New Ulm Ph.D. has combined passion of wildlife, music
Dick Kimmel plays the mandolin for his dog Corbett who is featured on the cover of his recently released CD, Corbett On the Couch. Photo by Steve Palmer
Talking with bluegrass and America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame musician Dick Kimmel, of New Ulm, is like sitting in a comfortable chair on the front porch of a West Virginia home.
Until one realizes the mountains of West Virginia are about as far removed from the Minnesota prairie as any place you could find. Except that since the time of Kimmel’s arrival from the Mountain State to the Gopher State nearly four decades ago his love and understanding of bluegrass music has transcended the miles, allowing him to entertain and teach audiences throughout North America and Europe and become well known as the “Ambassador of Bluegrass.”
Born into a musical family where his mother played banjo, his father the fiddle and his brother the guitar, Dick learned the chords of how to play guitar and banjo at the early age of 8. Soon, he began performing old country duets with his brother, Charles, at family gatherings in the 1950s, and he’s never stopped playing for more than 50 years.
From his childhood days in Philadelphia he moved with his family to Chicago at age 10. He remembers getting hooked on bluegrass music while in high school when he ordered two record albums of the month from the Columbia Record Club that he still has today.
He went from playing an electric guitar at rock dances sponsored by WLS radio to forming his first bluegrass band at age 14 with a Chicago-area group of high school friends called The Bluegrass Ramblers in 1962.
After graduating from Earlham College in Indiana, Kimmel went to graduate school in West Virginia, where he really was introduced to the big interests in his life, earning a masters and doctorate in wildlife research biology while diving into learning more about traditional bluegrass music.
During this time he performed with many bluegrass greats and old-time musicians. He toured extensively with the Mountain Grass bluegrass band and the Kimmel & Co. trio throughout the eastern United States and Canada as part of the New York Bitter End Coffeehouse Circuit.
Those West Virginia years largely defined Kimmel’s bluegrass music roots that led him to a lifetime associated with performing, songwriting and as a recording artist.
He’s performed with a variety of bands as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist playing guitar, mandolin and clawhammer banjo. Bluegrass aficionados recognize that Bill Monroe is considered the father of traditional ‘40s-era bluegrass music, and Kimmel once had the honor of playing the opening act for him at a performance in Kentucky. Over the years he’s also opened acts for headliners like Ricky Skaggs, T.G. Sheppard, Eddie Rabbitt and John Conlee.
Kimmel arrived in Minnesota in 1981 to begin work in the vocational aspect of his life as a wildlife research biologist and resources manager for the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources in New Ulm, where he specialized in upland birds and waterfowl.
Within a few weeks of beginning his job with the DNR he signed up as a member of the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Timers Music Association. He played some of the first genuine bluegrass music heard by many people in the North Central part of the U.S.
The first Minnesota band he played with was the Bluegrass Union, before Dick Kimmel & Co. regrouped in 1992, and he is still active with Dick, the only remaining original member. The veteran group of musicians who make up the band today present an entertaining and educational bluegrass variety show.
Kimmel has been associated with many top artists over the years and is featured on dozens of recordings and CDs. Some of the duos he’s collaborated with include A Prairie Home Companion’s Adam Granger for 30 years, Bob Bovee and Jerylyn Kjellberg. His latest CD release is titled Corbett on the Couch named after his beloved English setter who is a good hunting dog when he’s not on the couch.
“I think I’ve done more solo work over the last couple of years, and I really like it because it gives you a more direct connection with the audience,” Kimmel said.
His expertise as a wildlife research biologist and bluegrass artist became interwoven as he merged into a historian, mentor and teacher when he attended wildlife conferences.
He’s traveled a half dozen times to Europe and performed for audiences in 10 different countries and all across the U.S., sometimes averaging more than 100 appearances per year. “Bluegrass is incredibly popular around the world. There are about 100 bands playing that style of music now in the Czech Republic and Japan, and there are festivals in Australia and Brazil too,” he said.
