Dick Kimmel spent more than 30 years helping restore Minnesota's wild turkey population. Now he's working on restoring the state's population of bluegrass pickers.
First, here's the turkey tale:
While calling for the wild turkeys near his New Ulm home, the retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist recalled how the agency hatched a plan with New York State to swap Minnesota partridge for New York wild turkeys in 1981.
Workers in both states live-trapped the critters for the swap. New York's part of the bargain was to air freight adult turkeys to Minnesota. Kimmel says a breakthrough in wild bird restoration came before his time as a wildlife biologist, back in the 1960s. That's when researchers discovered only birds from the wild, and not ones raised on game farms, had the right stuff -- the hardier DNA -- to make it in the wild.
Kimmel remembers collecting a batch of the New York birds at the Twin Cities airport in his DNR truck. Release of the critters the next morning at sunrise in a southern Minnesota park was not a secret, and to this day, Kimmel said he was amazed to encounter 80 people on hand to witness the event.
"Here's a cold morning in February, and there's people standing in the snow at dawn waiting for these turkeys to come driving up in their turkey limousine to be released," he said of the audience that day.
With his music, he finds a different audience.
Kimmel has recorded more than two dozen bluegrass CDs over the years, and now that he's retired from his day job, Kimmel says there's time to tour, playing at up to 100 gigs a year, mostly in the Upper Midwest.
His musical roots go back to childhood.
Before he was 10 years old, Kimmel was living out another life. Growing up in New Jersey and then Illinois in a musical family, he spent his early life surrounded by all sorts of stringed instruments, including his mother who played four-string banjo and a couple of brothers who were capable guitarists. And the family had a record club membership that supplied a steady stream of LPs. (He remembers an early Everly Brothers album with particular fondness.) Between the two, he learned to play.
Later, while taking a break from graduate school in West Virginia, he kept playing music, toured and learned more songs with classic bluegrass themes of homesickness, lost loves, and, "... trains and prison and murder."
Fifty years later, Kimmel is bringing new bluegrass musicians into the fold. And like those wild turkeys from New York, the converts appear to be thriving.
One of them is New Ulm resident Jerilyn Kjellberg, who says she once had an a capella group called the Four Ladies. Kjellberg, an Owatonna native and a gifted vocalist, attended Concordia College in Moorhead. She says she was more of a choral musician. When she met Dick Kimmel she picked up her guitar and switched from a big vibrato-laced style to bluegrass.
"If you can picture singing through your nose, it's probably the best analogy there is," she said.
Dick Kimmel's newest convert to bluegrass is his 16-year-old son Ian -- each play the mandolin, and Kimmel can barely restrain his joy at this conversion -- his son gaining what Kimmel calls peer permission from his friends to play one of America's oldest forms of music.
Ian now has his own bluegrass band, and there are signs of even more converts on the horizon.
"All my friends have come to see me at different shows with my band," he said. "They always have fun there."