A night of songs down in Little Heart: Trying to keep up at Suchyfest

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I suppose it’s something about these hills. There’s a
natural rhythm and melody you can feel as you drive south of Mandan,
North Dakota
, following Highway 6 on a late
summer evening. It’s there in the sun, still casting short shadows despite the
clock winding down the day. It’s there in the horses and cattle grazing along
the fences. It’s there in a tractor driving down the road shoulder and in the
country church sitting up on a hillside next to a barn.

Perhaps growing up in this surrounding is what gave the
Suchy family such musical sense. On this particular evening – the Saturday
closest to a full moon in August – they have planned their 8th annual concert
at the historic Bohemian Hall.

The performing members of the Suchy family who put on this
concert consist of Chuck Suchy, Linda Suchy, Ben Suchy, Andra Suchy-Pierzina
and her husband, Andrew Pierzina. The show will also feature Minneapolis
virtuoso of the violin and mandolin, Peter Ostroushko. (A long-time friend and
musical collaborator, Peter jokes that he is changing his name to Suchy so he
can legitimately perform here.)

The plan was to play outdoors with the hall serving as a
backdrop to the stage. It was also to serve as the concession stand for fresh
Juneberry pie, pulled pork sandwiches and kolaches (fruit- or poppy-filled rolls
common to the Czech-Bohemian heritage of the area’s early European settlers).
On this plan, we would have watched the yellow-orange harvest moon rising three
hours into this four-hour show dubbed “Suchyfest.”

But tonight, the concert will be six miles further down the
road at St. Anthony. All day the cloud covered sky has drizzled and lightly
rained. It has been unseasonably cool. And so the show has been moved to the
Verein Hall in this small town once known, singer Andra Suchy would later point
out, as Little Heart – the title of one of Andra’s songs she will sing.

The Bohemian Hall was large enough in the first couple years
of Suchyfest to accommodate the crowd in the event of rain. A friend of mine
who grew up in the nearby town of Huff remembers singing and playing piano in
the small halls and church basements in these hills. To her, the Bohemian Hall
was something akin to Radio City
Music Hall
. It was big time; it
even had a stage!

Tonight, however, there will be something like 500 people
here. Maybe more. Many are coming from these farmlands. Many from nearby
Bismarck-Mandan. Some are coming from far out of state. Even U.S. Senator Byron
Dorgan will be here, just back from Washington
on the congressional August recess.

Rounding the corner into St. Anthony, the cars and pickups
are already visible lining the curbless street. I imagine Rusty’s Bar is
getting ready for a big night. We find a parking spot in the grassy lot between
the hall and a prairie-straight row of trees. The people are lined up to pay
the dirt-cheap cover charge of ten dollars. Doing the math, that’s exactly
$2.50 per hour of music that will fill this town tonight.

The air is already rich with the smell of food and the
sounds of lively conversation, August crickets and musical instruments warming
up. And despite the cool, wet weather all day, the air is now filled with
warmth and sunshine. It has turned out to be a beautiful summer evening. So we
follow the notes of the mandolin coming through the open windows and go inside.

We’re early, but apparently not too early. It’s filling up
fast and will continue to fill throughout the night. The metal folding chairs
are full. People are adding their own folding camp chairs and plastic patio
chairs. Just in front of the stage, some younger members of the audience are
sitting on blankets and sleeping bags. Perhaps as the night wears on, the kids
will fall asleep on these blankets, the way my dad describes falling asleep on
a pile of coats in the corner at a country dance. As for my group, we are
sitting on the benches lining the sides where the shy boys and girls used to
sit, each hoping for his or her turn on the big, oak dance floor.

If it feels something like reminiscing about an old time
dance, it won’t feel like that throughout the night. There will be
boot-stomping blues, and a few pieces that hint at the rock band side of the
family. There will be lovely ballads, country, polkas, waltzes, plenty of
bluegrass and lots of Americana.

You see, even as the show starts with North
troubadour, Chuck Suchy, playing some old time dance hall
numbers on his accordion, this isn’t the past. This is now. This is as timeless
and real as the fields and pastures I can see through the open back door.

So begins the show with Chuck’s signature “curly stuff.”
Really. I call it that because he calls it that.

A few years ago, I sat in with Chuck, Linda and Sue Griffin
Bicknell (who will also sing this evening) to play for a Sunday service at
Linda’s church for life, Heart River Lutheran
. Chuck had his accordion;
the rest of us had our acoustic guitars. Chuck explained quickly before a hymn
that we would sing the first two verses, and then go instrumental only on the
third time through while he would do some curly stuff.

“Curly stuff?” I asked Linda, leaning over as discretely as
is possible at the front of a church.

“Yeah. It’s… well, you know. It’s curly stuff. Just try to
keep up,” Linda replied with a warm smile and a delightful twinkle in her eye.

That’s what it’s like to play with the Suchys or to listen
while they play. The music is warm, inviting and always interesting. It tells
stories and takes you along for an amazing ride. It asks you to keep up, but lets
you know it’s okay if you don’t.

By the time the night was done, the concert had mixed music,
storytelling and laughs. We heard Andra’s effortlessly melodic voice, often
featured on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. We heard Linda’s
beautiful remembrance of a friend in her song, “Prairie Rose.”

We heard Peter sing a Ukrainian folk song, cover the Beetles
on the mandolin, and give us a hint of how Jimmy Rogers might have done “Light
My Fire” by the Doors.

We heard Ben’s signature sound combining his groovy, Taj
Mahal-style singing with his kick box drum, his blues harp and his one-of-a-kind
hybrid instrument – a “9-string lap steel slide banjitar” he invented in his
own garage and named Trouble.

And of course, well into the night and just as that harvest
moon began to rise over the Missouri River bluffs, we
heard the sonorous baritone of Chuck Suchy singing his unique brand of North
storytelling. He sang about a beloved dog in “Molly’s
Fields.” He sang about a famous billboard ad campaign from the past in “Burma

Driving home later, the songs still resonated through the
hills that brought up two more generations of songwriters. Passing the quiet
Bohemian Hall under the light of the clear starry sky, I was grateful to have
been invited into the stories. We all got a little bit of that Little Heart
rhythm tonight. It was a pleasure trying to keep up.