Fifteen cheerful musicians sit around a restaurant table, maintaining a steady beat, as a fearless fiddler creatively improvises to the tune, “Red-Haired Boy." “It’s a jam session totally off the cuff,” said Jim Madison, one of the guitarists.
Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake is a weekly gathering place for local musicians who share the common passion of playing bluegrass and country music. The sessions are known as Bluegrass Jam and begin at 7 p.m. every Wednesday at St. Ben's. Anyone is welcome to bring an instrument to play or simply enjoy the tunes while dining.
Guitars, banjos, violins, mandolins, and a Dobro represent the array of instruments played this Wednesday night. Just as diverse are the musicians who come from many walks of life, professions, playing experience and ages that range from 5 to 95.
“This is a chance to try and have fun,” said Ted Heinonen, one of the original members of the group. “It is a place where people make noise together and get courage.”
The music group refers to Heinonen as the “King of Country." He has been a musician for over 40 years and primarily plays and teaches the mandolin. Throughout his music career, he has played with a number of country and bluegrass bands and has credit on several record albums for various musicians in the Midwest.
At the jam session, Heinonen cranked out many solos on his mandolin. With a nod, he encouraged others to take the lead.
Among the crowd of musicians were four of his mandolin students. Heinonen has encouraged them to be bold with experimenting. One of his younger students is a teenager, and not only brings his mandolin each week, but also a fiddle and guitar.
The tradition of playing music at Sir Ben's began in 1978 when Jack and Barbara Arnold were owners of the restaurant. Mike Dukin, a blind pianist, began entertaining restaurant guests on Wednesday evenings in exchange for a sandwich and beer. About a month later, he invited three of his former band members, including Heinonen, to join him each week.
“We had so much fun,” Heinonen said. “It snowballed after that."
Although free meals are no longer provided for the growing number of musicians at Bluegrass Jam night, the restaurant bar continues to provide pitchers of beer and nonalcoholic beverages.
Most Wednesday night jams average between eight and 15 players. Sessions often finish around 9:30 p.m., but some have been known to last until midnight.
Over the past three years, Duluth locals, John and Cheryl Wisneski, have regularly come on their date nights to dine and listen to the live music. After dropping their son off at a church youth group, they arrive early to claim their favorite table that overlooks the band.
Cheryl said she enjoys listening to the variety of colorful music played.
“It’s such a relaxing atmosphere being with people our age,” Cheryl said. “It’s a community where everyone gets together and has fun.”
Click here to read about Sir Ben's Thursday night Celtic Jams.