History of local rock scene

Scott Nathan (left) and Jim Casey help Ashley Brown label exhibits at the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk.

NORFOLK -- In the not so distant past, dancing to sounds of local music groups was the highlight of the week for many people.

Often, they donned their fancy clothes or best blue jeans before heading to the local ballroom, nightclub or pavilion, wherever groups with names like the Rumbles, Smoke Ring or Young Country were performing.

The dance could have been in recognition of a special occasion, such as a wedding or anniversary. Or it could have been nothing more than a Saturday night in February when people were tired of the cold weather and wanted to have a little fun.

“The lure of music and entertainment at ... Norfolk’s many bars and honky-tonks made Norfolk a draw for music fans from as far away as Omaha, Lincoln and Sioux City,” said Jim Casey, a former member of the Smoke Ring and one of the area’s most well-known musicians.

But music made an impact on the area long before the Rumbles and the Smoke Ring came into being.

“The first wagons that headed up along the Elkhorn River from Omaha to the North Fork of the Elkhorn carried fiddles, banjos and guitars to entertain the settlers,” Casey said.

Once the town was established, theaters and an opera house emerged that hosted musical performances and plays. In the early 1900s, Harry King built his ballroom where some of the most well-known big bands in the country performed. Riverside Ballroom followed in the 1920s. Area bars also provided live entertainment.

Casey credits his passion for music to singing in the choir at church and in school.

“Our family had a piano, a radio and no TV,” he said. “Singing around the piano while mom played was our family entertainment. A sixth grade talent contest afforded me my first chance to perform live with Bob Hupp singing ‘Tom Dooley.’ ”

By 1960, young rock bands were thriving in the area, and the demand for music was high. Teen bands multiplied, and rock ’n’ roll became a central point of communication for them in the ’60s, Casey said.

Adults, too, were having a good time.

“When you get a venue full of people, it doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans. Everyone is just happy,” said Tom Linglebach of Omaha, who played with a group called Daybreak.

Through the years, many of the musicians traveled to parts of the country that might afford more opportunities. Some, including the Smoke Ring, appeared on major television shows, such as “American Bandstand.” But for most of them, Norfolk was home.

So vital was the music scene that Norfolk even had its own custom guitar maker. Don Drews built the instruments in his shop at 308 Norfolk Ave.

To recognize the area and state’s musical heritage, the Nebraska Music Hall of Fame was formed in 1994. Today, it has “hundreds” of members, Casey said, including non-musicians. In fact, the first inductee was Mel Sanders of O’Neill, a rock ’n’ roll lover who has a collection of Nebraska music memorabilia, Casey said.

To honor local musicians, the Elkhorn Valley Museum is hosting “Nebraska Rocks: A Mid-Century Music Scene.” It includes posters and photos, instruments, equipment, clothing and a variety of other items related to the local music scene.

“The posters are a treasure,” said JoBeth Cox, the museum’s director. “You can see how the bands wanted to present themselves.”

After the full exhibit closes, some of the items will be retained for a smaller, permanent exhibit.

The museum at 515 Queen City Blvd. is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We hope our exhibit ... will entertain a lot of people, ring some bells and rekindle the energy in Norfolk to make it ‘music town’ once again,” Casey said.

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