Mike Hildebrandt: He Fiddles When He Can
Originally Published in the June 2016 Entertainment Guide
Mike (“Doc”) Hildebrandt has a motto, taken from John Denver’s song Thank God, I’m a Country Boy. It is, “I fiddle when I can and I work when I should!” A board-certified physician specializing in family medicine at the Allina Clinic in Faribault, Hildebrandt is also known throughout our area as an exceptional fiddle player whose enthusiasm for music shows in the radiant smile on his face as he plays or listens to others in musical gatherings. Will Healy, his longtime friend and host of the Over and Back variety shows Hildebrandt played in, told me, “I always told Mike that his patients would be a whole lot better off if he just played his fiddle for them instead of writing a prescription!”
While the Over and Back show ended its run in 2005, the Over and Back Band continues, with Hildebrandt on fiddle, Craig Wasner on piano, Steve Jennings on drums and Gordon Oschwald on bass. “An Evening with the Over and Back Band” will be held on June 10 at the Faribault American Legion as a benefit for the Rice County Historical Society, including dinner, raffle and silent auction.
Hildebrandt was a bit of a “country boy” as he grew up in the Mendota Heights/West St. Paul area, then more rural than it is today. His grandfather lived on a farm just a quarter of a mile up the road and other relatives lived nearby. He would pick tomatoes and drive his grandfather’s tractor around in the summer so, Hildebrandt told me, he was “used to having elbow room.” His father was an accountant for Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company and still lives in the family home there which was built in 1950, where Milt and Daraliene Hildebrandt raised six children, with Mike as the oldest. Hildebrandt told me, “My folks always said they wanted to make sure that us kids had opportunities for education and music.” Both were musically inclined but did not have “much opportunity that way.” His mother had played the violin in her high school orchestra in Hutchinson, Minnesota, and kept her father’s violin, which had been brought over from Germany, in their house. As early as age three, Hildebrandt experimented with this violin, attracted at first to the box it was in. He then started lessons on it in third grade in 1961 and played violin in school orchestras, playing in Minnesota All-State Orchestras from 1969 to 1971. He also played piano in the high school jazz band.
After graduation from Henry Sibley High School in 1971, Hildebrandt attended the University of Minnesota, pursuing both medicine and music. He played in the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and continued taking private lessons from Minnesota Orchestra violinist Henry Gregorian, which he had started while in junior high. At the university, Hildebrandt’s classes in music theory led to a further grounding in classical music. Then came the next phase of musical expression when his violin playing became “fiddling.”
Hildebrandt said that he found starting medical school at the University of Minnesota to be a “very intense time,” and he thought to himself, “Man, I need some sort of an alternative way to just relax.” He saw a sign on a telephone pole on the campus, “Bluegrass band getting started, looking for a fiddle player.” And soon the Buckacre Bluegrass Band was born (not to be confused with an Illinois group with a similar name). Hildebrandt said it was great entertainment and a “great relief from studying.” Plus the band got a regular gig at the Amalgamated Restaurant in Minneapolis which paid for a lot of medical books. The band played together from 1975 to 1978.
When Hildebrandt was in residency at Bethesda Lutheran Hospital in St. Paul in 1981, he joined with a residency colleague, Bruce Neumann (guitarist and singer) and played as a duo for hospital events, weddings and such. In 1981, Hildebrandt had married Paula Olson, a nurse who was also a good piano player and singer. She volunteered to learn to play bass with the bluegrass group named Good Medicine. They performed together until 1986.
In 1982, Hildebrandt was asked to play fiddle with Jay Peterson and Jane Kopiska on guitars and vocals and Barb Montero (of the New Prairie Ramblers of Prairie Home Companion) on bass. They auditioned for North America’s largest folk festival in Winnipeg, Canada, in July, naming themselves the ‘49 Pickup Band (since they literally were a “pickup band,” only knowing each other from informal jam sessions around the Twin Cities). The new band was chosen to perform at this three-day festival of music which featured 250 musicians on nine stages. They played on one of the side stages and then, when one group cancelled on short notice, their band was asked to open for Riders in the Sky in the evening on the main stage, before more than 30,000 people. (This same year, Riders in the Sky, formed in 1977, became the first exclusively Western music artist to join the Grand Ole Opry and later won two Grammy awards.) It was, said Hildebrandt, a “really magical” experience.
