Mike Swenson

Mike Swenson

Photos courtesy Terry Wiklund

“No high scores on our tombs,

Won’t you help us with these wounds?”

Those lyrics from “Oregon Bound” are a prime example of the style of Mike Swenson, a Bismarck singer-songwriter who is the first artist we’re profiling here on Bismarck Music Notes.

The song is a mournful acoustic number, in the mode of Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad.” It’s a wrenching song about a man who has lost his family and is struggling to find his way.

It’s also a song inspired by “Oregon Trail” – a video game – but melded into the form of a sad country song.

“A lot of my original stuff tends to be on the dark humor side,” Swenson said. “A lot of people say, it doesn’t make any sense – well it does. … I like screwing with people like that. It makes them listen to the lyrics.”

Swenson is a Bismarck native who has poured his heart and soul into the local music scene. He comes from a family with musical roots, dating back to his grandfather, who performed in a barbershop quartet.

Growing up, Swenson sang in school and city choirs. But it wasn’t until Swenson was in his early 20s, working a night shift at Denny’s, that he began writing his own material.Mike Swenson

“The people I’d met and the stories I’d hear and things like that, I was really starting to fill up the notebooks with lyrics and short stories. There was too much material getting thrown in front of me to not try to do something with it.”

Swenson has released three EPs, which reveal influences like John Prine, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and, especially, Kris Kristofferson.

“He can put down poetry like nobody else, and just a great wordsmith and can tell a story in a proficient manner,” Swenson said.

Swenson has several outlets for his music, playing solo shows but also with his band, The SwenTones, who play a more upbeat style of rock.

“There’s no other feeling for me that matches being on a stage and being, I don’t want to say being the focal point of the room, but just knowing that people came to listen to and to watch the performance that you’re a part of,” he said.

Swenson’s interests go beyond just playing. He hosts the Midwest Music Review – a radio show that features area artists – on URL Radio every Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Mike Swenson“I pretty much just came in with a bag of CDs of bands that I had played with over the last few years, and people I’ve met on the road,” Swenson said. “It was like, here, these are other guys that they deserve air play of some sort and just some sort of recognition.

“Who here needs some airplay? I think there’s plenty of bands here in town that have stuff recorded, or they put on garage shows, but nobody would ever hear about it outside of friends and family.”

Swenson also runs the Graveyard Blues Project, which helps book shows for artists from the area. He has worked on the Belle Project, which is dedicated to creating a vibrant music scene in Bismarck. His goal is to see a venue downtown that features live music nightly or close to it.

“It can be polka on Monday, metal on Wednesdays – whatever,” Swenson said. “I think that’s an absolute necessity for any arts and cultural hub of any state.”

In addition to the Midwest Music Review on Tuesdays, Swenson plays a weekly show at Bruno’s Pizza at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Listen to the full 28-minute Mike Swenson interview below or click on the audio player and use the slider to check out some highlights:

  • Becoming a songwriter – 2:15.
  • Musical style – 5:00.
  • “Oregon Bound” – 6:27.
  • “Call Me Maybe” and the state of Top 40 radio – 8:30.
  • Influences – 10:10.
  • Midwest Music Review – 13:35.

Here’s a video of The SwenTones performing The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.”


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