Kimmel divided his time as a sought-after authority between wildlife seminars and music while on business trips abroad to help bring the world of bluegrass together through the International Bluegrass Music Association. “I found out at the wildlife meetings that Europeans have as much interest in pheasants and gray partridges as they do for traditional bluegrass music,” he explained.
While maintaining an international reputation and presence in the bluegrass community by touring Europe about every three years, Kimmel remains dedicated to the classic folk aspect of his music. He describes his style as upbeat, happy sounding, from the heart and improvisational.
Music, in all its expressive forms, has universal appeal, and Kimmel likes to deliver his extensive knowledge and passion for bluegrass music when he performs. His credentials include writing articles, columns and record reviews for various bluegrass and old-time publications throughout the world.
Ever the consummate musician, he’s extraordinarily active in conducting workshops on mandolin or banjo and teaches the history of bluegrass music as an adjunct college professsor.
Kimmel describes bluegrass music as being very straightforward. “It’s acoustic. It’s got power to it, but it’s also got a little simplistic beauty to it of an earlier time,” he said. “I think it carries a lot of emotion. The lyrics tell it like it is. There’s a fiddler I once worked with who said ‘Bluegrass songs are pitiful sad.’”
He said his inspiration for songwriting comes from all over and at any time of the day or night. One of his most popular tunes is called Ride On By which laments the loss of a lot of good land when the interstate highway system was introduced through West Virginia. “It’s all about storytelling,” said Dick who also wrote They Held The Line, a song about the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War which he played at the 150th anniversary in 2013.
He’s been commissioned to write songs for various organizations or projects and composed the lyrics and music for two local New Ulm productions of The Buckthorn Song and Homeless and Heartbroken, both internet videos that have appeared on YouTube.
Dick said that by having two career passions for wildlife and music it kept him from burning out from either. Songwriting required innovation, and wildlife research required constant experimentation. In both jobs the challenge and excitement made for a fulfilling life.
He loved his DNR conservation job before retiring from the position after 30 years and appreciated being able to combine work with the pleasure of performing his music at the same time.
“An example of that is when I’d attended the National Turkey Federation convention for work, and someone found out I was a musician. For a number of years after that I’d be playing bluegrass and traditional music for the crowd on opening night,” Dick stated.
He’s most proud of his role with the DNR in the successful wild turkey restoration program throughout southern Minnesota. “I worked a lot of years on it and did many of the early releases of birds around the region. We didn’t think the turkeys would do very well in farmland habitat, but they’ve thrived and established themselves nicely, especially in the Minnesota River Valley,” he said.
One of popular songs he’s written for children is called Turkey’s Aren’t So Dumb. He’s performed at many libraries’ “Creeping Critters” programs too. “I think I can sing more turkey songs than anybody I know,” he laughed.
Kimmel has served on the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame board for a number of years, and he’s been inducted into three hall of fames: 2008-America’s Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame, 2010-Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and 2012-Mid-America Music Hall of Fame.
In 2014 he was nominated for the Bluegrass Entertainer of the Year by the Society for the Preservation of the Bluegrass Music of America.
A writer featuring Kimmel in the publication Bluegrass Unlimited once likened writing about his music career to a mosquito landing in a blood bank. “The mosquito just doesn’t know where to start.”
Kimmel, 69, admits his schedule is almost more busy now than ever, and he hasn’t slowed down. “I enjoy it, but I don’t know how long I can keep up the pace because of all the travel,” he explained. He thanks his wife Sue “who has been a constant source of grounding for the scattered life of an artist.” He added: “There’s a lot of people who retire and then don’t know what to do with their time, but that’s not been the case for me.”
Above all, he’s most pleased to witness the family tradition of musical talent being passed to the next Kimmel generation. “I really enjoy it when my son Ian and I play together at appearances,” said Dick. “He’s an incredible musician and was named Mandolin Player of the Year in the Midwest.”