An Ohio woman’s music career will come full circle when she returns to her roots to play with her band Friday and Saturday during RecFest.
Linda Hjort Tatarian grew to love bluegrass music while listening to the radio while milking cows on the family farm.
Tatarian has enjoyed a music career that began in the 1960s and paid homage to her hometown when she formed her latest band, Rum River Blend, after moving to Ohio in the 2000s.
Featuring her husband, Chris, the band takes its name from the Rum River that flows through Milaca’s Recreation Park, which is home to RecFest, Milaca’s annual bluegrass festival.
“He’s a California boy, and I’m a Minnesota girl. That’s where we get the blend,” she said.
For Linda Tatarian, playing RecFest is a dream come true.
“I make it home every summer, but I have never made it to RecFest,” Tatarian said.
“I’ve seen the crowd from the top of the hill (Fourth Avenue NW) but have never gone,” Tatarian said. “But I’ve wanted to for years.”
This year, not only is Linda Tatarian attending RecFest with Chris, they will be performing as Rum River Blend. They will also have some musician friends on stage with them — fellow musicians they have befriended during their nearly 30 years together on stage.
Growing up on a Milaca dairy farm, Linda Hjort Tatarian didn’t get to experience many of the joys associated with music.
“I grew up in a family that wasn’t very musical,” said Tatarian, the daughter of Hjort Excavating founder Russell Hjort and Violet Hjort.
But that doesn’t mean she didn’t love music.
Instead of sharing music with her family, she shared music with the cows.
“We had cows, and I milked every day, she said.
And while Tatarian milked the cows, she had the radio tuned in. It was through that radio she came to love bluegrass music.
The sounds of Flatt & Scruggs — with Earl Scruggs on the banjo — opened the young girl to a whole new world. So did Bill Monroe, the singer-songwriter credited with founding the bluegrass genre. On the television in the Hjort home, it was Roy Clark on Hee Haw who was catching her attention with his banjo pickin’.
“The banjo (has) made me so happy,” Linda Tatarian said.
Maybe that’s because the piano made her sad.
“We had a piano that both my sisters played,” Tatarian recalled.
But her father sold the piano before she could learn to play.
“I still remember when they pulled it out of the driveway,” she said.
Tatarian remembers the day she told her father she wanted to play the banjo.
“He said no, you should play the guitar. It’s prettier,” she recalled.
But Tatarian wouldn’t have any of that.
One winter as a teenager her parents went to Arizona for the winter.
“The very next day I went to St. Cloud to buy a banjo.”
Tatarian didn’t know a thing about banjos, other than she wanted to play one.
When asked at a music store if she wanted a four-string or a five-string banjo, she didn’t have an answer for the sales clerk.
“I had never seen a real banjo,” she said. “I didn’t know there were two kinds.”
The clerk pulled a banjo off the wall. He then called out a banjo instructor who was in the music shop. The instructor played a few licks on that instrument, which resulted in a quick response from Tatarian.
“I said, ‘I want that one.”
The rest is history.
Tatarian became a student of the banjo.
During those few months that her parents were away in Arizona, she did just five things: eat, sleep, attend school, do homework, and study the banjo.
“My dad did come to accept the banjo and was very supportive of me. He came to all of my performances,” she said.
Linda Tatarian was a nurse by trade, working at the former Milaca Hospital.
She also moonlighted as a musician, playing gigs in St. Cloud with bands such as Cedar Creek, May Hill, and an all-girls band called Bring It on Home.
Tatarian eventually moved to Canada, and then to California where one of her sisters was living.
It was in California where she was introduced to Chris by her sister and some mutual friends.
“We were lucky and blessed to find each other,” Tatarian said.
They married in 1992 — and began playing music together almost immediately.
“We share a love of music. It’s a great hobby we get to share together,” she said.
During RecFest, Rum River Blend will play as a duo with Linda on a five-string banjo and lead vocals and Chris on rhythm guitar and harmonica. Bill Benning and Mark Acton are back in Ohio.
The Tatarians will be joined on stage by Mary Jo and Charlie Leet. The four perform together as a bluegrass, gospel, and Americana band known as True Life Travelers.
“We’re honored to be here,” Linda Tatarian said.
You can catch Rum River Blend with its special guests at 4 p.m. Friday afternoon and 6 p.m. Saturday night on the Historic Milaca Bandshell stage.
Weekend admission is $30, daily admission is $20 and youth admission is $10. Ages 12 and under are free.
Tickets can be purchased at the RecFest gate.
Reach Jeff Hage at email@example.com