Vassar Today

Prairie Home Champions

By Kate Conlow ’09

It’s not every day that you hear “It’s Hog-Calling Time on the Prairie!” bellowing across Vassar campus. But on April 21 many students turned off their iPods and unearthed their old radios to hear their pals Jake Hoffman ’07, Sam McDougle ’09, and Pete Winne ’07 wail, bow, and pick this tune on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio.

These young men play in the Powder Kegs, a five-member, old-time music group that was flown to St. Paul, Minnesota, on an all-expenses-paid trip to compete in the show’s first annual People In (Their) Twenties Talent Show (PITTS) at the Fitzgerald Theater.

The Powder Kegs were one of six bands selected from a pool of 740 entries to perform live on the radio. They formed in early 2006 when Hoffman and Winne, who had been playing music together since they were freshmen roommates in Main, returned from their semester abroad and were introduced to McDougle. McDougle, already a member of an old-time band he joined in high school, asked the members of that band, Ryan Dieringer and Dan Maroti, to join the Powder Kegs. When they all played together the following March, Winne says they immediately clicked as musicians and friends. “We share a similar devotion to the music and a similar vision — energetic, genuine music,” Winne says.

The Powder Kegs
The Powder Kegs
Right: The Powder Kegs with their trophy outside the Fitzgerald Theater. Pictured clockwise from left: Sam McDougle '09, Pete Winne '07, Dan Maroti, Jake Hoffman '07, and Ryan Dieringer.

Influenced by their immediate and natural rapport, they decided to live together the following summer in Burlington, Vermont, in order to pursue their passion for music and prepare their CD, The Seedhouse, which was released last December. While all members are proficient on many instruments, usually Hoffman plays banjo, Winne plays slide guitar and harmonica, McDougle plays fiddle, Dieringer plays stand-up bass, and Maroti plays guitar. All the band members sing, too.

It was actually Winne’s mother who submitted the Powder Kegs’ CD to the competition. Winne was skeptical, and later, when the band was chosen, none of the other members was even aware of the competition. Hoffman recalls his reaction upon finding out the band had been selected: “I felt elated. I tried to imagine hearing the Powder Kegs in the car or at home cooking, and imagined all the other millions of people doing their usual weekend things and hearing us, too.”

On Friday, April 20, the band boarded an early morning flight from New York to the Twin Cities to prepare for their Saturday-night broadcast. Upon their arrival they were taken to the Fitzgerald Theater to ready themselves for the dress rehearsal that evening. Once there, they met the five other bands and host Keillor, who sat them down and told them that in addition to the three songs they would perform, they would be in the “Guy Noir” skit, a regular feature of A Prairie Home Companion. While his instructions were brief, “Garrison treated us like we were on the same level of professional abilities,” Winne reports.

On the night of the show the Powder Kegs performed “Beat it on Down the Line,” “Cumberland Gap,” and “Down Low”— and Keillor talked with them about performing on the streets of Burlington. He dubbed them “tycoons of the street” after learning the significant amount of money they make. During the second half of the show, they performed as suspects in the “Guy Noir” skit while people voted for which band should win the PITTS competition and the $1,000 prize. McDougle says they were all surprised to learn they won. “It’s hard to explain the feeling…. The whole experience was just constant sensory overload, so winning was sort of the climax of the entire experience.”

For Hoffman, the real win was having their music broadcast to so many ears. Before the show, the band’s exposure was limited to smaller audiences at bars in the Northeast; now they are performing in the greater New York City area and along the East Coast. The band members are not sure how far their careers as musicians will take them. Vassar, though, has played a part in their successes. Says Winne, “This never would have happened if I hadn’t come here because it has given me the opportunity to meet people and exchange ideas. The Vassar community has been overwhelmingly supportive of our music, and for that we are extremely thankful.”

To learn more about the Powder Kegs, visit their website at