Derek Birkeland exhibits a calm, self-assured manner that seems to belie the fact that he’s 18 years old. Undoubtedly, that’s partly because he performs with a prodigious number of bands—seven, to be exact. The most popular is Porcupine Creek, a bluegrass ensemble of six musicians between the ages of 14 and 19, who released their first album, Monster Truck, last July.
“We formed back in 2012 at the Winter Bluegrass Weekend Festival in Plymouth. My sister Sarah and I teamed up with the Ashcroft kids: Jake, Ben, and Dulcie. A little while later, Holger Olesen joined with us on Dobro guitar. Our families met through our fathers, who’d become good friends. We decided to form a band on the spot. We were like, ‘Hey, there’s hardly any teenage bands in our state—let’s give them a run for their money!’”
Some of Birkeland’s other groups include a family band, Sarah Mae and the Birkeland Boys, and The Road Kill Boys, who play the last Tuesday of every month at Clyde Iron Works.
Photo by Jon McCoy
When Derek Birkeland didn’t see many bands comprised of young people, he did what any Boy Scout would do—he started his own.
Birkeland not only sings, but plays mandolin, fiddle, and guitar. “Bluegrass is a friendly music. It’s fun to listen to. You can tap your feet to it. Lots of people consider it to be ‘hillbilly’ music, so they think it’s funny—like it’s antiquated, something people played back in the 1800’s. But bluegrass is social music; there’s a whole social circle that goes around with bluegrass. So many people play it, and they all know the same songs. I can go somewhere in Texas to a bluegrass festival, and I can play all the songs I play and the people will know them.”
Birkeland also enjoys carpentry and woodworking, pottery and downhill skiing. For the past two years he’s been a ski instructor at Spirit Mountain and attributes his jack-of-all-trades capabilities to growing up as a Boy Scout.
“I enjoyed Boy Scouts because it teaches you how to take care of yourself...I’m glad I know how to start fires, I can make a shelter and survive by myself for weeks on end in the woods. I like knowing how to tie the knots and all the first aid skills you acquire.” In a few weeks, Birkeland will become the new scoutmaster of Troop 13.
The American West has a special place in his heart and mind. “I’d love to ride across the prairie and go camping in Montana. I like the wide-open spaces out west, the rolling hills and the mountains. I love to fish and ski. Another thing, I’d love to write fiction Western novels someday. I love to research the cowboy era in the 19th century...I find that whole time period fascinating.”
In May, Birkeland will be headed west with a friend who has relatives in Big Sky Country and he’s hoping to get a closer look at ranching operations. But Duluth will always be home. “You can talk to people from Duluth. I like the Twin Ports community because there are so many things that bring the people together...It’s just a nice, safe town to live in. I’ve been places, large metropolitan areas where people aren’t always considerate, but I think the people from Duluth are considerate, for the most part.”
Sarah Mae and the Birkeland Boys will be playing at the After-Tax Folk and Bluegrass Showcase at the Encore Performing Arts Center in Cloquet on April 17 at 2 p.m. For more information and upcoming schedule, visit SarahMaeAndTheBirkelandBoys.com.