Gabbing over a hot cup of tea surrounded by the smell of drying herbs and the sight of vintage décor, you might guess that one of Jami Lynn Buttke’s favorite places is the kitchen, and indeed, one of her favorite things to do is cook. However, the old fashioned upright radio in the living room hints at another of her passions: her ultimate dream of someday performing for Garrison Keilor. “I would love to be on Prairie Home Companion,” the bluegrass, folk, and acoustic musician, known as Jami Lynn, says. “I grew up listening to it.” Her music stand, along with her guitar and banjo, sit casually in the living room in front of an armchair with a cushion larger than the singer/songwriter herself. At age 24, with two full-length albums and gigs all across the Midwest, there’s nothing casual about Jami’s vocal and musical talents. Her music stand sits casually in the living room in front of an armchair with a cushion larger than the musician herself who plays the guitar and banjo. With two full-length albums and gigs around the Midwest already at age 24, there’s nothing casual about Jami’s vocal and musical talents. Although she fears that Keilor’s announcement of his coming retirement limits the amount of time she has to reach her goal of performing live on the popular NPR radio show, Jami continues to play as often as she can where she is.
Since moving to Rapid City in the spring, the young musician has become a regular on the list of “who’s who” in the area’s performance schedules. The petite young woman grew up with two older sisters on a farm in Corona, S.D. Though she says her family “knows good music when they hear it,” she didn’t grow up listening to a lot of music in her house. It was her grandfather who exposed her to the old-time country, folk and bluegrass music that Jami continues to perform today. Her grandfather would bring his young granddaughter to monthly jamborees around the area, and as she listened to the music and stories of those in attendance, a lifelong love of learning the history behind the songs was born. “A unique thing about me is that I’m very interested in the history and folklore of the music I play,” she said.
She started writing songs as a teenager, since she had always enjoyed writing poetry. She taught herself how to play the guitar in high school, as well, but it wasn’t until college that she considered trying to make it on her own as a musician. Jami calls her move into full-time performing a “slow progression.” As a freshman at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, she originally planned to double major in biology and music, but when the registrar asked which major she would like to list first, Jami said “music” without much thought. “There wasn’t room for anything else after that!” she said. She studied classical voice for the first two years of college, which taught her about breath support and music technique that she continues to use, though her singing style has changed. Jami also taught herself how to play the banjo during college. She holds and plucks it the same way she plays a guitar and describes it as her own style when seasoned banjo players ask her about it.
It was during her time at the University of South Dakota that Jami started playing at coffee shops, and eventually she did a semester exchange program at Tennessee State University in Nashville. There, she took commercial music courses and recorded her first album, “Dreamer,” released in 2008 under the name of Jami Lynn and the Aquila Band. She completed the semester shortly after the release of the album, and while she was grateful for the musical knowledge that she obtained in her time in Tennessee, she knew that there was another place she wanted to be. “I loved Nashville,” she said. “It was a really great experience, but it made me realize that I wanted to be home. I love the Midwest.” And the first person she lists as an influence is a musician who is able to play music and stay where he wants to live. “He made it work here in the Midwest,” Jami said of Dave Moore, a musician from Iowa. She described him as having a really easy acoustic blues style and played with him at a folk festival once. Though she doesn’t keep in constant contact, she considers him a mentor in her journey as a musician.
This theme of being aware of place is continual throughout Jami’s music. She wrote her undergraduate thesis, "Early American Folk Music of the Upper Midwest," about the folklore of music in South Dakota. The act of researching and compiling the music allowed her into a world where few people have traversed. “A lot of the songs I’m looking for, people still have,” she said, adding that the music isn’t written in books or stored in museums. Family members still have the songs written on the inside cover of books, or in journals, or simply imprinted in their memories from hearing their grandparents and parents pass the music along through the generations. “It’s opened a lot of doors for me,” she said of her interest in compiling music history. This academic side to her music has allowed Jami to play at various academic conferences and museum venues, including the National Music Museum in Vermillion, the Adams Museum in Deadwood and the Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls, among others. While she hopes to go to graduate school someday, Jami decided that she wanted to try performing on her own before heading back to school. After graduating with a degree in music, she spent a year in Vermillion performing, enjoying the community and working on a second album. Jami loved getting to know the jewels around the southeast corner of the state, including the Missouri River and Clay County Park, but when her boyfriend, Ryan Griffith, a guitar major whom she met at USD, was moving to Rapid City for the completion of medical school, Jami also headed west. But changing the part of the state in which she lives hasn’t changed her music.
