Singing Plender’s praises

By Kacie Svoboda

2017 Winner — Steve Thorpe Award co-sponsor Dave Guerre, left, and Steve Thorpe, right, announce the 2017 winner Kim Plender, middle, at the final Open Stage event of the season last Saturday. Plender was shocked by her win and was grateful to Dave and his wife Bonnie Guerre for supporting this award. [PN Photo/Kacie Svoboda]­

At the final 2017 Open Stage event last Saturday night, Kim Plender was named this season’s Steve Thorpe Award recipient.

“She’s just a remarkable woman,” commented Cathy Rost, Hill City Arts Council (HCAC) president. “We just love her. She’s just a great person.”

The HCAC has been giving out the Steve Thorpe Award at Open Stage for four years now to honor a musician who performs at the winter open mic series and demonstrates the qualities that longtime Black Hills performer Steve Thorpe exemplifies.

Thorpe performs frequently around the Black Hills Region, both as a professional musician and in informal settings, including busking on Main Street in Hill City, where he dispenses harmonicas to children. Because of this, the winner of the Steve Thorpe Award always receives a bronze harmonica in addition to a check for $100.

Criteria for the award include mentoring and providing inspiration to young musicians and musicians new to the area, excellence and innovation in songwriting and musical techniques, participation in and support of live music in the Black Hills, participation in at least two Open Stage events in the given year, audience appeal and support of the efforts of the HCAC.

Though this was just Plender’s second season at Open Stage, she met and exceeded the requirements for the award.

“She has supported Open Stage every Saturday of this season,” commented Gina Kassube, head of the HCAC’s Open Stage Committee.

Plender has also frequently recruited other musicians to perform at Open Stage and seems to be constantly plugging other Black Hills events. Kassube also appreciates that Plender always offers up some history of the song she covers.

It was Plender’s singing that made her stand apart from the crowd of other qualified musicians.

“You get a woman who can sing like that and she’s going to be noticed,” Thorpe explained.

Kassube agreed. “I just love her voice,” she said. “It is so unique.”

Kassube, along with fellow Open Stage Committee members Denise Etzkorn and Mary Jo Marcy, selected Plender for the honor with input from Thorpe and award sponsors Bonnie and Dave Guerre.

Music has been a major part of Plender’s life for over 40 years. She began her musical journey by getting her first guitar when she was only 14 years old. Shortly after, Plender began singing in church.

However, it wasn’t until approximately two years ago that Plender decided to perform at another venue.

In early 2016, she started participating in the jams at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford and the Gaslight Restaurant & Saloon in Rockerville, as well as performing at the Dahl Arts Center’s Emerging Artists open mic night. There she met Open Stage performer Wolf, who encouraged her to sing at the Hill City event.

“I don’t think I’ve missed one Open Stage since,” Plender said.

Plender has since expanded her performances to the Bark Beetle Blues variety show in Custer and has formed the band, “Buffalograss,” with Wolf, Pieter Wouden and Jim Bingham.

“We’re just starting to get out and do a bunch of singing,” Plender explained.

In February, Plender was hired to play every Sunday night this summer as part of the Grand Jamboree at the Buffalo Ridge Theater in Custer.

Despite her recent success, Plender was shocked when she was named the Steve Thorpe Award winner.

“I’m amazed,” Plender said. “I just didn’t think it would be me. I feel very blessed.”

Plender is particularly grateful to Thorpe for this honor, as he encouraged her to start writing songs again.

“I’ve written songs off and on for most of my life, but I stopped because I thought other people were doing it better,” she recalled. “But Thorpe came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got songs in there. You’ve just got to start writing.’ And that’s really all it took.”

Plender has written five songs since her conversation with Thorpe.

In addition to writing songs, Plender continues to expand her musical repertoire. She has taught herself how to yodel and is currently working on mastering the mandolin and the harmonica.

However, Plender feels her musical accomplishments can be partially credited to Open Stage.

“I want to thank the HCAC, John and Barbara Majchrzak, Rick VanNess and Crow Ridge Productions and those who took the time to come and listen for providing such a great environment for us performers,” she said. “I’ve had such awesome support from all of them and I just feel like I really grew by performing at Open Stage.”

Plender plans to continue her musical journey, when not enjoying retirement with her husband Ron at their ranch near Box Elder.

Plender was the fourth recipient of the Steve Thorpe Award. She follows past winners Paul Larson of Hill City, Mark Williams of Newcastle, Wyo., and Steve Thorpe himself.

The HCAC was pleased with the success of the 2017 Open Stage events, hosted this year by the High Country Guest Ranch, while Crow Ridge Productions again provided sound for the performances. The successful season was capped off with a record attendance at last Saturday’s performance.

“It’s been a phenomenal year,” Kassube said. “It’s been a full house every Saturday and we’ve never had less than 14 musicians.”

Attendance averaged about 150 people per night.

Donations collected at Open Stage support the Hill City Arts Council’s scholarship as well as art programs for youth in the Hill City area.  According to Kassube, Open Stage donations have exceeded the HCAC’s scholarship and grant totals and the organization is considering offering a fourth scholarship this year.