Chardon Polka Band Spotlights Their Genre in PBS Film

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Chardon Polka Band covers a lot of musical ground in a new documentary that will premiere next month on PBS Western Reserve.

The hour-long “Polka Across America” showcases musicians from California to Pennsylvania who make music based on the accordion. It aired Jan. 10, and will have many subsequent airings (check listings at PBSWesternReserve.org)

The Chardon Polka Band is known for their party-fueling performances and giving pop songs the polka treatment. But Jake Kouwe, leader of the quartet, is a polka purist at heart. He narrates the film from his base in Geauga County, introducing 10 acts from around the country, who then demonstrate their polka style.

Each act videotaped their performance and sent it to Kouwe’s production team. The videos were then “woven together as a polka-centric musical tapestry that celebrates Americana, heritage, diversity and musicians everywhere,” said PBS Western Reserve spokeswoman Diane Steinert in a statement.

While the family-friendly program leans heavily on polka, it strays into other genres. There is a zydeco player from Louisiana, a Mexican-style ensemble from California and the man who plays the organ at Atlanta Braves baseball games.

The Chardon Polka Band likes to stay busy. It plays about 200 gigs per year. Or at least it did until the pandemic pulled the plug on live shows. 

With time on its hands, Kouwe and the band spent the year not only making the film, but also recording two new albums.

This month, the band released “A Very Polka Christmas,” a collection of lesser-known seasonal tunes, and “Oh No! Not Again,” an ambitious mix of polka classics and pop music. They can be purchased on the band’s website and all online retailers. 

Both albums were recorded at Peppermint Studio in Youngstown by Gary Rhamy, who specializes in polka music.In cutting the CPB songs, Rhamy had to move beyond the framework of polka in order to get the atypical sound that  Kouwe wanted.

“They do their own arrangements of the traditional songs,” Rhamy explains. “Jake takes pop songs and adapts them to [his band’s] style. A [pop or rock song] has electric guitars and other instruments not associated with polka, and that takes it out of the comfort zone of the polka traditionalist. So it’s only wise for me to then emphasize, when I can, those unique sounds and the way they perform them.”

In addition to Kouwe, who plays accordion and handles lead vocals, the CPB consists of original member Mike Franklin (banjo, guitar), and newer members Bob Young (drums) and Mitch Lawrence (woodwinds, tuba). 

Young is a Youngstown native and Youngstown State University graduate who also plays in experimental rock band Sam Goodwill. Lawrence, a Steubenville native, also attended YSU and has a jazz background.

Kouwe, and his wife, Emily –  who used to play woodwinds in the Chardon Polka Band – had twins in December 2019. That only adds to the couple’s hectic schedule, but Kouwe kept his music career at full speed.

“When the pandemic hit, we were recording stuff at home and sending it to each other and making songs that way,” he said. “It was fun but a lot of work. So I said, since we’re all working remotely, we should call our friends who we normally wouldn’t record with.”

One of those friends was Michael Weber, the Akron-based  rock guitar standout, who appears on the blues standard “Make Me A Pallet on Your Floor” on the “Oh No! Not Again” album

The documentary also stemmed from that effort.

“The film was supposed to be a Fourth of July special on our YouTube channel,” Kouwe said. “But since I was already reaching out to my friends across the country and I had all this material, it didn’t make sense to just do that. So I called a [film] producer and he came up with the virtual road trip idea and it came together so beautifully.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.