Dana Erlandson: A modern day troubadour and the consummate musician
By Christopher Wood
Editor At Large
It was July of 1987 when Dana and I first met at the Denmark (WI) Post Office one afternoon.
He was behind the counter assisting people with their mailing needs, while I had stopped in to send out a few packages.
I was in the process of moving back to the area to accept a new job which was what had brought me into the Post Office in the first place.
I was sending packages to music publishers as well as entries to a songwriters’ contest in Nashville.
We struck up a conversation about music, and Dana mentioned he was a performer and singer/songwriter.
He said he had set up a studio in his basement several years previously for recording demo tapes and invited me to stop by and check it out.
After doing so soon thereafter, I booked his Yankee Man studio to do demos for two songs I had recently written.
A week later, we met to discuss instrumentation, the arrangements and the vibe I hoped to get and convey in the songs.
Dana said I wouldn’t need to find people to play bass, piano or lead guitar because he was able to play all three of those instruments himself.
With a drum machine to keep the beat and my ability to play rhythm guitar and sing, we had all of the requisites for doing the sessions.
We scheduled them for both songs shortly after that and the results were excellent.
This proved to be the beginning of a relationship that would last over 33 years and result in more than 30 additional recording sessions of different sorts at Yankee Man.
Most of them were to record new songs of mine to obtain finished copies for mailing purposes.
However, there were also some wav files as required for TV commercials and Packers songs to be prepped for possible use in NFL playoff games; as well as several miscellaneous projects like a remote session on location to secure a live studio-quality recording for a project (more on that later).
Dana truly was a modern-day troubadour who played music wherever he went and whenever he could.
He always packed his guitar when he traveled and at least a harmonica or two.
He was a fine guitar player – lead, bass, rhythm or pedal steel – and played the harmonica and mandolin at a professional level as well.
He was a maestro on any stringed instrument, and played several others proficiently as well.
As a local performer, Dana was second to none.
He had been playing out around the area for four decades when he passed on in October.
He was a virtual repository with well over a thousand songs in his head, who could play pretty much anything and everything.
His repertoire ran the gamut from country and rock, to bluegrass, blues and Americana.
On the rare occasions that a request came up for one he hadn’t ever played before, he could usually figure and sound it out to perform it right on the spot.
In 1992, Dana and I along with two other songwriters, Tony Ansems and Mike Heath from the Appleton-based Songwriters of Wisconsin (SOW) went to Nashville for a week.
We had appointments with several publishers to pitch our songs to and it was Country Music Fans week in Nashville.
The event offered up some great shows featuring both well-known and up-and-coming artists.
Tony, who was the founder and frontman of SOW had come down to Nashville previously with Dana and another writer, Mark “Brink” Brinkman to pitch songs.
After arriving, they had stopped at Tootsie’s Bar on music row to quaff a cold one.
Tootsie’s had been around forever and was a well-known hangout for the Nashville writers upper crust including folks like Willie Nelson, who is reputed to have played “Crazy” there shortly after having finished writing it to see what the regulars thought. (‘And the rest, as they say, is history!’)
All of a sudden Brink noticed Dana was missing, and asked Tony: “Where did he go?”
They looked around and sure enough – there he was, playing the pedal steel with the trio on stage.
Only Dana could ease his way into any group of players, at any time, and anywhere and be welcomed because he was so great on the guitar, mandolin and harmonica.
When we got home, I had four new songs I wanted to record.
Several weeks thereafter, I booked Yankee Man for the “4X2” sessions (i.e. four songs by two players).
The idea was to make scratch demos of them because I intended to have a band record fully-produced versions later on.
Once again, these recordings turned out very well and when we went into Omnitrax Studios in Green Bay to record the fully-produced versions, they were stellar.
Dana worked diligently and quietly behind the scenes by contributing time and effort to the projects he believed in and felt were worthwhile for musicians and songwriters.
When we were lamenting the fact that there weren’t any local clubs around where artists could play at that welcomed original music in the late eighties, Dana was all for making the effort to change it.
At that time, there were a couple of open mics here and there but they were all about doing covers of well-known artists’ material.
We decided to start the Songwriters’ Showcase, whereby local folks would have the opportunity to play their own music in a club setting.
Dana was on board with it from the get-go and helped secure Floyd’s on Main St. to host it.
They had the best open mic event in town, and beginning on Feb. 7, 1990, hosted what was billed as: “An evening with area songwriters performing original music” on the first Wednesday of every month.
The night was devoted to originals only with no covers allowed until after midnight, when technically, it was the next day.
