Latest musician to take the stage in Montevideo has a long career in music

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

Lee Kanten has performed at Java River before, but last weekend was his first performance on the newly constructed Shinto Cowboy stage in the courtyard. “There are very few outdoor places that are that satisfying to play because the acoustics just go out into never-never land and that stage, surrounded by walls and walls across the street has some presence. It’s pretty to look at and the sound on stage is really nice for an outdoor space,” Kanten says.

Locals may have heard Kanten’s original music performed in towns along the river from Marshall to Ortonville, whether that be his solo act, his duo act with his brother called Brothers Two, or his act with Montevideo-American News contributor Tom Watson. Some may have been hearing Kanten perform for many years, as he started his venture into the world of musical performances as a child, taking the stage in Watson at the Town Hall as a ten-year-old child with his family. “My mother was a Jorgenson who grew up East of Milan. She played music endlessly,” Kanten says. “When I was about ten, my uncle Ira Jorgenson let me come up on stage with a ukulele and play with them. I couldn’t be heard, so it didn’t matter how bad I was but it absolutely lit a fire under me. I was like…wow! There are lights in your face and the place was crowded with people and I was hooked on performing.” 

Lee Kanten on the new Shinto Cowboy stage at Java River last weekend.

Kanten would carry that desire to perform throughout his life. As a high school student in the 1960s, Kanten was a witness to the rise of the Beatles, and a changing world of music that came along with their popularity. “It was a life-altering time in music. I started playing in a band in Ortonville. People were so hungry for live rock and roll music because the transition was still being made from Big Band music and real old-school country. Suddenly you could play everywhere. The ballroom in Montevideo, the Monarch, had major acts in it then and every small town bar was booking bands,” Kanten says. “We could play anywhere even though really, we must have been terrible as beginners.” After high school, Kanten left Ortonville to attend Southwest State University (now Southwest Minnesota State University). “That theater department was just an incubator of performance,” he says. “A bunch of us who were majors and minors in theater would put together talent shows and one of them was a 50s band. At that point people were going crazy for 50s music, so we played around campus for a while.” A year after graduating college, Kanten says the entire group got together and decided they wanted to continue their ventures in musical performances together. The seven band members formed a new band called Clutch and Shifters. They purchased a school bus that they converted into a camper with beds and traveled the next couple of years, visiting Florida, Michigan, Colorado, Arkansas, and all of the states in between. Clutch and Shifters were eventually inducted into the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame. “After a while, people decided they had to go back to the real world, so the five of us continued as a wedding band. After a while, sadly, people started dying and then we were down to a trio, and then another died and it was just my brother and me. We sang a duo as Brothers Two for the last decade doing everything from coffee shops and breweries to nursing homes and some restaurants,” Kanten says. “As brothers, our voices blend easily and nicely.”

After a while, Kanten and his wife decided to retire and move from their Minneapolis home to Ortonville. The distance from his brother meant that Kanten would pursue a solo music venture in the river valley area. Two years ago, Kanten was awarded a grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council to study songwriting. He hired two established songwriters, Gary Rue and Sara Thomsen. “Gary taught at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul and taught Song Writing One and Song Writing Two. He actually had a syllabus and all of these teaching materials. He lived with us for a week and gave me constant feedback on songwriting,” Kanten describes. “After that, I went up and stayed with Sara Thomsen, who is an activist and singer/songwriter out of Duluth who runs the Echoes of Peace Choir. She and I spent days walking along the shoreline of Lake Superior with her sharing her secrets of where the melody comes from. Her advice could be reduced to be quiet and listen to things.” Over the next year, Kanten poured himself into learning the art of songwriting. He then received a grant from the Minnesota Arts Council that he’s currently working on. The current grant revolves around an idea spurred by the pandemic. “It got started a little too late to effectively address the pandemic,” Kanten explains. He purchased a computer, editing software, and sound software and began working on a collection of collaborative music done from a distance. “Because we couldn’t be in the same room together, I would create a track and send it to people who would then listen, film themselves and send me that file. I would then combine them into various sized duos, trios, and bands.” That grant project is continuing throughout the rest of the year. Kanten says it also serves the purpose of bringing musicians together. “We live great distances from each other here on the prairie. That distance can work against us, but this is a way for us to continue to play together and to rehearse together. So while the pandemic has eased and we’re not so much doing that, I think it’s going to be a good tool for joining together musicians who are far flown,” he says.

Asked to describe his musical style, Kanten says it would likely best be defined as folk with a bit of country flavor. “What I wanted to do was write songs about where I live and where I live in time,” he says. “I’m 74 years old and the community in which I live is overwhelmingly old and in the tribe of people that we hang around with one of the conversations is what happens next? We’re no longer young enough to be able to deny our mortality. What happens next? There’s a lot of curiosity about that from different faiths and different belief systems. The question becomes quite real and so I sing about aging, about what happens next. And I sing about the beauty of the countryside that we live in. I play at local nursing homes and I wanted to sing them songs that I thought that they would want to think about too. The river valley area has become an inspiration to Kanten. “I was just astonished. In Minneapolis, we lived within a creative community as my wife and I created videos for a living. We were just surrounded by creative people. I did not know how rich that community was going to be out here, and we have been just blown away by it. In the last seven years we have been quite impressed with the breadth and depth of the art that people are doing here,” he says. 

For his live performances, Kanten likes to interweave stories with the music. “I like to do music with meaning and so a lot of times that will mean that I want to tell the story of the origins of the song whether it’s mine or somebody else’s. What does it mean? What was happening when it was written? And I write a fair amount of songs that come from the protest music of the 60s that in a trite and mockable way are about peace, love, and understanding. It’s a good time to sing those songs, as divided as we find ourselves,” Kanten says. He also enjoys pulling others up on stage with him if he recognizes a fellow performer in the audience. “There’s Darwin Dyce with his flute or Richard Handeen with his mandolin. I’m inclined to do that, which can make for some loose musical moments, and that’s, if you will, the downside, but there’s sometimes some magic where you’re just so glad you were there for that moment. As a solo act, I have a limited amount of variety in the sound that I can create. I have a guitar and a voice, so the excitement that happens when you bring in another voice or another instrument is really palpable and that’s fun to watch crowds react to.”

Lee Kanten will be returning to Java River with his solo act on August 13th from 7 to 10 p.m. He can be found on Facebook under the page Music Lee with future performance dates and times. While he has no albums out yet, Kanten hopes to have one soon. “I bought Jerry Ostensoe’s iconic performance shirts at one of his fundraising auctions. I have yet to wear it because I want to wear it when I have a CD release party,” Kanten says.