Meet Leelanau’s Own Music Man: Patrick Niemisto

Photo by Eino Paddinen

By Norm Wheeler
Sun editor

“You’ve got to do what you dig, / Dig what you do / On this rock spinning through the sky …” So sings Patrick Niemisto in one of his original songs that you can hear on the summer sundeck at Boonedocks in Glen Arbor, or on the CD N3C by the local power folk trio New Third Coast. That’s just one of the bands and venues frequented by Niemisto, the busiest man in local show business. Besides gigging every day all summer (sometimes twice, for years), Patrick produces other’s CDs in the Holy Wah sound studio in his basement, provides gear and/or sound for countless gigs and musicians, arranges for the seven-nights-a-week summer of music on the Boonedocks deck, teaches private lessons, champions the next generation of up-and-coming musical stars, teaches audio tech at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, and presides over the spiritual epicenter of the local folk music scene at his home in the woods in Leelanau County with his wife, Mary Kay.

Now for the first time ever, after more than 30 years of producing, promoting, scheduling, recording, amplifying, and sitting in with all of the other musicians around here, Niemisto is doing his own solo show at Sleder’s Family Tavern in Traverse City on Sunday, May 21, at 4 p.m. It’s about time. Niemisto has written an eclectic range of original music, from the poignant (“Road Home”) to the whimsical (“Ornithology”), from the practical (“10 Bucks Worth of Reg’lar”) to the tragic (“Sauna Song”), from the aspirational (“So You Want To Be An Outlaw”) to the celebrational (“Plain Clothes Poet”). And there are sure to be new songs in the mix as well.

Niemisto’s virtuosity on bass, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and sometimes banjo has evolved in step with the humor, pathos, and poetry of his voice. That’s because he plays and sings every day of his life. A Yooper Finn from Pelkie near Baraga, he lived home on the farm while attending first Michigan Tech and then Northern Michigan University until he graduated with a music degree in 1982. He was soon the K-12 director of vocal music at Glen Lake School. At one of his first Christmas pageants at Glen Lake, one robed wise man passed the baby Jesus (a doll) across the stage to another robed wise man (perfect spiral) as the show ended. There was an uproar in the community, then a meeting with the principal. Niemisto convinced them it wasn’t in the script, so he wasn’t fired. He retired from Glen Lake in 2013 after 30 years of nurturing Leelanau County talent.

Niemisto hosted open mic night at the Cedar Tavern with help from Chris Skellenger and Michael Camp from 1987-’99. He also provided sound for the Connemara Concert Series in those days, featuring the likes of Joel Mabus, Claudia Schmidt, Vance Gilbert, Jack Williams, Garnet Rogers, Josh White and Bill Staines. By then the summer music at Boonedocks in Glen Arbor was blossoming into a nightly show. Niemisto’s skills and contacts made him the perfect director of the sound, schedule, and talent. Anchored by the Original Third Coast Band (Niemisto, Skellenger, Dick Anthony) and Cabin Fever, the music grew to include The Boondoggies, Three Hour Tour, Uncle Z, Goodboy! (Niemisto, Skellenger and yours truly), Eino Sunshine and New Third Coast (Niemisto, John Kumjian and Brian Poirier.)

Simultaneously the Holy Wah recording studio, built by Tom Fordyce and Tom Keen (two of the members of the Cabin Fever Band) began to attract local musicians wanting Niemisto to record their albums. Since 2000 he has recorded 40-50 records for artists like Jay Webber, Claudia Schmidt, Robin Lee Berry twice, Cabin Fever, Andre Villoch, Emma Cook, Paul Koss, Jim Crockett, E Minor, New Third Coast and three anthology CDs by the Northern Michigan Songwriters in the Round convened by Adair Corell. (All of these local songwriters after many years continue to take turns, three at a time, playing in the basement of Horizon Books in Traverse City one Friday every month.) Niemisto has also brought into his home and recorded the music of several local musicians who never got around to making a recording despite sharing music around the area and delighting listeners for many years. Louan Lechler, Sandy Blumenfeld and Family Reunion (Mary Ann, Anne and Elizabeth Rivers) all have or will have CDs issued from Holy Wah celebrating their long time musical contributions to our community.

Being one of the hubs of this vibrant local music scene has resulted in Niemisto collecting a lot of autographs on his guitar. Alongside all of the locals you can see the scribbles of Arlo Guthrie, Tony Rice, Pat Donohue, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Claudia Schmidt, Bill Staines, Chris Thile and all of the Punch Brothers, and most recently The Accidentals. Sure, he’s proud to have met the best, but in a world known for prima donnas and egocentric tantrum dancers, Patrick Niemisto is the most laid back, straight forward, witty, and humble regular guy you would ever want to meet.

When I interviewed him for this story, at Art’s of course, he had just come from the doctor after tweaking his back. Full of painkillers and steroids, he announced, “I’m high enough to hunt ducks with a rake!” His children are all musical as well. Sean works at Shorts Brewing Company in Bellaire and he can play some intense heavy metal and rave music. Maura is studying Marine Biology at the University of Maine and she plays piano and sings like a whip-poor-will. And Rowan is in an increasingly popular band called Yada Yada in Detroit. Patrick’s wife Mary Kay Niemisto works at Cherry Republic in the wine tasting room after retiring from being a social worker at Community Mental Health in Traverse City for decades.

Patrick Niemisto is one of my closest friends. Together we play in Goodboy!, and as Luunappi we entertain kids at the Leelanau Outdoor Center and families at The Homestead’s Monday evening Songs, Stories, and S’mores series by sharing interactive sing-along say-along campfire songs, poems and stories. Niemisto has two CDs of children’s music to his credit: Stop, Look & Listen, and Sing With Me, I’ll Sing With You. So his musical range and expertise are prodigious. If you make it to Sleders on May 21, you will be delighted. And when you inevitably see Patrick Niemisto around Glen Arbor this summer after a gig sipping his last beer EVER!, thank him for being one of the prime movers in the local music scene. His creativity makes all of our lives richer.