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Holweger recounts lifelong love affair with rock and roll music

Elvis Presley is the reason Kenny Holweger fell in love with rock 'n' roll music. As a boy of 5, growing up on a dairy farm near Arvilla, N.D., Holweger saw "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" on TV one night and was hooked. "I immediately thought, 'That...

Kenny Holweger (right) poses for a photo with his fellow Kenny and the Classics band members, Josh Juntunen (left), Jim Bailey and Jon Hjelmstad. (Submitted photo)
Kenny Holweger (right) poses for a photo with his fellow Kenny and the Classics band members, Josh Juntunen (left), Jim Bailey and Jon Hjelmstad. (Submitted photo)

Elvis Presley is the reason Kenny Holweger fell in love with rock 'n' roll music.

As a boy of 5, growing up on a dairy farm near Arvilla, N.D., Holweger saw "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" on TV one night and was hooked.

"I immediately thought, 'That's what I want to do,' " he said.

For him, the irresistible appeal of rock 'n' roll is the rhythm.

"It's the beat, everything-I just like rock 'n' roll," he said.

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Even at 5, Holweger already had been drawn to music, tinkering on the family's old upright piano.

"Between milking cows, I'd play guitar," he said.

"I played music in my room every night, instead of watching TV."

He wired the barn for sound, so he could hear his favorite music while milking the cows and, possibly, encourage them to produce more. He's not sure it worked.

"But I convinced my dad it did," he said, with a big, mischievous grin.

"I'm still playing the same music 50, 60 years later."

Avid performer

Holweger, owner of Kenny's Music Shoppe in Grand Forks, played in bands since he was 15. He started his own band, Kenny and the Classics, more than 25 years ago.

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"A friend talked me into the name," he said. "He said, 'Well, you have to call it 'Kenny and the Classics.'

"I didn't want my name in it, but back then, everything was 'Sam and the Pharoahs' or 'a name' and the 'something.' "

The name fit, so it stuck.

A self-taught musician, Holweger never has taken lessons, except for saxophone, he said. "If I could hear it, I could play it. I play all by ear."

About 30 years ago, "it came to me that it's a real gift; a lot of people don't have that."

In Kenny and the Classics, he's the lead singer and plays guitar and keyboard.

He also can play drums, sax, banjo, mandolin and ukulele.

"I just figure out a way to do it," he said. He can read music "a little."

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The band was at its busiest in the '80s, he said, playing throughout the Midwest and in Canada.

"We played as many as 25 times a month," he said.

These days, baby boomers come out to hear his band, but younger people also like '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, he said. "It's good, danceable music."

For Holweger, the crowd is easily the best thing about playing with the band.

"I like to watch people having fun," he said. "Somebody has to do it.

"There's got to be somebody who makes everybody else have fun. It's a big sacrifice-yeah, right."

Business background

In his late teens, Holweger wasn't heading for a career in music when he graduated from high school in Northwood, N.D. He went on to Aaker's Business College in Grand Forks, where he earned an accounting degree in 1969.

After working in the automotive and tire business for 11 years, he quit to try to make a living as a musician.

He discovered, in a year or so, that was easier said than done.

"I got the idea to buy guitars at garage sales and sell them," he said.

He got so busy that, in 1982, he opened a store in downtown Grand Forks on Kittson Avenue between Third and Fourth streets.

He sold musical equipment-items people wanted to get rid of-taking a commission on each sale.

"It worked," he said. "It was the right place, the right time-a childhood dream come true."

Flood changes everything

That dream nearly died when the Flood of '97 decimated downtown Grand Forks.

Before it hit, Holweger had moved everything in his rented store as high as he could, but that wasn't enough to save it from the 8 feet of the Red River floodwater that filled his property.

"The flood wiped out everything. I had to move," he said. "I thought I was done."

There were no local buildings in which he could relocate.

"Everyone scooped them up," he said.

"It was discouraging, but it was something that turned into something really good."

Driving around one day, he spotted a vacant bank building-which also had been flooded. He was able to buy that building with help from the city of Grand Forks in the form of a disaster loan.

After opening his new South Washington location, "the business took off like crazy-it was pretty cool," he said.

"It's been a great location-three times better than downtown."

He has put two additions on the building where he sells guitars, banjos, drums, harmonicas, sheet music and other musical equipment and accessories.

The business, which includes a repair shop, also employs four teachers. Students range from 6 to 81 years old.

In recent years, Holweger has noticed an increase among girls who want to learn to play guitar, he said. "Maybe because of Taylor Swift?"

"It used to be about 10 percent (of the students) were girls; now it's 30 or 40 percent," he said.

The type of guitars young musicians are looking for is changing, too.

"Acoustic guitars have been very popular for the last few years," he said, noting the influence of country music.

And when the Internet opened a new world of online shopping, Holweger met the competition with his own website.

A songwriter, too

He is more than a performer and connoisseur of music. Holweger also has written about 120 songs.

"When I write music, I hear all the instruments," he said, but his band doesn't play them.

To be successful, "you have to play music people want to hear, music that's familiar," he said. "People want to hear the old songs, like 'Pretty Woman,' that have been around forever."

About 60 of his songs are in the hands of a Nashville "pitcher" who offers songs to well-known artists in search of fresh material.

None of the songs has been picked up or recorded yet, but knowing that it could happen is exciting, he said.

"I don't care about the money, but it would be great to be able to say, 'That's my song.' "

At 66, he often is asked if he has any plans to retire.

Not at all, he said. "As long as you keep booking me, I'll keep playing."

If you go

• What: New Year's Eve performance by Kenny and the Classics.

• When: 8:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday.

• Where: American Legion, 1009 Central Ave. N.W., East Grand Forks.

• Cost: Admission is free.

Related Topics: MUSIC
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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