Mel Annala says goodbye to the highway

by Richard Thomas

For over a decade Mel Annala has been one of the region’s busiest musicians, constantly performing around the Twin Ports, Cloquet and the Iron Range. The solo guitarist now plans to retire and will play his final shows the week of June 2-9. His departure will leave the events calendar significantly lighter.

His musical career was inspired in part by friend and fellow musician Bill Isles, with whom he worked at Eveleth Taconite. “Mel’s a kind, hard-working musician who’s worked out a niche for himself and a well-deserved fanbase,” Isles said. “It was sad to hear he was hanging it up, but we all have our limits and, I think, as we get older, are more selective in where we expend our creative energies. We have a motto, ‘Go where you grow.’ I guess Mel is moving to a more fertile acreage.”

The Reader interviewed Annala on Memorial Day:

Why retire now?

Got to take a break. I turned 68 last February. I didn’t even start doing to the solo thing until my mid-50s. But it’s been a good run. Just want to spend time with grandkids and all that.

Why start in your 50s? What did you do musically before then?

I’d played around with little ragtag bands. Was working for a lumber company in Virginia and I got hurt, and the injury actually caused an early retirement, back in about ‘03. I’d just get together with people and jam. Bill and Kate Isles were over at my house, I was playing them a recording and they both asked me at the same time, it was pretty funny, “Have you thought about playing out?” That got me thinking about it. I put together a repertoire, somewhere about ‘05, ‘06, just started picking up a date here and there. Then it got really busy for the last dozen years.

It’s a lot of, don’t be afraid to get a venue saying no. Keep banging away at it, make a lot of phone calls. Once I got in the door someplace, people asked me to come back. I guess I was doing something right. 

What genres of music do you play?

The bulk of material would be from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bob Dylan, Beatles, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Crosby Stills & Nash, John Prine, that sort of stuff. 

Do you have original songs?

Two that I put on the the cd. (“In Your Eyes,” 2012) I don’t like the term “cover song” or “cover artist.” T Bone Burnett will agree with that, too. There have been singers through the ages, Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Presley, etc., their interpretations of songs are out there. There’s a folk singer tradition that I’ve kind of stuck with. The songs I do, the bulk of them have been recorded by other people, but these are my interpretations of them, they don’t sound like the record. I don’t even try to do that. 

What artists inspired you?

The Beatles, of course. I was the perfect age, I had just turned 13 when they were on Ed Sullivan.

Are you from the Iron Range?

I grew up in West Duluth. Later on moved to the Range after I got married in ‘76. There wasn’t much work in the Duluth area. Bob Dylan and his family moved up to Hibbing when he was 7 years old. So me and Bob Dylan lead parallel lives. That’s one way to look at it.

Ever perform in a band or was it always solo?

I was in a band with my son, he played drums, and a fellow by the name of Dan Jenner played guitar. I was the bass player back. We did some weddings and things back in the mid-90s. Going way back to ‘72, when I was first out of the Navy, I was with some guys, we had a band called Mad Dog 20/20 and we played a few gigs in Duluth and Oliver, Wisconsin. A lot of it was playing in garages and basements. 

You earn decent money playing or was it all just a labor of love?

The money, it’s nothing spectacular. I think any musician traveling around now in Duluth, Superior, the Iron Range, we all get about the same amount of money. But because I did so many shows, I got enough money to buy more musical instruments. I just poured it back into it and collected guitars. That made it nice, if there is ever such a thing as extra money.

You’ve performed a lot in bars. Is that a tough crowd?

It can be. After a while you don’t get discouraged, you expect a big turnout, you don’t get it. Early on it kind of bothered me, but then I started thinking, I’m getting paid to rehearse, so that’s not a bad thing. You need a positive attitude and once I developed that, it was fun no matter where I was playing, if I had a full house or just a few people at the bar with their backs turned to me watching a game on TV. I’ve seen it all.

Final shows

Sunday, June 2, 12 p.m. 
NE BBQ & Smokehouse, 7 8th St., Cloquet

Thursday, June 6, 5-7 p.m.
Minnesota Discovery Center, Chisholm

Friday, June 7, 6-9 p.m.
Cast Iron Bar & Grill, Hermantown

Saturday, June 8, 6-9 p.m.
Ledge Rock Grille, Larsmont Cottages, Two Harbors

Sunday, June 9, 4:30-7 p.m.
Breeze Inn, Duluth

For more information see melannala.com.