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If talking music over a beer with Jack Klatt were just like listening to his throwback country blues, it'd be like a trip into the past. In this bygone universe, he'd order a Schmidt, remove his pageboy cap to wipe his brow, and tell you about "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad." When finished, he'd leave 15 cents on the table, and saunter off to catch a streetcar.
That's not quite what happened when City Pages met up with the 26-year-old folk singer on a recent Monday. We shared a booth at the Turf Club with Sabyre Rae Daniels, who sings and plays ukulele with Klatt's group, the Cat Swingers.
Once the western traditionalists the Cactus Blossoms start their set with a song by the Delmore Brothers, the music filling the room makes it nearly impossible to talk about Klatt's new disc, Mississippi Roll, which features collaborations with area luminaries Dakota Dave Hull, Charlie Parr, Spider John Koerner, and Cornbread Harris.
Klatt was able to put his future in the past after receiving an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board in 2011. "There's such a wealth of music in this town — we're really lucky," he says, showing the boyish smile that belies his image as a world-weary troubadour. "And Minneapolis is small enough that these guys are approachable."
Finding Spider John Koerner required heading to Palmer's every day, but Dakota Dave Hull "was pretty connected for an old timer" and regularly checks his email and Facebook. Hull was the first person Klatt approached with the project, and he signed on to co-produce as well as perform. Hull brought the Cat Swingers to Creation Audio, where he'd been recording for more than three decades, and which is where the recordings took place over two ten-hour sessions.
Hull is quick to answer when asked how often he performs with young artists like Klatt and the Cat Swingers. "Not often enough," he says, adding that "there's young people who can out-perform anyone."
The core of Mississippi Roll is the Cat Swingers, who back each of the guests and perform the rest of the songs. "I call them the A Team," Klatt says of Daniels, accordionist Patrick "Patty" Harrison, and bassist Josh Granowski. The strongest tracks on the disc capture the band by themselves, doing what has made their act so memorable.
By the time the Cactus Blossoms are closing their first set, a black-clad Harrison joins the group. He's just performed with the local a capella ensemble Cantus at the Dakota.
"With traditional music you've got to be careful about not just reproducing what's already happened," Klatt continues. "You've got to let it breathe and grow."
Harrison can't agree more. He is the most accomplished member of the group. In addition to Cantus, he performs New Orleans hot jazz with his own group, Patty and the Buttons, and also the Minnesota Orchestra Pops. "[Cat Swingers' music] is not a period piece, but a means of expression," he says. "It's a format or an idiom."
A project like Mississippi Roll might have run aground with the wrong hands at the helm, but Klatt found an ally in Dakota Dave, who believes, "when you treat this stuff like a museum piece, that's all you'll get."
Klatt and Daniels leave the table to visit friends. Playing host is a role that suits them well. The Blossoms' bassist Liz Draper takes up one of the empty seats and she and Granowski talk about his new bass, an American Standard that resonates well enough to preclude amplification.
The Cat Swingers are all under 30, but when it comes to the music of the '30s they're the best in town. You can hear it in Klatt's original song, "Do You Think About Tomorrow?" — equal parts Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie — and in the dozens of traditionals that make up their repertoire.
Charlie Parr, who has introduced a new generation to traditional music, raves about recording with them. "I always learn something when I play with other musicians," he said, "But [the Cat Swingers] really know what they're doing." The self-taught Duluth native is a link between Klatt's band and veterans like Harris, Hull, and Koerner.
"I think music keeps you young," says Klatt. "That's what I thought playing with Cornbread. He sits at the piano and he's a young man."
Eventually Draper is called up and the Cactus Blossoms start their second set. Friends urge Harrison to sit in. "Did they do 'Adios Maria' yet?" he asks. "That song needs an accordion." They have, but it doesn't take much urging to get Patty on stage, and soon he is backing Pop Wagner, who has tuned up and joined the band. They play Rex Griffin's "I'm Ready to Reform" and the Blossoms' original "Stoplight Kisses."
There's a healthy interplay between these two groups, and Klatt was inspired to write "Life's a Drag (But Not Mine)" by Burkum. "We were playing a show, and our friend Todd Ojala came up and said, 'Ugh, life's a drag.' Page jumped in and added, 'But not mine.' I knew I was going to write that song. We traded it back and forth until I took it as my own."