You’ve heard of the term “jack of all trades,” but do you really know one? You probably don’t. If you live in Bismarck, that guy is named Mike Swenson.
Certainly within the artistic community, he qualifies as his own Mike of All Trades. He is a performing musician. He’s a singer and songwriter. He is the host of “The Midwest Music Review,” his own radio show. He is an advocate for the local music scene, and a booker of shows across the Midwest. He is a writer, columnist and distribution manager for a community newspaper.
And it doesn’t end there.
“This winter, I’m sure I’ll be shoveling a few old folks’ driveways and delivering kerosene to some school houses,” Swenson said, hopefully in jest. But you just never know.
Swenson has been a full-time musician since 2007, after working in computer tech support, graphic design and restaurant management in Minnesota and Texas. He maintained a connection to his roots by spending summers in North Dakota, working on his family ranch, and he eventually moved back to Bismarck in late 2009.
“I’ve been singing since I was a kid and sang in school and city choirs growing up. I got my first guitar when I was 13, but it wasn’t until I was about 19 that I really started to learn how to play it,” Swenson said.
He was inspired growing up by his uncles, Al Mattson and Glenn Hauge, who were lifelong musicians from Kansas and Minnesota, and his Grandpa Reuben Swenson, who performed in barbershop groups in Minot as he grew up.
“’60s and ’70s country music has a pretty deep root in my heart,” he said. “The lyrics they wrote always told stories that people could relate to and delivered them in about as non-offensive way as one could. Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, John Denver, and, of course, Bob Dylan were all on repeat growing up in my household.”
These influences are always evident when he’s on stage with his band, The SwenTones, as a solo performer, or playing in tandem with his friend, Brian Gray.
“I think Mike, at heart, is a songwriter,” Gray said. “His head is a complicated mess of various ideas that are constantly being formed into songs. We’re able to keep things fresh and bounce things off of each other, which keeps us both moving forward as musicians.”
When not performing, Swenson keeps busy by promoting music and his pride in the local music scene through multiple mediums, including radio and the printed word. His radio show airs on Tuesdays on URL Radio, an Internet radio station based in Bismarck. He first started the show in 2009, after randomly walking past the station’s former headquarters inside Kirkwood Mall.
“Their poster said ‘local’ on it,” Swenson said, “and I walked in to drop off a CD. After chatting with (station owners) Stacy Sturm and Nicole Morrison-Mathern, they were cool enough to give me a show slot to work with every week, and it’s been going ever since.”
Swenson’s involvement has been essential to URL Radio’s ties to the local community, according to Sturm.
“He’s been sort of my go-to guy for dealing with local bands and adding their music to my library,” Sturm said. “He definitely has his pulse on what’s going on with the community, especially the local music community.”
He also promotes the local music scene as a music writer and columnist at the Prairie Independent, a monthly community newspaper in Bismarck.
“I got involved with the paper because of their local ties and my frustration with our main daily newspaper,” Swenson said. “After being in Minneapolis, I had gotten used to monthly and bi-weekly arts and music magazines, and was happy to see something like that in Bismarck and wanted to support it.”
Prairie Independent Editor Linda Garding said she has been impressed by Swenson’s connection to younger readers and his willingness to do what needs to be done to get each issue out. He writes music articles, a music column, a video game column, coordinates distribution, recruits volunteers, sells ads, edits and reviews the paper.
“I don’t know how we would have done the paper without Mike’s involvement,” Garding said. “He knows what needs to happen to try and push the musicians forward and to build a better, stronger music scene in this area. “
For Swenson, promoting the local music scene is just what he feels he owes the community. He knows the artists around him, and he’s doing what he can to get the word out.
“I’d like to think I’m trying to keep people aware by getting people out of their homes and into the venues and community events,” he said. “There are a lot of beautiful things going on every day that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
-Kelly Hagen is features editor for the Great Plains Examiner.