Minnesota music legend Peter Ostroushko dies at 67

Peter Ostroushko
Peter Ostroushko in an undated image. The celebrated musician died Wednesday at the age of 67.
Photo courtesy of the Artist

Updated: 2:28 p.m.

Celebrated fiddler, mandolinist and Minnesota music legend Peter Ostroushko has died. He was 67.

His family told MPR News he had been admitted to intensive care over the weekend and died of heart and breathing issues on Wednesday.

He is survived by his wife, Marge, and his daughter, Anna.

Ostroushko grew up in the Ukrainian community in northeast Minneapolis and was a lifelong musician. He said on his website that he picked up his father’s mandolin at age 3 and never looked back. He grew up a student of the well-known Minneapolis folk and blues scene including Dave “Snaker” Ray, “Spider” John Koerner and Tony “Little Sun” Glover.

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“Before I was even old enough to go to a bar, I used to go stand in front of the doorway of the Triangle Bar,” he said of a West Bank landmark in a recent podcast. “During the summer months, they would have the door open, and I could look up on the stage and listen and hear the musicians play. … For me that was like going to church, standing out there, listening to these guys play music.”

In time he began playing around the West Bank himself. He recounted the events of one particular night in 1974 on his podcast. He was leaving the Coffeehouse Extempore with guitarist Dakota Dave Hull after playing a show upstairs.

“And I’ve got a hankering to get over to the 400 bar and have me a bump and a shot,” he recalled.

He was interrupted by a tall fellow in wire rimmed glasses and a floppy hat. It was Garrison Keillor, and he wanted Ostroushko to play on his brand new live radio show. 

”’What does it pay?’ I said. He kind of chuckled and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll pay you.’”

He was a regular on MPR’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show for 40 years and served as its music director at one time.

His wife, Marge, says playing music on live radio profoundly shaped her husband, with its varied styles, endless need for new material and a constantly changing lineup of players and composers.

“His development as a musician came from playing with all these people. Being put on the spot,” she said. “‘You’re going to play with Emmylou (Harris). You’re going to write a song and Greg Brown is going to sing it with you.’ That I believe is what made him so versatile.”

“They presented music, and the community that they created with each other was wonderful. And inspiring,” she said. “And I think that's why people enjoyed the music so much. You could tell that. You could tell what the musicians were putting into their performances.”

Ostroushko’s career and range was widespread and eclectic. He also made appearances on television, on “Austin City Limits,” “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

He also played with both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He toured with Robin and Linda Williams, Norman Blake and Chet Atkins and worked with music legends like Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson.

His first recording session was an uncredited mandolin passage on Bob Dylan’s legendary “Blood on the Tracks” album, recorded partly in Minneapolis in 1974.

He issued more than a dozen albums of his own, the last in 2010. His music was also used in three Ken Burns documentaries, and a Twin Cities Public Television history of Minnesota — the music for which earned Ostroushko a regional Emmy award.

Ostroushko suffered a stroke in 2018, which ended his playing career. He had recently been producing a podcast, “My Life and Time as a Radio Musician.”