Hildebrandt remembers the festival as having been “an amazing collection of people from around the world – some established, some up and coming, some traditional, and some really on the ‘cutting edge’ – which might also be a nice way of saying ‘very strange’! I was like a kid in a candy store – had never seen anything like it.” Hildebrandt hosted a fiddle workshop and played with talented jazz violinist Randy Sabien, now chair of the Strings Dept. at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. Among Hildebrandt’s memories (besides enjoying seeing up close the musicianship and hilarity of Riders in the Sky) was having the chance to see artists Doc Watson, David Amram, Minneapolis blues/folk musicians Koerner, Ray and Glover, the “most energetic show” of Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band, John Lee Hooker and taking a “fun bus ride” with Santiago Jimenez Jr. and his Mexican band.
That fall Mike and Paula Hildebrandt moved to Faribault, wanting to be outside the Twin Cities, but close enough to his relatives and musical connections there and to her relatives in South Dakota. He started work at the Faribault Clinic and is now with Allina. He said, “Thirty-four years later, we’re still here.” Hildebrandt appreciates the many beautiful and well-preserved historic buildings and the geography of Faribault. He enjoys its rivers, bluffs, nature center, lack of traffic and the fresh air of a place with “a little more low-key lifestyle” and easy access to the countryside. Hildebrandt said, “I have wonderful partners; the people that I work with have just been fantastic through the years.”
Hildebrandt told me he likes being in family practice because of its broad scope: “You take care of people from birth to death, newborns to 100-year-old people.” He said he really values the “deep relationships that I’ve had with so many of my patients, many of whom I’ve seen for over three decades.” Hildebrandt finds the wide range of skills that is needed in a smaller town which lacks specialists is “incredibly stimulating; it’s something new every day and never boring.”
Music continues to be his form of relaxation, “never a job” for him, just a lot of fun. (Hildebandt told me he really gets a kick out of it when his patients come to see him play.) He started playing with the Platte Valley Boys in 1976 and the band included his name when they were inducted into the Minnesota Rock/Country Hall of Fame (now called the Mid-America Hall of Fame) in 2007, the first bluegrass band to be inducted. Hildebrandt got to know the group, based in the Twin Cities, in the mid-70s through bluegrass festivals and was often called upon to join them. Hildebrandt said the group was “very helpful in teaching me some of the more traditional bluegrass style because back then there weren’t instruction books on it or CDs or YouTube or anything like that. You had to go sit with somebody who knew what they were doing and kind of absorb it.” Current members of the group are Ron Colby on banjo, Scott Stebbins on mandolin, Tony Andreason (from the Trashmen of Surfin’ Bird fame) on guitar, Catie Jo Pidel on fiddle and Ross Willets on bass.
Shortly after moving to Faribault, Hildebrandt started playing in a duo with Faribault’s Steve Cloutier. With Cloutier, a jazz guitarist, luthier and composer, he recorded the theme Cloutier wrote for Mankato State’s KMSU Morning Show, which is still heard weekdays at 9am.
Many will remember Hildebrandt’s fiddling in the beloved Over and Back show, a variety show from 1991 to 2005. That show developed out of a yearly benefit concert held in Northfield for the charity World Vision by master musician Craig Wasner, who invited his friends to play with him. One year the emcee was Will Healy, pastor of Emmaus Baptist Church in Northfield. Healy told me, “Once I heard Mike play the fiddle, I just knew I had to figure out a way to become his friend, and so I did!”
Hildebrandt said the participants decided to have a variety show four times a year, “patterned after the Prairie Home Companion radio show” and they would “see how it goes, just for fun.” The fun lasted until November of 2005, a run of 14 years.
I asked Healy, whose monologue always set up the show’s theme and who was the guiding force behind the shows, about the use of “Over and Back,” a basketball term, as the title. He said, “We used it as a metaphor, of course, the rule being that once you cross that decisive center line with the ball, you can’t go back, for if you do, a short, balding man (my preferred way of describing the moment) will run up to you, blow his whistle, cry ‘over and back,’ and possession of that precious ball is lost. So my invitation was that the audience ‘come on over with us’ for the evening – and back. Back to remembering the way things were, or back to a simpler time, or back to that rich place of community, where we remember that we’re always better together than we are apart... That’s the idea I tried to keep in mind as I wrote the show.” As for working with Hildebrandt on the show, Healy said, “Mike was a delight to work with – always ready to give pretty much any harebrained musical idea of ours a try.”
