When Shane Zack is not busy teaching science, wrangling FSM students or telling hilarious stories, he picks up his mandolin. We asked Shane how he got interested in bluegrass music and where one might hear his two bands play around town.

When did you first start playing music?

It is hard to remember exactly when I first learned to play music. My grandpa played guitar, and everyone eventually learned from him pretty much through osmosis. So I guess I remember playing guitar with him as early as 5th grade. We would play classic country songs and have jam sessions at every family function. My uncles would play and so would my cousins.

Guitar playing is a family tradition; since my grandpa passed away I have been giving his lessons to family members and anyone else interested in guitar.

Why the mandolin?

When I was in high school I built a mandolin in my basement. I was 16 and wanted to get into Irish music. I didn’t even know what a mandolin was and hadn’t even seen one in real life until I finished mine. I thought it would be easy after playing guitar, but as it turns out, to be a real mandolin player you sort of have to start from scratch. I fell in love with the mandolin, and pretty soon I discovered bluegrass music, which is where the mandolin really shines.

Shane Zack on mandolin
Shane Zack on mandolin

Who is your musical inspiration?

One of my greatest inspirations is Bill Monroe, he is the father of bluegrass and the pioneer of mandolin playing in American music. He essentially combined Appalachian music with blues and tossed in a little jazz to create a new musical form. He is a pretty iconic figure in the world of bluegrass.

Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe, musician

Why bluegrass?

When I reflect back on my history with bluegrass it is sort of funny. The first time I heard classic bluegrass,  I really disliked it. There was something about the quality of the recordings from the ‘40s combined with the high-pitched singing and the loud banjo that sounded awful to me. I gravitated towards the instrumentals and more modern interpretations of bluegrass music.

Now, after immersing myself in the musical form, I cherish those old recordings, and collect them. I hear people say they can’t stand listening to bluegrass and I can completely understand what they mean, yet; almost all of my free time is dedicated to the music.

Tell us about your bluegrass bands.

Now I play in two different bluegrass bands who perform around the Twin Cities. I also attend regular jam sessions at coffee shops and music stores, and give lessons when I have time.

One band I play in is a pretty traditional bluegrass band. We play classics and have the traditional bluegrass sound. That band is called the Bluegrass Continentals, we have a bass, guitar, banjo, fiddle and me on mandolin.

The other band I play in is called Alternate Route, and we do more modern bluegrass, which is basically bluegrassifying any song we want. For example, we cover a lot of rock songs and Gordon Lightfoot.

How did you start playing with these bands?

I ended up being sought out by both bands. Bluegrass is a community, especially in Minnesota. I had been playing in a lot of jams around town and word of mouth spread that a decent mandolin player was bandless and I was approached by both bands independently and asked to play with them.

Where would one hear Shane Zack play mandolin around town?

If someone wanted to hear me play they could hear me at different places. I play every Saturday morning with Alternate Route at the Black Sheep Coffee Cafe in South St. Paul. That is almost every Saturday, unless someone has a conflict or what not.

The Bluegrass Continentals
The Bluegrass Continentals (Shane is on the right)

My other band, the Bluegrass Continentals does a lot of private events like weddings and conventions, but we do have a few performances coming up at Dulono’s which is a pizza place on Lake and Lyndale. It is pretty much the bluegrass hotspot of the Twin Cities. Our next performance there is Jan. 20th. Otherwise we keep our schedule posted at www.thebluegrasscontinentals.com

On top of all that, both bands play the bluegrass festivals around the state.

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Here’s a video of Shane playing with his band Alternate Route.

Alternate Route: Andy Kozak (dobro), Shane Zack (mandolin), John Haer (bass), Jerry Knopik (guitar) and Steve Golz (banjo) playing at the Black Sheep Coffee Cafe on New Year’s Day 2011