BROOKINGS – Don’t quit your day job is a piece of advice often aimed – maybe half in jest, but with a serious note – at up and coming musicians.
So while he keeps getting more gigs, Brookings guitarist and vocalist Phil Carlson, 53, continues to serve his brother Knights of Columbus as their insurance agent.
Growing up in Rosholt, Carlson was 15 when he bought his first acoustic guitar with money he earned picking rocks.
“I took some lessons and I failed miserably,” Carlson said. “My fingers got sore, it didn’t sound good, and I was just disappointed with myself. So I allowed myself to quit, for all intents and purposes. I just didn’t keep going to practice. I’d strum it once in awhile because I wanted to think I could do it.”
Following graduation from high school in Rosholt, he took the guitar with him when he went to Augustana College and later to the University of South Dakota (Vermillion). He kept it until 1985.
“When it came time to buy Pam’s engagement ring, the guitar got sold,” Carlson said. He and Pamela “Pam” Mansheim of Brookings first met at a Youth Citizenship Camp in Spearfish when he was 16 and she was 17. He was 19 and she was 20 when they married in 1985.
They were both going into their junior year at USD: Pam working toward a degree in accounting, Phil a degree in history. After the birth of their two daughters, she became a full-time mom and later got a degree in elementary education from Kansas State University when they were stationed at Fort Riley.
Carlson had served in Army ROTC at USD and was commissioned a second lieutenant following graduation in 1987. He was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division – “The Big Red One” – home-based at Riley and would serve as an infantry officer and company commander. He remained in the Army through early 1999.
Subsequent assignments would include the 3rd Infantry Regiment – “The Old Guard” – at Fort Myer, Virginia. The regiment is a unit of the Military District of Washington and performs at memorial affairs, ceremonies and special events. Carlson’s final assignment was at South Dakota State University as a recruiter with the Army ROTC detachment.
He started Pizza Ranch in Brookings after he left the Army. He went on to become a Knights of Columbus insurance agent. And he started seeking a niche in music.
Lessons were taking
“I don’t know if I decided,” Carlson said, in response to a question about his getting a start in music. “I think it was really more just listening to a call – to share. I’m not going to call it a calling.
“I’ve always enjoyed music, and over the years people said they appreciate when I’m singing.”
In 2006, Carlson had begun singing with the choir at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Brookings.
“Leanne Meyer (a music teacher and choir member) was very supportive and helpful to help me understand that I didn’t have to read music,” he said. “I could just do what I do and enjoy participating and sharing.”
Then in 2009, Carlson started buying guitars: “a couple of electrics right off the bat and that’s what I was taking lessons with.” Pam had bought him guitar lessons.
“This time the lessons were taking and I was making progress, I was getting better,” he said. “At the time, my guitar was an electric guitar. I had these visions of being able to play my favorite kind of rock music. I liked making noise, which is another reason why I have a Harley (motorcycle) now.”
Two months into lessons, Carlson’s instructor convinced him to play and sing in a recital, which was booked in the Performing Arts Center in fall 2009. He was the oldest of about 20 to 30 performers, but the only one doing both vocals and playing guitar.
“I was really nervous,” Carlson said, “but my instructor was sitting right next to me and he was filling in the gaps that I couldn’t do at the time. That was my first taste of performing.”
Honoring those who serve
Carlson’s recital song was one that he still does every time he performs: “In Color,” by Jamey Johnson, his “favorite artist.”
As for a signature song, Carlson cites “8th of November.” The song pays tribute to South Dakota soldier Niles Harris, who was serving in Vietnam on Nov. 8, 1965, in a major battle: Operation Hump.
“I want to recognize the people who are serving us,” Carlson said, “whether they’ve been in the military, volunteer fire fighters, the police.”
His first “commercial piece” or “paid gig” came in 2011, when he played at 1481 Grille in Arlington. He thanks Rex Collins, of Aurora, who “just loves live music” and brought 30 people to hear him perform.
“At this point I already had this nebulous awareness of how much music can connect with people,” Carlson said. “Now it’s like this is really something. Now I’m doing the music and it’s resonating with people.”
Likes traditional country
As he spent more time with music in his life, Carlson “was drawn more to acoustic, because it made more sense to play the traditional country songs on an acoustic.” He and Jeff Johnson, his lead guitarist, “came up with the twin acoustic guitar model.”
In the beginning Johnson did some electric, but the duo stuck with the twin acoustics as “a good concept.”
“Because we like to do traditional country, lots of Johnny Cash,” Carlson explained. “Also, when you have just two acoustic guitars, you don’t need a lot of equipment.”
The number of gigs the pair plays continues to grow.
“Every year, we’ve gotten more and more,” Carlson said.
But is he ready to quit his day job?
“No, not yet,” he added, “or ever, maybe. But who knows?”
While they’ve played in breweries, they don’t want to do a lot of playing in bars.
One of Carlson’s goals is to write and play more of his own music. And he and Johnson are looking for more “opener” gigs. Their first one came two years ago at the Bennett Barn in Aurora, when they opened for a Molly B Polka Party performance. Carlson noted that Molly B is a regular on RFD TV.
Additionally, he and Johnson were the opener at the final 2018 Downtown at Sundown summer gathering on Aug. 23.
One round of performances Carlson does solo is at area nursing homes and assisted living facilities. He recalls one occasion when he played for a D-Day veteran celebrating his 95th birthday.
Phil and Pam Carlson have been married 33 years. In addition to their two grown daughters, they have four grandchildren.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected].
Register photo: Phil Carlson, left, and Jeff Johnson warm up the crowd as they open the final 2018 Downtown at Sundown on Aug. 23.