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Musical magic created in Star Prairie

Emily Tomandl (foreground) and Ben Tomandl belt out a song during Thursday's jam session at This Old Store in Star Prairie.

There's a simple white board outside This Old Store in Star Prairie that advertises "Live Music, Open Stage, Thursdays, 6-9, FREE."

The sign is just the tip of the iceberg.

Each week, the musicians of the Star Prairie Jam gather at the store owned by Jerry Ledo to share music with each other.

It started out as "something to do on Thursday nights," Ledo said.

He hired two people to start singing and playing and the rest, as they say, is history.

"It has grown and grown and grown," Ledo said.

The Jam celebrated its two-year anniversary on Thursday, Aug. 5.

Ledo, also known as "Star Prairie Jerry," doesn't consider it a traditional open mic night.

"It's one step above practice and one step below performance," he said. "This is a place to nurture the musician."

Members of the Jam don't just watch each other perform. They play together. If a musician comes in with an original song to share, everyone who wants to will play along. It's a way to work on their craft and possibly form connections that can blossom into a musical group, Ledo said. There have been two groups formed out of Jam connections so far.

One of these groups, Fifty Fifty, has been together for about nine months. Ben Tomandl, guitarist, songwriter and singer, met several of his fellow bandmates at the Jam.

"It's a great community of people," said Tomandl about the Jam.

Ledo stressed the importance of the music. He said the Jam is musician-oriented, not performance-oriented.

"This is, again, an environment for musicians to learn to work, to collaborate," he said. "This is their home. This is sanctuary."

Ledo considers his store a home for what he calls orphan musicians: artists with a gift for music, but whom life has taken in a different direction.

Tim Starks plays lead guitar at the Jam, but runs a CAT scan machine at Regions Hospital during the day. Jimmy Place, an electrician, sold a song he wrote. Most people who frequent the Jam aren't musicians by trade. Instead, Ledo said, it's their passion.

Newcomers are always welcome. The Jam is not a static group, Ledo said. Neither is it one genre. All kinds of music are welcome, from bluegrass to rock 'n' roll.

"Each week, the Jam will be something different," Ledo said.

Nolen Chew, the Jam's photographer, agreed.

"It's total spontaneity," he said. "It's so eclectic."

Despite his devotion to music and the Star Prairie Jam, Ledo is not a musician.

"I understand the language, I just can't speak it," he said. "My role here is dad."

Jerry's partner, Ruth Happe, is the mom to Jerry's dad, or, as Chew put it, "Jerry's better half."

Each week on Thursday nights, she has a "Ruthie special" meal so people can make the Jam an evening event, food and all.

Many regulars frequent the Jam, including the likes of Steve Blain, a guitarist originally from England, and Sue Birch, a violinist who also plays a plethora of other instruments. The Jam captain is Jeffrey Johnson.

The Jam is not a small-town project to be overlooked. In addition to a voice coach, the group includes musicians with 30 years of stage experience.

"Years ago, I handled many large bands," Ledo said. He handed the business over to his brother and still maintains connections in the music industry.

Star Prairie Jam has been working in conjunction with Carriage House Studios, also in Star Prairie. It was built inside a carriage house from the 1800s, owned by Todd Naylor.

The group has also expanded to include a Tuesday afternoon session, which tends toward more acoustic music.

The Jam runs year-round.

When the weather makes it too cold to play outside, musicians crowd into the small space available in This Old Store.

People come from all over to attend, including River Falls, Mankato, Minn., Eau Claire and Anoka, Minn.

"It's important, for what reason I don't know, but I'm supposed to do it," Ledo said.

As a part of Ox Cart Days, Ledo has leased the park by the river and plans to hold the Jam there on Thursday, Aug. 19. It will be a non-alcoholic event, and families are encouraged to bring a picnic and blanket or chairs to enjoy the Jam outdoors in the park.