The popular shows were held at the Grand Theater, Kelsey Auditorium at St. Olaf, Northfield High School auditorium, whatever space was available. Beneficiaries were local charities such as the Community Action Center and United Way. The Over and Back Band was the “house band” of the show: Hildebrandt on fiddle, Steve Jennings on drums, Gordon Oschwald on bass, Craig Wasner on piano and sometimes Al Mason on harmonica and guitar. Hildebrandt remembers when they first began playing together, his reaction was “Wow! We could sound pretty good if we tried!” He has lasting memories of how much fun it was to “get together and play with such talented people” in the show. Hildebrandt also appreciated the opportunity to hear stories while hanging out with guest artists who were featured, from the Twin Cities and beyond. The Over and Back Band got to play blues, jazz, folk, ’40s music, bluegrass, even some rock and roll.
The shows in June of 1997 brought in international folk artist and Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter John McCutcheon and Pat Donohue, fingerpicking guitarist with a mastery of folk, jazz, blues and swing music who spent 20 years with Prairie Home Companion. Then, in November of 1997, renowned folk singer/songwriter Bill Staines joined in. Virtuosos Dean Magraw (folk guitarist) and Peter Ostroushko (fiddle and mandolin) were featured in a show called “Under the Harvest Moon” in Sept. of 1998. A nationally acclaimed jazz ensemble, the Motion Poets, took part in June of 1999, and that September Mankato’s contemporary folk artists, the Divers, joined the crew for the courtroom drama theme of “Busted.” The 10th anniversary show in June of 2001 featured the Minnesota Klezmer Band. Healy told the Northfield News of June 16, “My only regret is I haven’t had the opportunity to sing more.” So he sang a version of John McCutcheon’s Cut the Cake, after which Hilde-brandt performed the Orange Blossom Special.
Also featured in the shows were talented vocalists Charlotte DeVries, LuAnn Aldrich and Susan Lohmann. The ever-entertaining Bleacher Girls added songs ranging from the Andrews Sisters to the Pointer Sisters.
But all good things come to an end, and Over and Back ended with shows held Nov. 18-20, 2005, at the Northfield High School Auditorium. The folk duo Neal and Leandra (whose songs have been praised by folk legend Tom Paxton) were the last guest artists. Healy said in the Oct. 29, 2005, Northfield News, “We wanted to end this when it felt right, and we think now is the time.” The website farewell from cast and crew said, “Over and Back has truly been a labor of love and we are so grateful for your enthusiastic support over this great run!”
In the 1990s, Hildebrandt made several trips to Nashville to help a friend record some songs. A highlight was getting to play a set at the famed Bluebird Café, a site now used in the ABC show Nashville. He also played in several services of Nashville’s Cowboy Church, run by Harry Yates and Joanne Cash Yates, sister of Johnny Cash. The interdenominational services are broadcast live to 110 countries.
In 1984, master carver and guitarist Ivan Whillock had opened his art studio in Faribault and Hildebrandt participated in jam sessions there. During a golf outing in 2003, they talked about their mutual love of swing music and started playing this music as a duo at Faribault’s Coffee House from time to time. Eventually, they added Whillock’s son Mark on drums and daughter Marnie on vocals. Dallas Musselman became the singer for Jivin’ Ivan and the Kings of Swing in 2007. Other members are now Paul Ousley on bass and Doug Madow on keyboards.
The Over and Back Band was featured at Faribault’s annual Tree Frog Music Festival, which started in 1996. Jivin’ Ivan and the Kings of Swing also played toward the end of the festival’s run in 2010. Hildebrandt enjoys the intricacy of swing music, with its “complicated chords and beautiful melodies” that people recognize. Today Jivin’ Ivan and the Kings of Swing have a regular gig once a month on Saturdays at Faribault’s Signature Bar and Grill. (They advise: Bring your dancing shoes.) Ivan Whillock told me, “Sitting on the bandstand next to Mike gives me the best seat in the house to appreciate his virtuosity. I never tire of hearing him play; he is always growing, always fresh. He plays not only with fine musicianship, but also with a great sense of fun. He still surprises me with new musical ideas. It seems there is nothing he cannot play, whether it’s multiple musical styles or a variety of musical instruments – from a violin, to a banjo, to a mandolin, to a guitar, to a musical saw and even a musical necktie.”
