Iron Range musicians keep ghost town alive

Rich Mattson (PHOTO: Shelly Hanson)

Rich Mattson performs at the June 2014 Great Northern Radio Show in Ely. (PHOTO: Shelly Hanson)

It was a pleasant surprise to see a front page MinnPost feature on Rich Mattson and Germaine Gemberling of Sparta Sound over the weekend. This musical pair and their merry band are keeping the small mining location of Sparta alive with their church-turned-studio a stone’s throw from an active iron mine.

From the Nov. 21 piece “Singing an ode to Sparta” by Jim Walsh:

“Sparta was mostly built on mine property; they own the rights to the land, and they’re not renewing the leases to tenants,” said Mattson by phone, while building a fire to warm the house. “So everybody is moving out, trashing their houses on the way out and burning everything they don’t want to take with them. Fortunately, yes, we are staying. Our house and Sparta Sound is not on the leased land. But it’s been a wild ride for this little haven. From what I’ve heard, the premises must be vacated by March.”

Inspired by the sheer weirdness of the fast exodus, Mattson wrote and recorded a new song, “This Town (Ghost Town),” with his band the Northstars. While it’s not a political take on the area’s mining and environmental wars, the song does get at how corporations affect the land and its people:

“This town was built upon some precious minerals/And they’re coming to dig them up/Not tomorrow and it’s not today/I think I’ll stay/And wait and see/What happens to this ghost town, ghost town, ghost town…”

Germaine Gemberling (PHOTO: Shelly Hanson)

Germaine Gemberling performs at the June 2014 Great Northern Radio Show in Ely.  (PHOTO: Shelly Hanson)

Germaine and Rich were musical guests at the summer edition of my Great Northern Radio Show in Ely last June. I dubbed them the “first couple” of the Iron Range music scene, and I think that deserves to stick.

Between the two of them, Rich and Germaine have been a part of the Minnesota music scene since before it was cool (Prince and Bob Dylan excluded). They now live and work by choice on the Iron Range, where they’ve helped found the Iron Range Original Music Association (IROMA) and perform frequently all over the region and state.

Breathing life back into the Iron Range doesn’t have to cost millions. (Though sliding a few bucks to the artists of the world doesn’t hurt). Sometimes it can start with an attitude. And these cats have just the right attitude to make life on today’s Iron Range more enjoyable, and more significant.


  1. Travis Ryder says

    Awesome! Love these two. Love Sparta. Stood by as a first responder at one of these ‘eviction fires’ many years ago.

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