“If I let go of that, then the tradition is lost.”

I was born half a mile down the road as the crow flies from where I live in Cashton. I've had chances to go many places with my music but have never moved more than just a quarter mile from home.

Photos by Adam Blackbourn

Brian Brueggen | Cashton, Wisconsin

Cashton is the best city in the world; it’s a place where I can walk to the post office and they’ll say, ‘Hey Brueggen, where’d you play last night?’ and also, ‘When you’re free, can you bring me a couple hundred gallons of fuel?’ Folks here know I play music and deliver fuel, but they don’t make a big deal of it, and I like that. When there’s an event in Cashton, they know they can ask if I want to come and play. I’ll do that gladly for my community. The people have been really nice to me in this town.

I have a musical family, going back at least five generations, and I’ve been playing in a traditional German music dance band since I was young. Back then, a friend and I used to listen to a lot of music and go to polka music festivals. When I was around 15 years old, this friend told me that I should start a band. He said he already had the perfect name for me,  ‘The Mississippi Valley Dutchmen.’ So, when I was 18 and started my own band, I called us Brian and the Mississippi Valley Dutchmen, and we’ve been performing ever since.

I’ve played with a lot of the polka greats, and it’s important to give credit where credit is due. The great Sylvester Liebl was my mentor. He was one of the best: a great concertina player and a great songwriter. But he was also like a dad to me. Like my dad, he was just a true human being and was always really nice to me. 

Sylvester Liebl wrote songs that have trickled down to me and other polka songwriters. In a lot of them, you can hear how the environment in the upper Midwest is a part of the music tradition. Liebl wrote ‘Echoes In The Hills,’ and if you look around western Wisconsin, you see all the bluffs. He wrote the ‘Champion Valley Polka.’ He wrote that for the people over in the Hillsboro and Yuba area where there’s a little road called Champion Valley Lane. Every polka band in the Midwest plays that song. He also wrote ’The Barre Mills Schottische’ and the ‘West Salem Waltz.’

My dad wrote the ‘Cashton Polka.’ Right down the road from where I live, there’s a little area called Pine Hollow, so I wrote a song called the ‘Pine Hollow Schottische.’ Beyond that, there’s a side road going to Melvina known as the ‘Grapevine’ that the gangster John Dillinger was rumored to travel back and forth on; I wrote a song called the ‘Grapeviner’s Lullaby.’ We’ve definitely recognized the role the environment has played in our music and have milked it for what it’s worth! 

After all these years, we’re still a dance band playing a style of music that was hot in the 40s and 50s. It’s a big-time honor to carry on that tradition. I almost feel that if I don’t, that tradition might not continue. We are one of the biggest concertina bands that still exist in  Wisconsin. We have a six, sometimes seven-piece band, and I get a lot of requests where someone will ask if just two or three of us can come perform. I will not do it. If I let go of that, the tradition is lost. 

To find this tradition, you need to get involved in church festivals and music in the park type of events. The music and community go hand in hand. There are different styles of polka music, but I stick to and like the old traditional German stuff. My wife, Jodi,  is from New Ulm, Minnesota, and that’s where this all started. They’ve had so many great bands and are really into the traditions like the arrangements and harmonies of the music. 

I realize younger people probably think polka is a corny style of music. You know what? Maybe it is, but there’s a lot of music that doesn’t trip my trigger. The music is good, and depending on the age group of the crowd you’re playing for, you can relate the music to their lives. For example, if I’m playing a dance and there’s an older crowd there, I will veer my music towards their era. It’s important for me to bring back the memory to them so they can relive their story. 

These days, it seems like you have to stand on your head and do somersaults to entertain people. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of good entertainers, but I try to entertain in the simple ways. I’m passionate about how our music should be played. I still think that when a band walks on stage, they better be dressed up in a uniform with matching shirts on, and their hair better be combed. I still want to see someone do the Jitterbug. I still want to promote dancing where a husband and wife actually hold hands and dance, because that’s a big part of history. I’m not a fancy or flashy entertainer, but when it’s time to play, we just keep the harmonies nice and make sure everybody looks nice on the stage. Let the music speak for itself—simple as that.

