Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Wick Fisher
Moose Lake Star Gazette 

Bruce, the King of South Dakota

Wick's World


Who knows where the tag came from. When I met Bruce in the early 1970s, he was already known as “The King of South Dakota.”

Bruce was born in South Dakota in a little house on the prairie, a village of Mennonites. As Bruce and his twin brother neared high school graduation, his father asked them, “Are you going to farm or not?”

Artistically inclined, Bruce knew the labor intenseness and long work hours connected to a life of farming was not for him. Bruce declined and later in life his dad said to him, “Good choice.” While Bruce spent his life composing music and painting, his twin brother also declined the farm life and made his career in education. For two decades he served as the principal at my alma mater of Chamberlain High School.

Drawing and painting came early for Bruce. At the age of 2, he was given a pencil while sitting in the kitchen at his mother’s feet. He started sketching figures on paper grocery sacks. Besides his passion for line drawings and acrylic and oil paintings, Bruce expressed his artistic abilities with music. It was his career as a singer/songwriter where someone unknown to me tagged him with “The King of South Dakota.”

Bruce’s songs tend toward a country folk flavor. He spent several years in Nashville with his longtime South Dakota friend and fellow songwriter, Tom Peterson. In a popular morning hangout, a Nashville hash joint where musician’s met for breakfast, Bruce became friends with two of country music’s finest singer/songwriters, John Prine and Steve Earle.

Most of Bruce’s adult years were spent with a huge circle of friends at the University of South Dakota town of Vermillion. For several years Bruce was my neighbor in the fashionable Vermillion suburb of “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.” Later he lived in a small apartment on Main Street Vermillion that overlooked the popular Chimes Café.

Late one night while sitting on his back alley porch, Bruce wrote the song that defined his musical career, “The Trash Can Boogie.” Over the years, many bands included the song in their repertoire. The song peaked in popularity the night The Red Willow Band played it at the South Dakota Sanitation Worker’s Convention in Rapid City, South Dakota. The frenzied crowd of garbage collectors refused to let the band leave until they again played the song that included the words “the trash cans started to dancin’ all around.”

I saw Bruce last Friday night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His art was on display and so was his heart as he spilled out his story to a standing room only audience of friends. Recently Bruce went in to see a doctor about an ongoing stomach ache. When the doctor came back into the room with Bruce’s test results, he said, "Are you awake for this?”

Bruce and his doctor initially assumed Bruce had a case of kidney stones. A simple procedure would take care of it. When Bruce indicated he was indeed "awake" and ready to hear the test results, the doctor replied with the ominous news, “It’s a real mess in there. You have stage-four cancer in your kidneys and it has spread to your lungs.”

The following morning Bruce had a kidney removed and was given a prognosis that he could die any time between tomorrow and an 8 percent chance of making it five more years.

In the art gallery I had a chance to stand alone with Bruce for a moment. He bluntly spoke, “Remember when we were kids, Wick? Back then men typically died at 67 or 68. Not today, we don’t. I should’ve had a lot of years left. In two minutes, my life was turned upside down. I just sat there in shock.”

For one of the few times in my life, I was utterly speechless. What could I say? "Yes, men used to die at 67 or 68. Yes, you should have a lot of years ahead of you," or do I say, "I’m sorry, Bruce." None of these words would come.

I finally blurted out, “How are you feeling?”

He candidly replied, “Sometimes OK; sometimes I have some pretty bad days. I’m learning how to face this with some help from my friends and my daughter.”

Meanwhile the crowd at the gallery kept growing. At the music concert that followed, the emcee announced an astounding number of people (389) had attended his art showing. Bruce was overwhelmed by the show of support.

Later that evening the musical tribute began and Bruce was invited on stage to sit in with every band. The musical highlight of the evening featured The King of South Dakota singing “The Trash Can Boogie.”

The night belonged to Bruce. Long live the King.


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