One from the heart: Rogue Valley delivers the sound — and words — of America

Published 7:01 am Sunday, February 11, 2018

The band Rogue Valley describes its offering as Americana music.

Americana, as defined by the Americana Music Association, is “music that incorporates elements of various, mostly acoustic American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk and bluegrass resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”

Well, jeez.

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If that description seems a bit intimidating, take heart — because Rogue Valley does — and consider:

‘Watch the clouds along the coastal range

Through the desert and the empty space
In Pennsylvania you can almost taste
The mountain laurels’

— Chris Koza, ‘Mountain Laurels’

Rogue Valley band members perform a piece during the songwriting workshop, from left, Peter Sieve, Chris Koza, Luke Anderson, Cody McKinney and Leah Ottman. Deb Nicklay/

The sound and lyrics offered up on this night of a songwriting workshop at the Austin Public Library were undeniably anchored in what most would call the folk and bluegrass tradition — sweet and strong with the smell of earth under its fingernails. Throughout the week, band members also conducted music residencies at Austin schools, Riverland Community College and the MacPhail Center for Music. Tonight, the band performs at the Historic Paramount, along with some local students.

The musicians from Minneapolis — vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and spiritual leader Chris Koza; vocalist and guitarist Pete Sieve; guitarist and songwriter Cody McKinney, drummer Luke Anderson and violinist Leah Ottman — gathered in the library conference room, looking a little apologetic about the low number that showed, about a half a dozen. A local reporter assured them, however, that it was actually a good turnout compared to similar workshops she had attended. The comment brought a few smiles and the mood relaxed.

Koza jumped in, talking about his early attempts at songwriting and the evolution from his teen years in Portland, Oregon, (“which were all about me … and the things that were crucial to my world”) to what he called the “jangling” music of his college years at St. Olaf College, which brought him to Minnesota. Then, he began to settle into a songwriting style that felt more like “old country, more rock” and when he wrote lyrics, “they had a bit more importance behind them” and not the self-centered examinations of his younger years.

Koza, and fellow band member McKinney, agreed songwriting takes heart and takes courage — when your vulnerable self is willing to listen, when “you can simply put it down on paper … it’s probably the best thing in life,” McKinney said. “It’s half the battle” when songs entertain honest feelings.

Koza agreed.

Luke Anderson (background) watches as guitarist and songwriter Cody McKinney makes a point during a get-together to talk about songwriting at the public library earlier this week.

“It’s exciting to create from a place of vulnerability,” he said.

Sieve said there are times a “heart-based creation happens when a collaboration takes place,” he said, referring to the piece, “Transference,” which appears on the “radiate … dissolve” album, the band’s most recent release.

Those attending did not bring any samples of songs, although Steve Paynic of Austin borrowed a guitar to play a portion of a song that he had begun. The others were mostly curious about the process and mechanics of songwriting.

Koza said his writing starts “with a mood I want to achieve before trying to put down as much as I can, as much as is possible … chord progression, lyrics. Then it’s shift and edit; I feel the more I can put in motion, the better it will be.”

Koza said there are times when lyrics may not even belong in a song.

“Sometimes a poem is just a poem; you would almost be doing it a disservice to put it into a lyric,” he said.

And yet, some of Koza’s lyrics are poetic, as in the opening stanza of “The Planet”:

‘Now I’m just a stone in a graveyard

the bodies can trust

a wrought-iron fence in the front yard

protecting the dust

once I moved among them

like waterfalls’

There were times during the discussion, when both audience and band members stopped, almost unable to describe the melding of notes and words and inspiration that comes when you know you have something great.

There is nothing better than performing a new song, said Koza. He mused that once the song was performed more than a few times, “you wonder what you were so hung up about,” referring to the frustration that sometimes comes with just trying to get it right.

Sometimes a clear eye and a strong editing pen is needed. Koza wryly referred to a time “when it seemed the word ‘moon’ was showing up in every song.”

Lyrics sometimes have their own timing, he said, after he had sung “The Bottom of the River Bed.”

“I’d always wanted to write a song with ‘tomfoolery’ in it,” he said. “I’m kind of proud of that.”

Rogue Valley will perform tonight at the Historic Paramount Theatre in Austin. The Minneapolis-based band has spent the week in music residencies with Austin schools, MacPhail Center for Music and Riverland Community College.
Photo by Cameron Wittig.

Rogue Valley will perform 7:30-9:30 p.m. tonight at the Paramount Theatre, featuring the band along with local student musicians. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door; students $10 in advance, $15 at the door. For more information, call 507-434-0934 or go to