For the first couple of years, Dana played a set every month and got the word out to other musicians to come out and support it.
After two years, the Showcase was doing so well that it was attracting bands, duos, and solo acts from as far away as Milwaukee and the UP (Michigan) on a regular basis.
Better yet, it had evolved into a paying gig for us.
In 1997, Dana agreed to get involved with the “Go! You Packers Go!” project.
It entailed recording a new version of what was not only the oldest Packers fight song but the oldest of any team in the NFL.
The song had been written in 1931 by Eric Karll, a songwriter from Reedsburg, Wisconsin.
While there was a very well-known instrumental version released by the NFL on RCA records in 1960, there was none available with the lyrics being sung.
After 66 years and no known recording to exist with the lyrics, we decided the time had come to change that.
With the blessing of the Karll family, we worked tirelessly on the project for several years through several recording sessions.
Dana rose to the challenge of recording it live when it became the next step required in the process.
It involved setting up at Eddie Whipps Banquet and Dining Hall located about 10 miles southeast of Green Bay in Eaton one Saturday afternoon.
The plan was to record a professional quality rendition of the song with the lyrics being sung.
We’d hired a crackerjack wedding band (The Eddie Larsen Orchestra) to play it from the sheet music and record it live.
There was just one afternoon (four hours) available to do the recording and get it right: Deer hunting season had begun in Wisconsin that morning (ya know?!).
Although he had never done an on-location session before, Dana rose to the occasion magnificently, and came through with flying colors.
The cost to have a radio station bring their on-location truck out and do it was prohibitive.
However, Dana’s willingness to accept the challenge made it possible; since his van could hold all of the equipment required and he had all of the know-how required.
With that being the case, of course it came out great.
In fact, if you want to purchase a Green Bay Packers Superbowl Carousel at the Packers Pro Shop for only $199.95, you too, can listen to the recording we made that day.
The carousel is manufactured by the Bradford Exchange in Chicago and sold worldwide.
Another session for the “Go! You Packers Go!” project called for having voices in four-part harmony singing it acapella.
With the sheet music for the voices and the instrumental recording of the song, Dana took it upon himself to sing and record all four of the vocal parts on his own.
It was a real feat, that required sounding out the proper harmonies and then recording all four of them individually.
He did it, amazingly enough, while being on the board setting the sound levels and turning the record function on and off as required during the session.
As an accomplished professional, Dana was booked to play the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville several times.
He was in good company because it is a stage that has been graced by many up-and-coming performers.
When he was invited to play the Bluebird for the first time, several of us went down for a few days to make an event of it.
I’ll never forget the feeling of pride that I and the rest of the group felt when he took the stage and started playing his set.
There were some big names from the music biz in the audience, whom they let us all know about (their) being there, of course.
It was the coolest thing ever – Dana, one of us, up there performing, and he certainly did us all proud that night.
Furthermore, he had opened for and many times performed with some very well-known and renowned national acts when they played in the area.
These included John Hartford, Leo Kottke, The BoDeans, John Hiatt, Nanci Griffith, Jerry Jeff Walker, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jackson Browne and the legendary Bill Monroe, just to name a few from the long and lengthy list.
Dana played at such a high professional level that John McEuen of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band came out on stage with his banjo in hand to join him in performing “Some of Shelly’s Blues” at the soundcheck for a show.
His resume of the bands he played in over the years was a lengthy one, indeed.
It spanned decades and included Glass, Two Way Street, Forgiven, The Garage Band, The Dowgs, The Rockets,The Mega-Watts, The Missiles (Neil Young tribute band) and The Roy Orbison Dream’ Band.
As an accomplished musician and songwriter with a wide range of experiences to draw upon for inspiration, Dana was a prolific recording artist.
He released eight solo albums, one of traditional Christmas songs and “Special Delivery,” a compilation for the USPS.
The solo albums included: “Pontiac Stew” (1989), “A Postcard Dream” (1993), “Train of Love” (1998), “Two Become One” (2002), “Fixing A Bridge” (2005), “Radio Motel” (2006), “Coming Home” (2011) and “AMERICANA” (2016).
Like many other respected songwriters, Dana had a wide and varied background.
After graduating Green Bay West High School in 1973, he attended the Trans American School of Broadcasting and became a disc-jockey for several years.
When radio stations became automated in the late ‘70s, he did a stint as the program director for on air talent for several more.
This afforded him a golden opportunity to interview musical notables from such bands as Supertramp, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Little River Band and The Climax Blues Band.