On occasion, Hildebrandt also plays with a bluegrass group from Branson, Missouri, called Goldwing Express, when they are on tour in this area. Since 2011, Hildebrandt has played with Minnesota’s Long Time Gone Bluegrass Band, starting with a gig at Crossings in Zumbrota. Long Time Gone guitarist Ben Manning attested that Hildebrandt “plays both bluegrass and swing fiddle at the level you would expect from someone in a national touring band.” Manning said Hildebrandt is also a “genuinely likeable person” in a band that has been together 15 years “and we still like each other.”
Hildebrandt also started playing gypsy jazz after Martha Larson discovered him in March of 2011 as he played with Jivin’ Ivan at the Signature. She told me, “I was so thrilled to find swing jazz nearby, and especially a string player as talented as Mike. It has been an honor to play music with him.” Larson, a superb cellist who inaugurated both the Northfield Gypsy Jazz Jam Series and special performances of world-class gypsy jazz artists, considers him an “inspiring example to less experienced musicians” and a “Renaissance man,” with his dedication to both music and medicine.
Hildebrandt said he had always liked the classic gypsy jazz of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt but had not had the opportunity to play it before joining Larson at the jams and in Ile du Berceau, the gypsy jazz group Larson founded in 2011. He enjoys playing gypsy jazz on fiddle because it is “intricate music” which “incorporates a lot of classical training,” while also including a “kind of wild” gypsy style with some bluegrass techniques.
Relativity is another band that Hildebrandt has played with frequently since 2013. Relativity is the versatile Northfield duo of Toby Jensen on guitar and Sandy Jensen on vocals, mandolin and guitar which began in 1999. The band has a repertoire of a couple hundred songs, ranging from current top 40 to classic and folk rock tunes. Hildebrandt knew Sandy because she was one of the Bleacher Girls from the Over and Back show. Hildebrandt said, “We just seemed to click,” so he plays with them when schedules allow, “which is most of the time.”
Hildebrandt also can list playing at “innumerable weddings, funerals, festivals, banquets, performances, sit-in gigs” and being a judge since 2011 for the Minnesota State Fair Fiddle Contest.
Hildebrandt’s family consists of his supportive wife Paula and their two boys: Dan, who lives in the Twin Cities and works for Health Partners in Human Resources, and Eric, who teaches social studies and history at Faribault High School and is one of the coaches of the basketball team.
When I talked to Hildebrandt about the big smile that’s always on his face as he plays with or listens to other musicians, he attributed it to the fun he is having and the fact that he gets “antsy if I don’t get a chance to play music fairly regularly” because it has been “such an inner part of me from such a young age.” He added, “I never do it because I have to do it, just because I like to do it.”
It appears that the prescription for a happy life for “Doc” Hildebrandt is simply this: music and medicine, friends and family.
Check out these websites about upcoming appearances: Relativitytheband.com, JivinIvanandtheKingsofSwing.com and longtimegoneband.com.
A Memory from Craig Wasner
Mike Hildebrandt’s longtime friend and bandmate, Craig Wasner, shared a memory from the years when they were playing together in the Over and Back variety shows from 1991 to 2005.
We were doing an Over and Back show at the Arena Theater at Carleton College, I was running a bit late, and as I was scurrying to get to rehearsal, I slipped on the ice and caught myself with my right hand and severely sprained it. I had Mike take a look at it when I got into the building. He took my hand in his, and gently massaged it, feeling for broken bones. Fortunately, all was OK, but I did end up playing the night mostly left-handed, with an iced right hand.
I’ve seen and heard Mike play his fiddle with wild abandon, and have seen how his hands and fingers literally fly over the fretboard of his instrument. I’ve also seen and heard him play with so much compassion and feeling that it would bring a tear to anyone’s eye. I will never forget the tenderness and gentleness of those same hands that assured me that things would be OK. Mike really is a great player, a great friend, and a good old country doctor.
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