Music is a very emotional thing. When I talk about growing up and the memories I’ve had with music, I get choked up. If I hear the right song on the radio when I’m standing out in my garage, it can just about bring tears to my eyes. That almost makes me feel weird about myself, but that's how much I like music.

Life’s different than it was 40 years ago, but I’ve always heard our neighbors talk about how at night after chores were done, you could hear the music echo through the hills. My family would be outside playing music, not thinking much of it.

Growing up, my dad was a farmer, a school bus driver, and a musician. I remember he had this old maroon concertina. When he went to drive the school bus in the morning, he’d hide the concertina in the closet because he didn’t want anyone to break the buttons off. Well, being a little kid, I would sneak into the closet, pull it out and play. It was an awful-playing concertina, but how it worked intrigued me. On Saturday nights my dad would play music, so nobody could make any noise on Sunday while he was napping. When he was sleeping, I snuck his concertina outside and learned “At the Spring Waltz.” One day, after he woke up from one of his naps, I went to him and asked, “Dad, do you have a second?” and I played “At the Spring Waltz” for him. From then on, the concertina was never locked up! 

A concertina is a bugger of an instrument that was invented by a man who, after having a serious argument with his wife or girlfriend, went into a serious drinking spell. He thought he would try to manufacture an instrument that would annoy everyone…and he succeeded! That’s a joke, of course, but the concertina is one of the most unique instruments. Everybody calls it an accordion, but it isn’t even close — that’s like calling a tuba a cello. On a concertina, there’s fifty-two buttons and each button has a different sound going both in and out. They call it a diatonic instrument. It’s the quirkiest darn thing, and I’m still working on mastering it.

I played the trumpet in the high school band and could read music, but I cannot read any music for concertina. Everything is by ear. When I hear a song I like, I listen to it a few times and play it. I think it turned out okay, and, honestly, that’s the way my ancestors did it. I didn’t have an aunt or an uncle back through the years who can read music. No one in my family can. The person that doesn’t read music has no choice but to play from your heart.

When I think back to my dad, my grandpa, and my ancestors, I see that music is what held families together. My mother was a big part of my band’s success because she’d help us book our shows. When we would come off the road from our Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday jobs, we’d have to be at work on Monday. That was always the big day when folks called to book the band since it was the first business day after hearing us. So my mom was always especially busy on Monday. My wife Jodi is a drummer, piano, and saxophone player and comes from a very musical family. Her dad was a concertina player. My kids all play music. My ancestors all played music, too, but they traveled to their dance jobs with horses and buggies through snowstorms. I’m just the one keeping things going and using vans and trailers.

If you can play music in a family, there’s nothing like that. My cousins played in their bands together, and Sylvester Liebl also played with his family in his group, Sylvester Liebl and the Jolly Swiss Boys. You know what everyone’s thinking when you’re out there playing or singing together. When my dad was still alive, I remember we would play dances and stand on the stage and sing together. I would look at him, and he would look at me, and we just knew what was going to happen. Family knows what they can pull out of each other. With music you can express your feelings, you can express your emotions— but if you’re doing it with family, it’s ten times fuller. 

I've been a musician longer than I've been anything. I'm also a fuel truck driver for Brueggen Oil Company, which I own. My wife, Jodi, does the book work. I try to balance it out so that I can run the oil company and play music.

If there’s any spare time, I love to watch my kids play sports and be involved in their school activities. I have four children and try to spend a lot of time with each of them.  And if there’s any little inch of time after that, I like to spend my time up in northern Wisconsin because it’s beautiful up there.