In 1983, Dana settled into a career at the United States Post Office which lasted over 30 years.
As someone who “always kept his head straight and his feet on the ground” as he used to say, he relied on his day job to pay the bills.
His songwriting skills and performance talents were recognized in a huge way at his place of employment when he was chosen as one of the first Postal Ambassadors for the USPS in 2004.
It was part of a nationwide campaign utilizing postal employees to promote the USPS and was the highlight of his career.
The USPS appointed and paid him to write and perform songs about new postal programs, as part of a campaign that utilized television, radio, print media and the web to promote postal services.
The program lasted several years during which he wrote and recorded an album of songs for it appropriately titled “Special Delivery.”
It stands as a testimonial to his unique ability to combine his passion with his profession, both figuratively and literally. (That we all might be so lucky…)
There are experiences in the songwriting process that one feels really good about and enjoys sharing with other writers.
These are things like hearing your song on the radio for the first time, getting published, having a song recorded by a hot artist or your song placing as a finalist in a national competition.
One of these Dana experienced was when he had some notable radio success with “Illinois Plates” in the late ‘80s.
He had copyrighted it, registered it with BMI (the performing rights organization he belonged to that pays royalties) and done everything right.
When he received his first royalty check, he called me to say he had “framed and placed it on the wall” in front of his desk.
It would serve as a proud reminder that he had reached one of every songwriter’s goals (which is to generate some income from the songs) and confirmation of the fact that it’s possible to earn money from doing what you really love.
I was curious about where the name Yankee Man studio came from and asked Dana about it one day.
He explained it was a result of marketing his services in the classified ads of magazines that catered to musicians.
The ads generated a lot of inquiries from people from southern states and being from Green Bay, one of his first customers pointed out that he was a “Yankee Man.”
He decided “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” and so named the studio Yankee Man.
Playing out with Dana was always a wonderful experience and we had some great opportunities.
The Main Stage at Art Street one year was one of them and Songwriters In The Park was another that we did for several years running.
I knew it always sounded great when Dana accompanied me on the songs, and that he was easily the best of those I played out with periodically at that time.
It didn’t make any difference what the occasion or event was; whether it was a benefit for a cancer fundraiser or whatever else – he always added so much to the sound of the songs, which I really appreciated.
He would make anyone sound good, I concluded – and that he did.
For me, the best affirmation ever came one night at the IQ Club on Broadway here in town after a performance.
We had closed with a protest song about the futility of war called “What Will They Tell The Children?”
Two young ladies who had been listening intently came up to the stage right after we had finished playing the song.
The first said: “Wow, you really rocked my world!” and the second exclaimed: “Rad man, rad – that is so-o-o rad!” (as in radical).
We smiled and thanked them for the kind words, and continued packing up.
It was one of those special moments that always somehow, somewhere and in some way, just made it all so worthwhile.
Every time I saw Dana play anything anywhere, it was always obvious that he just loved playing music.
And for those of us who knew him well, sharing his immense talents with others who were interested brought him great joy, too.
Barb Erlandson expressed it best when she said: “He dedicated his whole life to making others happy with his music. It’s one of the things he did right up until he couldn’t pick up his guitar anymore. It was what he lived for.”
I was one of the very fortunate people who benefited greatly from his love for making music, and his willingness to share that talent and ability so generously.
He added so much beautiful, musical color to all of my songs that he played on, arranged, produced or all of the above; with his ability to play so many instruments so well and do all of the rest of it, too.
I have always said that his mandolin solo during the break on “Watching As The Sunset Fades Away” is the best minute of music on the “Wild and Mild” album; and as the first real project we worked on together, that was just the beginning.
I already greatly miss the camaraderie we enjoyed in the studio while we were recording the songs and know that it will never, ever, be the same.
With well over 30 sessions in the 33 years that we recorded at Yankee Man, his playing, producing and technical skills came through on the recordings in a huge way.
His contributions were always so prevalently present to me, that I can hardly imagine it without him now … I feel like we’ll be going back to recording in black and white.*
However, I know that death is a part of life and in a sense, one of its great mysteries because nobody has ever lived to tell about it.
As I’ve pondered all of this lately, for better or for worse, some of the words from a song come to mind:
“We’ll lose some loved ones along the way,
The pain is like a knife.
They pass the torch, we carry on,
It’s all a part of life …”
* Reference to the “Wizard of Oz” movie: which begins in black-and-white and changes to technicolor when Dorthy opens the door to see Oz for the first time. I regarded Dana’s musical contributions to the recordings in much the same way.