the time we were done with the show, it was 8:30. So I said, ‘Sam, if you have time, I’d love to buy you a drink and talk to you for a little bit.’ So we met down in the bar downstairs in the St. Paul Hotel and I’ve just never heard somebody talk so much. He had so many stories. I’d ask him a question, ‘Well, what about the time you played on this album with John Prine? And 30 minutes later, I’d ask him something else. We ended up sitting down there for three, three and a half hours, just chatting. Everybody says, don’t try to meet your heroes, because you’ll be disappointed, but I can certainly say in this case, I was absolutely not disappointed.”
And recently, Kriehn got a surprise phone call that really made his day. He explained, “I was going outside to mow the yard and my phone rang. I have different ring tones for different people, and when I met Sam, he’d given me his cell phone number and I’d assigned him a ring-tone of his solo from ‘Can’t Stop Now’ on the New Grass Revival album. So my phone starts ringing and it’s ‘Can’t Stop Now’ and there’s Sam Bush calling me on the phone. So I answered the phone and he said he’d been listening to the show the day before and he said, ‘Man, that mandolin solo you played on that one song, you really nailed it. I just wanted to call and tell you that was really great.’”
And for Richard Kriehn, that was music to his ears.
Richard Kriehn Discography:
The Siren Song, Marie Jette and Dan Chouinard, 2014
Blues, Bourbon and Burritos, The Federales, 2014
Backhand and Grunt, Prozac Rat, 2014
World of Wonders, Barbara McAfee, 2013
From Here to There, Richard Kriehn, 2011
Summer Love Concert CD, APHC, 2011
Music from Six Continents, Various Artists, 2010
The Road to Happy, Jack Sydney Brown, 2008
String Quartet No. 2, Ellsworth Milburn, 2006
The Water of Life, The Highwaymen, 2005
Idaho Rhapsody, Idaho Public Television Soundtrack, 2004
Tell Me a Story, Johann Helton, 2004
Life from Left of Center, Jack Sydney Brown, 2004
David Peterson and 1946, Self-Titled CD, 2001
Fruit of the Spirit, Various Artists, 2001
Steel Guitar by Moonlight, Various Artists, 2000
Sisters Wade, Self-Titled CD, 1999
Mandolin by Moonlight, Various Artists, 1999
All the Rage, Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, 1998
New Classics for Bluegrass Mandolin, Butch Baldassari, 1998
Gifts, Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, 1996
Don’t Smoke the Bluegrass, Rick Stanley, 1996
What Does it Mean to Love, Rosalie Sorrels, 1994