OWATONNA — To hear PK Mayo tell it, blues music is the music of the heart, the music of the soul.
Which is why, he says, that we — all of us in one way or another — respond to the music when we hear the blues.
“Blues runs through us all,” he says.
That doesn’t mean that the music is “tortured,” he says, though he hastens to add that it can be and often is. And there’s a reason for that — a reason that is rooted in the history of the music itself.
“It doesn’t come from a pleasant place,” he says. “It comes from darkness, out of slavery. The music spawns out of that.”
PK Mayo — a stage name — will be the featured musician at the Owatonna Arts Center’s inaugural Artoberfest on Saturday, Oct. 5.
His actual name is Paul Kennedy Mayasich, but he “rebranded” himself when he discovered that people were having a tough time pronouncing — and therefore a tough time remembering — his last name.
“It’s a good hockey name,” he said.
The problem is, he doesn’t play hockey. He plays the guitar, often the steel guitar, and he needs a name people will remember. People remember “Mayo,” if not for the clinic then for the condiment.
A side note: Mayo — or Mayasich, whichever — says he was given the middle name of Kennedy because he was born on Nov. 22, 1963, the very day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As for “Paul,” well, he doesn’t say much about that.
Mayo was born and reared in a place not often associated with blues music — outside the Mesabi Iron Range town of Eveleth. But it also explains parts of the diverse musical background he enjoys.
It should come as no surprise that the first band he played in right out of high school was not a blues band, not a rock-and-roll band, though he’s played in plenty of those, and not in a country band, though he’s played in those, too.
No, the first band he played in, Mayo said, was a polka band.
Still, his heart was with — and still is with — the blues.
“I wanted to play the blues,” he said. “I grew up with that.”
Grew up with the blues? In northern Minnesota? The Iron Range?
As Mayo tells the story, he was introduced to blues music from the record collections of his older siblings — he’s the seventh out of eight children — who would play the music so often that the young Paul Mayasich fell in love with the sound.
Over the years, of course, he has played a variety of styles and genres of music. In the early 1990s, for example, he joined a Cajun zydeco band in the San Francisco area — something that his background in polka music helped him with. The band even opened one night for musical legend Ray Charles.
And that variety that he has played has helped Mayo as a session player. There he’s been able to show other musicians his versatility by playing this style of music or that until they tell him what they want.
“If I didn’t have the background I have, I couldn’t do that,” he said.
Which brings him to his musical philosophy, one might say.
“Be yourself,” he says. “Soak up as much music as you can. You don’t have to love it, but learn it.”
That also helps him in the various concert venues he plays. What he will play that Saturday night at the Owatonna Arts Center, he says, will depend on the musicians who are playing alongside him.
“The persons who have the most influence on you are the ones you play with,” he says.
For that reason, his set list changes from set to set, though he promises that the other musicians he plays with are “good players … lifetime players.”
“The players are telling you what they want,” he says. “You listen to them.”
And, again, the diversity that he brings to his concerts has served him well over the years. His last album — aptly named “Threads” — for example, has strains from what he calls the “music I’ve heard all my life.” And that includes country, rock and jazz, as well as, of course, the blues.
“There’s a little bit of blues in everything I play,” he says.
Silvan Durben, the creative director of the Owatonna Arts Center, hopes to tap into that musical versatility of PK Mayo by requesting that Mayo use his improvisational skills to play something that starts out as a polka and transforms into the blues.
“Just once just to humor me,” Durben says.
Durben said that the Saturday night celebration will be just what its name — Artoberfest — suggests: a combination of the celebration of art with Oktoberfest, the German celebration of the harvest.
“With great music, it should be fabulous,” he said.
The Artoberfest celebration is meant, Durben said, to be a “thank you” to the members of the Owatonna Arts Center for their support of the institution. But it’s also meant to be a way to attract guests in order for them to see what the arts center has to offer.
In addition to the music of PK Mayo, the evening will feature a menu of sauerbraten, German potato salad, soft pretzels and Bavarian chocolate cake, as well as one drink ticket. Free beer samples will be provided by Owatonna’s own Foremost Brewing Cooperative. There will also be what is being dubbed as “grown-up” art activities for the guests to enjoy.
But Durben keeps coming back to the music.
“We were fortunate to find him with a date available. I’m pleased we were able to get him,” Durben said.
Artoberfest will begin at 6 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Owatonna Arts Center, 435 Garden View Lane in the West Hills Complex. Entrance is free for members of the arts center. Tickets are $15 for non-members.