Kropenske, along with his wife, Trina, is a Winter Texan — someone who spends his winter in the very southern part of Texas — and lives in Mitchell in the summer months. But those winters in Texas have brought out an old passion for Kropenske: playing music. And he’s combining those two passions for a first-time event in his hometown later this month.
“To me, it just made too much sense to have a music jam here, because we have so much traffic going by Mitchell and people know about our town, but I don’t think they know we have a lot TO offer musically,” he said.
He is inviting many of his Winter Texas friends to South Dakota between now and Aug. 27 for various music jams and events. The center of it will include a two-day event at the South Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame in Lennox on Aug. 24-25, followed by a jam at the Hitchcock Park bandshell from noon to 2 p.m. on Aug. 26, and Texas Jammers dance event open to the public at the James Valley Community Center at 7 p.m. on Aug. 27.
Other events are also scheduled for the JVCC, Edgewood Senior Living Center, and performances at the Back 40 in Mitchell, including an Open Jam at 5 p.m. Aug. 26.
“I just want people to come and have a good time,” Kropenske said. “I don’t have high expectations for this first year’s event, but this is something that a lot of people have told me they’re looking forward to, and we’ve had a good amount of local interest so far, too.”
A music jam — or a jam session, as some call it — is an informal event involving musicians with instruments playing mostly improvised music without preparing, unless they’re trying to cover a song. In many cases, Kropenske said, everyone will try to get on the same key, but the composition of the music is free flowing and unpredictable from there.
The jams in Mitchell will center around country music, and include bluegrass, gospel and folk music, but nothing is truly off limits.
“There are no mistakes in a music jam. We like to call them ‘variations in music composition.’ … This is the raw, the real stuff,” Kropenske said.
Kropenske compared the music jams in Texas to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in that people from all walks of life and all skill levels are welcomed and can play. He said there’s always surprises about who can play and how well, and he said he’s met individuals who played saxophone for Elvis Presley and mandolin in Bill Monroe’s band.
Music jams in South Dakota, he said, are relatively sparse. Mitchell has one at the James Valley Community Center on the third Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. Kropenske said the events are a little more popular in the Black Hills, where there’s almost one every day of the week. The most famous of those is in the old Black Hills mining town Rochford, which is held every Sunday. He’s also working with people who might want to start a local jam in their town, as well.
Kropenske, who is a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and worked in law enforcement for his career, said he used to play more guitar but hadn’t picked it up in 15 years until they started going to Texas about four years ago. On his first trip to Texas, he was immediately approached about whether he played an instrument and if he wanted to be a part of their jam. Kropenske played a couple songs off the top of his head, and before long, he was being invited to other jams in the Rio Grande Valley, where Kropenske says there are all kinds of music events at all hours of the day.
James and Trina Kropenske, of Mitchell, are proud of their status as Winter Texans from South Dakota, which included a sticker on the back of their car. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)
In the summer, reunion jams are common for those who winter in Texas from northern states, but he said South Dakota hasn’t had one, something he hoped to change and make a regular event this year.
“Everywhere we’d go, we would let people know we’re from Mitchell and people knew about the Corn Palace,” he said. “People remembered Mitchell because of our polka festival. We really just want to see what we can do to get some people to town and see what we have to offer.”
At the center of upcoming events in South Dakota is country music artist Rusty Rierson, who hails from Kansas, and with whom Kropenske has developed a good relationship through his role at Mission Bell RV Resort in Mission, Texas. Rierson was picked as Male Vocalist of the Year in the Rio Grande Valley, as voted upon by Winter Texans.
“He’s a Nashville recording artist, and he’s really good,” Kropenske said. “We’re fortunate that he called and wanted to be a part of our events in South Dakota and play with us.”
Rierson will play multiple times in the region over the next 10 days, starting at 7 p.m. today at The Back 40 in Mitchell. He will play the Wessington Springs Opera House on Saturday, followed by a trip West River early next week. He will be back in Mitchell on Aug. 23 for a noon solo performance at the James Valley Community Center, before joining up with the Texas Jammers through Aug. 27.
The Kropenskes are the activity directors at their RV Resort, in Mission, Texas, which is geared toward individuals ages 55 and older for winter homes and retirement.
Mission is a mere 1,320 miles from Mitchell, and Kropenske is looking to bridge that distance with the music he’s come to love once again.
“We encourage people to come out and have a great time,” he said. “I think it’s something people will really enjoy.”
The following events are open to the public in the coming days in the Mitchell region:
Today: Rusty Rierson, 7 p.m., at The Back 40, Mitchell (free)
Saturday: Rierson, 7 p.m. at Opera House, Wessington Springs, 7 p.m. (freewill donation)
Aug. 23: Rierson, noon, at James Valley Community Center, Mitchell (free for members, $1 guests)
Aug. 24-25: Open jam with Rierson, noon to 4 p.m. each day, at Country Music Hall of Fame, Lennox (free)
Aug. 26: Open jam with Rierson, noon to 2 p.m., at Hitchcock Park bandshell, Mitchell (free), and open jam with Texas Jammers, 5 p.m., at The Back 40
Aug. 27: Texas Jammers Night/Dance with Rusty Rierson, 7-10 p.m., JVCC (suggested donation of $8-10 per person)