Area music festival celebrates bluegrass history

The Baker Family Band, May co-headliners, will also bring bluegrass music and its history to schools in southeastern Minnesota. From left are Carrie on guitar, Elijah on upright bass, Carina on mandolin, Trustin on fiddle and Hunter Motts on banjo. SUBMITTED PHOTO

A group of bluegrass musicians hold a campsite music jam during the SEMBA Bluegrass Festival. Jamming is one of the highlights of the event, where musicians can share their love of music together. COURTESY OF BARB OTTMAN

Members of Monroe Crossing will be performing at the SEMBA Bluegrass Festival this weekend. From left are David Robinson on banjo, Matt Thompson on mandolin, Derek Johnson on guitar, Lisa Fuglie on fiddle and Mark Anderson on bass. COURTESY OF JAMEY GUY
By : 
Bluff Country Reader

Commemorating 19 years, Southeastern Minnesota Bluegrass Association’s (SEMBA) May Festival once again promises an energetic celebration of this old-time American music.  SEMBA’s May Festival, which runs May 18-20, brings musicians from around Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri to Cushon’s Peak Campground, located eight miles east of Rushford.

New to this year’s festival is one of its two headliners, Monroe Crossing, a Minneapolis-based band named in honor of Bill Monroe, who is considered by many in the bluegrass world as the genre’s godfather. On its website, the band describes their music as “a blend of classic bluegrass, bluegrass gospel and heartfelt originals.”

As a nonprofit, SEMBA was organized in 1998 with a mission to promote bluegrass music in southeastern Minnesota and tell the history of this genre. Indigenous to the United States, the term “bluegrass” is derived from the nick-name for Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, where many Scottish and Irish immigrants merged the traditional music of their homeland with their experiences living in the mountains of Appalachia.

On the Wednesday to Friday prior to the May festival, SEMBA, through an anonymous benefactor, brings bluegrass programming to area elementary and high schools.

 “We bring a family band up,” explained Barb Ottman, who with her husband, Darrell, promotes the festival.  

“They give a history of the genre — bluegrass music – they demonstrate each instrument, they play their music for the audience, and then they teach the audience a song. In our history of presenting this program, I think it’s been 19 years now, all of the schools have asked for the program’s return.”

Co-headliners of the May festival, The Baker Family Band, from Birch Tree, Mo., have participated in the school program for three years. The band is made up of family members Trustin, age 17 on fiddle; Carina, age 15 on mandolin; Elijah, age 13 on upright bass; and mother Carrie on guitar.

On the other end of the age spectrum, a festival regular, Cedar Valley Bluegrass, has a 95-year-old mandolin player from Rushford. Myrtle Otis, who has played music for more than 60 years, also sings lead and harmony with the band. Cedar Valley Bluegrass also includes festival promoters Barb and Darrell Ottman and is lead by their fiddle-playing daughter, Becky Gors.

If Bill Monroe is the godfather of bluegrass music, one could argue that Darrell Ottman is SEMBA’s godfather and Barb its godmother.

“We had been going to the festivals even before it was SEMBA,” said Barb. The August festival, which had various names before SEMBA, will celebrate its 26th anniversary this summer.

“When SEMBA was incorporated as an association/nonprofit in 1998 and the board was formed, we were on the original board and have served on the board since that time,” Barb elaborated.

Darrell is the festival director as well as president of SEMBA. Both became the promoters of the festival in 2000.

The Ottmans’ work in promoting this art form was recognized by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. At the Society’s 2018 Midwest Bluegrass Music Awards, the Ottmans were distinguished as “Promoters of the Year.”

Over 730 people attended last May’s festival and nearly 1,700 bluegrass lovers attended the 2017 August festival. On average, each festival is run by over 100 volunteers.

To be a SEMBA volunteer, a member or to purchase tickets to the May festival, call 507-864-8109 or email Admission to the three-day festival is $30 in advance and $32 at the gate.

To view the full festival line-up, as well as information about single-day tickets, and all of SEMBA’s events and fundraisers, visit