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Folk artist Luke Woltanski shares how northern Michigan culture influences his music

Woltanski sings a song about the "weird stories" that he has gathered from the music community. He thinks part of what brings N. Michigan communities together is the chaos that comes with our weather and tourism patterns.
Draya Raby
/
WCMU
Luke Woltanski sings a song about the "weird stories" that he has gathered from the music community. He thinks part of what brings N. Michigan communities together is the chaos that comes with our weather and tourism patterns.

Northern Michigan’s music inspired another state local to be a rural rockstar- Luke Woltanski.

He is originally from Plainwell, a small town near Kalamazoo, but spent the summers in the northwestern part of the state. In his experience here, there was music going on all the time.

“But then, there's so much natural beauty to write about so the northern Michigan folk music that I was exposed to was sort of like how romantic paintings were many years ago,” says Woltanski. “You’re thinking a lot about where you are and about the people that are around you and there's a lot of fun stories to be told there.”

He says his song Highway Down, is a compilation of “weird things that happen” in northern Michigan. One story is about a man who leaves a guitar in a snowbank and in the spring, discovers it again.

Inspiration for Woltanski’s music also comes from the culture and community in the area, which he says is a big mixed family and gives him a feeling of shared camaraderie. The unique weather of the state also seems to bring people together.

“We all kind of know that we have each other's back through the crazy tourist season of the summer and then during the fall when things slow down, we can all, you know, head out and everyone sees each other on the trails.” Woltanski says.

After graduating from Hillsdale College in 2020 during the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic, he felt a need to do music full time.

“I decided to move down to Gainesville, and we were able to play outside, and I was able to play out enough to just barely get by’” says Woltanski.

Singer/songwriter Luke Woltanski performs at The Raven Social in downtown Cadillac, June 26, 2024. Over his years playing at the restaurant, Woltanski has become friends with the employees, and he says it's one of his favorite venues.
Draya Raby
/
WCMU
Singer/songwriter Luke Woltanski performs at The Raven Social in downtown Cadillac, June 26, 2024. Over his years playing at the restaurant, Woltanski has become friends with the employees, and he says it's one of his favorite venues.

In Woltanski’s experience, southern hospitality is very real but very different from Michigan hospitality.

“Southern hospitality is very much so, people being polite to a person who is being brought into any of the little families that are there,” says Woltanski. “There was a big friend group that sort of took me in and they were very tight knit and sort of treated me like one of their own.”

He also noted that Michigan hospitality is often somewhat anonymous. “You’re part of the community, you live in northern Michigan,” says Woltanski. “That’s all they need to know. You’re part of the group.”

Woltanski says this natural welcome into the community made it feel like connection “just kind of happens for better or for worse here.”

The way he sees it, the natural beauty and lifestyle of our rural areas are a big part of why the connection comes so naturally. “That’s another thing that folks can share with each other up here and can experience the same thing, maybe that kind of helps,” says Woltanski.

The abundance of natural beauty in the area even works its way into daily conversations, bringing people together through discussions of hiking trails and activities. This abundance also encourages a slower pace of life, Woltanski describes it as a feeling of taking time to enjoy everything.

“I think that goes into a lot of music as well,” says Woltanski. “I grew up listening to a lot of local bands and they all had some kind of romantic song, and by that, I mean within the art movement and based on natural beauty and ‘we need to preserve this’ and ‘why would we want to throw it away?’”

Woltanski's poster displays his signature "Dangerous Music Man" persona that he developed after watching a play. The same line that inspired his brand also helps him create connections more often in his day-to-day life.
Draya Raby
/
WCMU
Woltanski's poster displays his signature "Dangerous Music Man" persona that he developed after watching a play. The same line that inspired his brand also helps him create connections more often in his day-to-day life.

Even the mythology and cultural history of some northern Michigan areas lead to questions about preservation for Woltanski.

“Preservation of culture, of land and the environment, of water and I love that,” Woltanski says. “It’s ingrained in every one of us that’s up here because we got to live this and experience this.”

Something that Woltanski notices about rural music is the focus on having fun and enjoying as much of life as you can.

“There’s a lot of music about taking days off and sort of balancing life and how you can take your life and push and push and push for your career,” says Woltanski. “But don't forget about all these great gifts that you've been given up here and take the time to just sit and enjoy them and the people around you.”

Woltanski says he would describe the genre of music in Michigan as Campfire Americana. Music with a traditional feel, rural influences, and self-reflective.

“It’s so distinct and musically fun that it gets into you, makes you tap your foot even if it's a song about death,” Woltanski says. “Inevitably, there's something about it that feels like it's part of your blood and your bones.”

Woltanski is now in his fourth year of doing music full-time and says he has no plans to stop now. Currently scheduling shows nearly, a year out and playing roughly 230 shows a year.

Draya Raby is a newsroom intern for WCMU based at the Cadillac News.
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