Music has done great things for me. It got me to the Grand Ole Opry and a lot of great places. A few years ago, my family was having a holiday meal. I was talking with my sister-in-law and I told her that Michael Martin Murphey, the gentleman who sang ‘Wildfire,’ called me to see if I wanted to play the Grand Ole Opry at the old Ryman Auditorium. She asked, “Well, are you gonna play?” and I replied, “Where is it?!” She thought I was kidding her, but really, I had no clue — I wasn’t much into country then, though I enjoy it now.

Anyway, I did end up going down to Nashville and I played three songs at the Opry. I remember standing next to Blake Shelton, Eddie Stubbs, and all the guys down there. I also met the country singer Craig Morgan, but I didn’t know it when I first started talking to him. As we talked backstage, he asked me where I was from. I told him my home was in Cashton, Wisconsin. He didn’t know where Cashton was, so I asked if he knew Sparta. Well, he loves bow hunting, and he said he had heard that we had good deer hunting up here. We ended up spending an hour visiting and the whole time, I had no idea who I was talking to. All of the sudden, I hear Eddie Stubbs say “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the stage: Craig Morgan.” As he walked to the stage, he looked back at me and said, “Nice talking to ya — let’s get together after the show, I wanna talk more about hunting.” That was the most memorable thing about being at the Grand Ole Opry.

But music can also create bumps in the road. At the age of 18 years old I was running a band. You’d walk into a dance hall filled with people ready to see you, ready to dance…and everyone wanted to buy me a beer. I don’t think I had to buy a beer for about ten years, but you really have to be careful because that can get you. At that time, a lot of musicians were going full-time, but my Dad wouldn’t let it happen. He’d say ‘You’re going to wake up on Monday and go to work…because you need to.’ So that’s what we did. Many nights we would get home at four or five in the morning, change clothes, and go to the barn to milk the cows. After the chores were done, we’d change clothes again and play another dance. We’d go a couple of days without sleep. It was tough, but that built character and kept us straight.

As a musician, you’re gone a lot. You’re the first one to the dance hall and you’re the last one to leave. You’re on the road when no one else is. It can cause stress in a lot of areas. There was a time when I wouldn’t turn anything down…I’d play every job. I remember one time we went on a road trip and played Western Minnesota on Thursday, played Milwaukee on Friday, Western Minnesota on Saturday, and back to play in Milwaukee on Sunday. If I had to live my life again, would I do things a little differently? Now that I’m 56, I wouldn’t do that stuff anymore, but hindsight is 20/20. When I was young, it was party on. 

A high point for me was in 2019 when I was invited to play for an Oktoberfest celebration in Guantanamo, Cuba, for our military troops. What an experience that was. The band had an escort and security on us all the time; they treated us like kings over there. We played two two-hour shows: the first one was for the military families: the husbands, wives, and kids. We played lots of fun stuff and got the crowd interacting. But, when those first two hours were up, they announced “Okay, children must leave,” and then shut the doors. They told the parents to come back after an hour break. Well, when an hour passed, it was game on! Out came the mugs, the dresses, the Oktoberfest uniforms…you name it. I remember standing on top of a table and playing for all the troops…we had a blast, it was tremendous. And, as we’ve been doing every time since that night, we finished our show with the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ This place that had four thousand people screaming and hollering went dead silent. I played it solo while the five fellas behind me stood on stage, crying. I get tears in my eyes even thinking about it.

When we went back home, our hosts took us by motorcade to get back to the ship. As we left, they stood out on the dock, waving and thanking us. That experience was one of those things that really hit home. My dad was a Korean War vet who took the military seriously. He had just passed away three years before, and it made me think, “if only dad could be here.

Brian’s story was produced by Adam Blackbourn. You can learn more about Brian’s band, Mississippi Valley Dutchman, here.

Brian’s Mississippi Valley Dutchmen performing Nebraska Polka at the Heatwave Polka Fest at the Amerahn Ballroom in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.

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