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Reaching a high note on the prairie: CD's release is bittersweet for western Minnesota musician

Photo courtesy of Jeff Mills Jerry Ostensoe, left, performs with the Strollers, including Richard Handeen, center, and "Pistol" Pete DenBlaker at the former J.B. Yates in this 2015 photo. 1 / 3
Photo courtesy of Nicole Zempel Jerry Ostensoe has just completed his fifth CD. He produced and edited the new work while experiencing the progressive symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. 2 / 3
Photo courtesy of Jeff Mills Jerry Ostensoe, left, performs with the Strollers in this undated photo at the former J.B. Yates Supper Club in Granite Falls. Fellow performers are Malena Handeen, center, Richard Handeen, back, and "Pistol" Pete DenBlaker. 3 / 3

GRANITE FALLS — A scribe once pointed out that musician and songwriter Jerry Ostensoe blends country, blues and folk styles as easily as wildflowers make their own bouquet, but neglected one point.

He does so with a voice as pure as the prairie wind.

So it hit Ostensoe like a thunderclap when that voice began to falter. It was slight at first. Singing partner Malena Handeen called it to his attention before he even realized it.

He continued to perform and tell the stories of western Minnesota in song, or "just east of west" as he describes his home turf.

And, he went ahead with plans to produce a new CD after receiving support for it from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council.

He knew something big and potentially bad was happening to him, but didn't know what. Singing and playing the guitar was steadily becoming more difficult. He was scheduled for the recording studio in the fall of 2017, but had to postpone it.

"I was such a mess from the anxiety," Ostensoe said. "I was not sleeping. It was terrible. It was something of a relief when they told me what it was."

The diagnosis was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive, neurodegenerative disease commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease.

Ostensoe, 68, of Granite Falls, understood that he was in a race to produce the collection of songs he now titles "Jerry Ostensoe." The release of his new CD comes Sunday, when everyone is invited to celebrate with him from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Bluenose Gopher in downtown Granite Falls. Proceeds from the sale of the CDs will go to the ALS Association for research.

Ostensoe made it to the Wild Sound Studio in northeast Minneapolis in February of 2018 to record the music. He devoted three full days to recording with two musicians accustomed to playing for big-time stars. "They treated me with genuine respect," said Ostensoe of engineer Steve Kaul and the musicians.

The heavy lifting for Ostensoe came after the recording. He continued to make trips to the studio to turn the hours of music and hundreds of tracks into eight songs. As the ALS progressed, Ostensoe could no longer drive. He relied on friend Dave Smiglewski, with whom he started his musical career, to get him to the studio.

"I'd drop him off, he'd be there three or four hours. It was solid working. You could tell he was shot after," Smiglewski said.

Ostensoe completed the final mixing sessions over the internet, from his home. He relies on a walker to get around in the home.

He said he manages thanks to the steady help of his longtime sweetheart and now wife, Deb Fjermestad. They tied the knot in January, ending his bachelorhood and secluded life in a small house nestled among woodlands along Hawk Creek east of Granite Falls.

The new CD includes original songs written by Ostensoe, as well as his renditions of music from Bob Dylan, Jimmy Rogers, Elizabeth Cotten and others.

"It's really reflective of who he is as a musician and also what his musical interests and influences have been," Smiglewski said. It reflects his progression as a musician, but also reaches back to where he came from, he added.

Ostensoe said he is always aware of "whose shoulders I am standing on" by way of deference to the musicians who have influenced him. Yet those who have performed with him know there is no way to describe Ostensoe's style and works other than as unique.

"He is so authentically himself,'' Handeen said. His timing, and the ease in how he mixes storytelling and song are all his own.

"He didn't learn to have that voice," she said. "That's his voice. And those are his stories, and the writing style. It is his writing style. The phrasing. The timing. It's just so Jerry."

During his career, Ostensoe has recorded a vinyl album, a cassette, and now five CDs. "I would describe it as being more honest," said Ostensoe of this new work. "I left things I would have changed if I could.''

Ostensoe has been performing since 1969, when he and buddies formed a band called Good Time Railroad. He worked for 25 years for the BNSF Railway, and more recently, was driving a transit bus in Granite Falls.

Being a musician in rural Minnesota does not make for a lucrative career, but Ostensoe said he cannot imagine a more rewarding one.

He's an avid reader, and a student of history. His new CD includes his original song about Whitehorse Hill in North Dakota and the punitive expedition waged there against the Yanktonai, Santee and Lakota in 1863.

Ostensoe said he has always been influenced by having lived as a youth in Canby, near the South Dakota border, where the hills of the Coteau climb. "I have by any means tried to go West," Ostensoe said. "Most of my songs come from that yearning or inspiration."

His symptoms of ALS arrived just as he considered himself at the top of his game.

"When you start out, you have to scratch for jobs and there is a tipping point where people call you," said Ostensoe. "And I was right there and I had to tell people I couldn't do it."

The new CD allows Ostensoe to conclude his musical career on a high note, noted Smiglewski. He is impressed that his friend managed to overcome all of the adversity to produce it, knowing that with the progression of this disease, it would no longer be possible to make another.

"Like I said, it's honest and I am proud of it," said Ostensoe of the work. "It's bittersweet because there will be no other."

Tom Cherveny

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

(320) 214-4335
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