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Songwriter, musician carries his Madison upbringing overseas

“There’s a tiny town out in the broken ground where the young folks don’t hang around too long …’’ — Broken Ground, Charlie Roth, 2010

Charlie Roth made his getaway like so many others, signing up with the military right out of high school.

“I had to leave Madison. I always felt that I needed to go out and see the world,’’ said Roth, now 57, and living outside of St. Cloud.

These days, Roth is helping the world to see Madison and rural Minnesota.

This June the full-time musician and songwriter will be returning to Europe for his third tour.

He’s become an emissary of the prairie, a unique voice whose songs tell of the western Minnesota experience.

One of his most popular singles is “Broken Ground.’’ It reached number 6 on the Euro Americana charts a couple years ago and receives air play all over the globe. It tells the heartache of how the lack of economic opportunities leads young people to leave, but also celebrates the prairie heritage they carry no matter where they roam.

“What we take for granted, people (in Europe) never met anybody like me,’’ Roth said of his rural Minnesota traits.

It comes not just from the prairie, but also from growing up on the border with South Dakota, where the pull from the west becomes a part of you, said Jerry Ostensoe of Canby.

Like Roth, Ostensoe is also a kindred spirit in songwriting and music, and a native of the border country. “I’m always aware of it. It’s a subtle thing,’’ Ostensoe said.

Roth is known for his energy and his mix of country and honkytonk, rockabilly, Americana and, more recently, Celtic music. He’s a one-man dynamo, playing acoustic guitar, rack harmonica and a foot percussion, all to complement his pleasing, baritone voice.

A life of music

After serving in the military, Roth returned to Madison to work with his father in the family’s bottling plant. He moved to St. Cloud to attend college. Always, he performed in bands. His first two bands, the Taxmen and Buffalo Rose, played country-rock and packed the dance floors.

His talent at interpreting and delivering what an audience wants makes him a stand-out entertainer, according to Mary Melby of Gary, S.D., a cousin of his who played in Buffalo Rose.

Roth works his magic weekly as a performer in St. Cloud area bars. He also performs frequently for venues such as the Spicer American Legion, the Madison VFW Club, the Watson Hunting Camp or, a few weeks ago, PB & J’s in Sunburg.

To the tune of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” Roth panned in a Norwegian brogue to the Sunburg crowd: “Jus’ dropped in to see what condition my fish house was in…’’

Roth said he loves performing, and enjoys bringing an audience to life with the music they love, whether its “Pretty Woman’’ or the honkytonk music of Waylon Jennings.

Increasingly these days, it’s Roth’s original music that crowds are hearing and demanding.

Roth has now produced seven albums of his own, “Broken Ground” and “Tartan Cactus Heart’’ the most recent of them. In “Tartan Cactus Heart,’’ he explores his Scottish heritage and mixes in his Texas style, storytelling tradition.

Finding some success in Europe has helped him on this side of the pond, where it can be so much more difficult to be heard, he said.

“Since I’ve been over there twice people look at me a little differently here,’’ said Roth. He feels he’s starting to turn a corner and gain recognition for his own talents after 40 years of playing whatever a crowd asked.

His roots

Roth and his wife, Bev, of 30 years live on a farm near St. Cloud where she operates a boarding stable.

“I haven’t had a job since 1981, not a regular job,’’ said Roth, laughing. He’s devoted himself full time to his music ever since college.  When he turned 35, he said his wife asked him: “What do you want to be when you grow up?’’

The answer is that he has always known.

His parents, Lauren and Betty, are known in Madison for their singing voices and love for music. His dad gave him his first guitar at age 12.

But his father had already given him something even more valuable. Roth said that his dad used to whistle tunes that no one recognized while he worked. When asked where the tunes came from, he admitted to making them up.

Creating his own music and telling stories through their verse is exactly what the son loves most. He credits it all to genetics or destiny.

Outgoing and personable, Roth said he always fit in while growing up in Madison.  Yet his musical talents made him stand out, too.

Madison did not encourage his artistic talents. Rural school systems aren’t about turning out poets or musicians, he said matter-of-factly.

And in an odd way, that helped him. 

“You had to work a little extra hard to establish yourself as an artist because it’s not encouraged,’’ said Roth of his small town upbringing. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that if you’re wired up that way, you’re kind of stuck.’’

Or as he sings in Broken Ground, “…dad said son no matter where you roam you’ll carry part of your prairie home…’’

To hear his music and learn more:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335