She recently released “Sodbusters” with Josh Rieck, of Sioux Falls, and much of the music comes from Northwestern South Dakota. The title track tells the story of her great-great-grandmother coming to the Midwest in a prairie schooner. The duo recorded the album themselves, passing sound equipment back and forth between their living rooms. “Folk music is one of those genres where you can cut corners and have it sound good,” she said. The album combines traditional ballads and Jami’s original works. “I write about characters and people I invent and places,” Jami said. “I think my music really gives you a strong sense of place rather than an emotional journey,” though emotion is certainly a part of the stories in the music. The title track begins, “My mind’s in a bucket, my book’s in a box, and not three months later, they both would be lost.”
Jami said she wrote the song from the perspective of her great-great grandmother, and what it might have been like for her as a pioneer to South Dakota. Jami was staying with her grandparents in Texas during her senior year spring break, and as she told them about her research into the stories behind the songs of South Dakota, they revealed some of her own family stories. Her great-great-grandmother Lydia married very young and moved from Illinois to Summit, S.D., with her husband. The couple had a number of children, and her husband decided to go farther West, taking two of the children with him to Lemmon, S.D. The plan was to establish a home there and have the rest of the family join him, but after two years and the loss of both children, Jami says that he threw up his hands and returned to Summit. “I decided to write that song from her point of view,” she says of thinking about what her great-great-grandmother must have experienced. The result of her musings is “Sodbusters.”
Jami said that one of the most interesting connections she made after a performance involved a gentleman who had the same story of relatives traveling to the same part of South Dakota at the time her family members were. The stories were eerily similar, and though they found they aren’t related, Jami said the ability to share the story with an audience member in attendance at one of her performances was powerful. Having a lot of her music set in this part of the country allows for the chance that audience members have similar stories in their histories, but it doesn’t mean that the music can’t translate outside of the area. Jami takes her music out to share, like when she toured the Greater Midwest earlier in the spring and more recently this fall. Her first tour took her from Rapid City to Portland, Oregon, and she said that luckily, the chains she bought for her Monte Carlo never had to be utilized while driving over the mountain passes. She entertained audiences in Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, and one stop in Portland, Oregon.
“The stars were aligning,” she said of how well the tour went. She traveled with a good friend from childhood, who coincidently was the person with whom Jami wrote her first song. They never had to stay in a hotel, as the people they met along the way insisted that they enjoy their hospitality. “We couch-surfed a couple of nights and stayed up all night playing Bananagrams!” she said of the experience. Each such assembly made her all the more excited for the next day, to see just what kind of interesting folks she would meet along the way. “I kept thinking that if I lived here, these people would be my friends,” she added. Jami enjoyed these connections, and she said that all musicians strive to find a link with listeners when they are playing. “You can feel it when it happens,” she said of the connection. “If you can make someone who’s digging into a steak turn around and listen to you, you’re doing pretty well.” And Jami seems to be doing pretty well. She already has a following of all ages that she consistently sees when she performs.
“There’s a market for what I’m doing here,” she said, adding that she is impressed with the Black Hills for how quickly the locale has embraced her. Her favorite part of performing is meeting the people and listening to what they have to say once they hear her perform. “I love it when people come up to me afterwards…who correct me on something…or when they bring up another song,” she said. “I’m always learning. The feedback afterwards is awesome.” While she’s playing, however, the musician isn’t thinking of anything in particular. She more often loses herself in the vocals. “It’s kind of like therapy,” she described it. She usually introduces the songs with the history behind them during a performance, in the hopes that each audience member will leave with a better understanding of themselves through those stories. “I don’t think people know that we have such a cool history,” she said.
Jami has also learned that change is inevitable. She said that she gets into a certain style of music as she continues to add to her repertoire, but she may find something else within a few months that catches her attention. Though this type of change may not work for an album, Jami has learned to embrace it. She gets excited when learning new music and says her favorite song is always the newest that she’s learned. She calls herself the “stereotypical unorganized artist” who usually forgets something and stresses about it before a performance, though it is usually nothing too important. “I’m getting better,” she said, laughing as she added that she’s never forgotten something like her guitar.
She also enjoys playing with other musicians and has had the chance to sit in or jam out with talent including Hank Harris, James Van Nuys, Kenny Putnam and others, and she has plans for other up and coming collaborations with area musicians. She recently performed for the first time with her boyfriend, Ryan, whom she described as a better guitar player than she and a “really great support in music.” The two put on a “pretty good show together,” and Jami said that she hopes to see more of that in the future. She can also see the addition of more jazz to her repertoire. One of her current goals is to learn jazz chords. She has a few residencies in the artist in schools program this year as well, where she will be working on music with students in schools around the area. “This next year will be very interesting—but I’m so excited,” she said.
And who knows what other excitements the year could bring? For South Dakota Public Broadcasting fans, they’ve recently heard different interviews of Jami coming over the waves, and there’s still hope that before he retires, Garrison Keilor will also discover the talent of one of the newest Black Hills faces that so many of her listeners already know. Whether Jami can pick up that performance on her upright radio in her living room is another story. But if you find yourself lucky enough to be there to hear it, make sure to request the mint tea.