BEMIDJI -- Forty years ago, Dennis Warner headed north from St. Cloud to start his freshman year at Bemidji State University. An accomplished cellist, he auditioned with professor Patrick Riley and chose BSU over some other colleges that sought his talents.
But Warner didn’t plan to make a career of playing the cello. He wanted to be a guitarist, singer and songwriter. Sitting in his dorm room in Bemidji, perhaps keeping neighbors awake longer than they wished, Warner started working on that craft.
“I love the music and the camaraderie of being in an orchestra or choir,” he said. “But I’ve always known that I was going to be more of a singer-songwriter guy.”
That guy will return to Bemidji on Tuesday, Sept. 17, to perform a 45-minute set with his band, Dennis Warner and the D’s, for a taping of a Lakeland PBS “Backroads” TV show. They will start at 7 p.m. at the Rail River Folk School, and the performance is free and open to the public.
Warner only spent his freshman year in Bemidji. With his father experiencing some health issues, Dennis went back home to St. Cloud and finished his college education at St. Cloud State before embarking on a career in music. He has recorded 10 CDs and toured all 50 states, including a concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
His breakthrough album "Seeds" was named one of the top CD's of 2012 in folk music, based on radio play around the world. Folk DJ also named him one of the top touring folk artists of that year. "Midnight Special" host Rich Warren designated Seeds as his "CD Pick of the Week" on his nationally syndicated radio show.
One song the audience might hear on Tuesday night actually got its start in Warner’s dorm room at BSU. “Sweet Northern Home” is a tribute to his love for lakes country.
“That song actually started at Bemidji State,” Warner said, “up in Birch Hall. It was in a notebook for about 13-15 years.”
Years later, an experience at his family’s lake cabin near Backus inspired Warner to finish the song. He and his wife, Tammy, were awakened one morning by a noise outside.
“We stepped outside and here was an eagle trying to teach its young how to fly,” he recalled. "There was an adult eagle and then two baby eagles sitting at the top of the biggest white pine on the lake. The adult would dip down and come back up and the babies would do that. All of a sudden I figured I've got to incorporate that into my song. It's very special to this region.”
Here’s how the song begins:
“There's nothing like the sound of the morning, with the sweet smell of balsam and pine. Wakin’ up not feeling hurried, wakin’ up on sweet northern time. Hear the eagle high in the white pine, teaching her young how to fly. And a loon, lonesomely singing as dawn breaks the new morning sky.
“Up in the hills, that's where I run to, away from the city life, escaping the blues. Up in the woods, away from the phone, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. And all my desires wherever I roam are here by the fire, in my sweet northern home.”
Warner also is known for his children’s song, “Beads on One String,” and the book he wrote about the song. School curriculum has been created from that book and song, and has been used in classrooms throughout the country, including Bemidji.
“I was thinking about this image of a beaded necklace,” Warner said. “Every bead is a different size, shape and color, but it’s all held together by one string. I ended up writing the song about our connectedness. Instead of writing about how we’re all different from each other I just changed directions and started writing about all the things we have in common. We’re more alike than we are different.”
He started playing the song at concerts, and before long teachers asked about having it in their school programs. Warner and his wife decided to self-publish a book about the song, and that led to St. Cloud State creating a curriculum for elementary schools.
“It just took off,” Warner said. “It’s been an amazing ride.”
Warner’s concert on Tuesday is part of a weeklong series of performances that will be captured on tape by Lakeland PBS. Producer Andrew Dziengel said the sessions will be edited to half-hour “Backroads” shows that will be aired later. The broadcast schedule has not been determined.
All of the performances will be at the Rail River Folk School. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. Here is the schedule for the week:
Monday -- The Latelys, 7 p.m.; exo/exo, 8:15.
Tuesday -- Dennis Warner and the D’s, 7 p.m.; The Buzzardz, 8:15
Wednesday -- OliO, 7 p.m.; The Jensen Sisters, 8:15
Thursday -- Classical Wind, 7 p.m.; Jesse Eugene & the Regulators, 8:15
Friday -- Slickville, 7 p.m.; WILDVIEW, 8:15