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Music is becoming an integral part of Nevis Muskie Days, Brian Skinness at the helm. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Nevis to become a music mecca with 30 bands playing at festival

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A motley crew of musicians will descend on the home of the mammoth muskie in July.

Nevis' annual summer celebration - Muskie Days - has added Small Town Fugitives, Warpossums, Acoustic Smoke, Sneaky Pete Bauer, The Color Pharmacy, The Boys and the Barrels, Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses, Very Small Animal, Charlie Parr, Uncle Shurley, Murzik and other toe-tappers to the mix.

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A notable 30 bands will arrive at the lakeside village Friday and Saturday, July 20-21, adding a melodic mix of reggae, blues, folk, Americana and rock to the ambiance of the summer festival that's in its 62nd year.

Brian Skinness aspires to make the home of the world's largest muskie a music mecca, his friendships with musicians that have formed in the last few years a foundation.

"The music fest is the new carnival," he said, referring to a decade-plus ago when Main Street was transformed with rides, games and vendors during Muskie Days.

Skinness and wife Stacey initiated an essential oils business - Imani - in 1993, arriving in Park Rapids in 1999. They were looking for a building to purchase and in 2005 decided to acquire what had been Danny's Cookhouse and the former county garage on Main Street in Nevis. Vacant for a few years, the roof had sprung a leak and was in need of other repairs.

The structure was about to gain a new identity.

Skinness, a guitarist, is an avid fan of the Grateful Dead; the building was dubbed Terrapin Station (the group's ninth album). The late Jerry Garcia oversees operations via a poster hanging on the wall.

Meanwhile, he'd become acquainted with Bruce Babler, and the two began performing at the Black Moose in Park Rapids - they were "Brothers and Friends."

After the building purchase, Nevis became their performance venue. In 2008, he bought a sound system, with aspirations to make the hamlet a venue for bands. He'd started an Internet search the previous year and began making calls.

"I connected with Dancing Light," he said of Walker musicians Greg and Kiki Webb.

The first year, the performer schedule was comprised of locals, some of whom "had connections." By the end of 2008, noted Duluth musician Charlie Parr closed the season.

Skinness knocked down a wall, expanded the stage and added more equipment.

"Musicians who were traveling began to contact me," he said. "We became family. They stayed after the show, did laundry. And we heard about other bands."

Skinness "encourages thoughtful, original artists, a broad genre.

"This is not a bar," he said of Terrapin Station, where beverages are natural fruit drinks and snacks organic, including chocolate. "People who come, come to listen to music. And that is so appreciated by the musicians. Between songs you can hear a pin drop," he said, as opposed to traditional bar chatter.

"We try to make the sound on stage, the sound in the house. Musicians hearing each other well affects performance," he explained. "We give them the potential to play the best they've ever played.

"With that intent, magic can happen."

Taking the acoustical experience to new heights has formed a notable network. "People enjoy playing here; it's a wonderful experience. Inevitably, they think of others who would enjoy playing here too."

The phenomena emerging on Main drew the attention of the Nevis C&C, members asking for possible candidates for Muskie Days four years ago.

"I was friends with Enchanted Ape," he said of one of the performers. So Saturday night, the stage a flatbed and hoping it didn't rain, the bands played. The Walker Chamber called, and he booked bands for Ethnic Fest.

"The challenge is finding the right bands for the venues," he said.

But he surmised, he had developed a pool from which to draw, and in 2009 he proposed renting a large tent and stage for the 2010 Muskie Days, asking for a few more hours to perform, recruiting more bands.

By 2011, the Muskie Days committee asked for live music both days under a tent.

"If I do this," he told committee members, "it will create a new identity for Muskie Days. It will become a music fest," he predicted.

Skinness asked if this would fit with the direction of festival. The C&C determined music would spark new interest, breathe new life and provide something to build on.

The site of the music fest, he admits, doesn't hold the geographic proportions of Woodstock, We Fest or Moondance. There's no onsite camping.

"There are learning curves and growing pains to go through."

But he's on board.

The number of bands is double last year's. And with the school celebrating its centennial in conjunction with Muskie Days, he's projecting numbers to double. Last year, about 3,000 arrived for the event. His "conservative estimate" is that it could hit 5,000 this year, weather cooperating.

Outdoor stages will feature state-of-the-art sound and light systems, Mike Huerbin of the Blue Ox in Bemidji bringing equipment.

"We're taking the production level one step up," he said. "It's a vision shared by everyone; our passion is behind this. It's exciting to create an event together. We're a small town without a huge budget."

A $5 Muskie Days button gains entry to the events.

Despite limited funds, there are more bands expressing interest in performing than spots, he said. "We're not buying the passion; it's shared."

A "great vacation area" is part of the draw.

Six bands recruited by Skinness will be performing at this summer's Legends and Logging Days in Park Rapids. And the musicians to take the Second Street Stage are also cronies.

"But Nevis is the flagship," he said. "It will be a great place to hear music you might not have been exposed to. We're putting our best efforts together to make this a phenomenal event."

For more information, head to nevischamber.com or visit the Nevis Muskie Days Facebook page. Sign up for Terrapin Station's e-mail list at terrapinfamily.com.

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