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Doug Spartz is the country music star you almost know.

He's had a taste of success, something he equates to getting a cup of coffee in the big leagues - just enough to see what it could be like.

Spartz got involved with bands at a young age in Minnesota and soon moved from his hometown of Sacred Heart to places that offered more opportunities.

It was the 1960s, back when things were a little different than they are now, he says.

"You could literally be bad every place you went and get fired everywhere and still have all the jobs you could ever play," he said from his home in Minnesota.

People ask him all the time why he got involved in music, and Spartz has just one answer - girls. What other reason would there be?

"In those days it was just kind of fun," he said. "You didn't think about being a star or having a hit record because you didn't know how to do that anyway."

He played cover songs like "Louie Louie," a little rockabilly and even some blues in clubs around St. Paul.

But Minnesota was never considered a jumping-off point for musicians to make the big time.

"We had a reputation in those years as being jokes in music," he said. "The only hit records that came out of here were novelty tunes. That's sort of what we were known for."

Spartz's life in music is a series of highs, lows and interesting moments.

He's had hits on Billboard's country charts, was named a rising star by the Country Music Association, and even signed with Prince's former manager for a big album.

But a series of untimely situations have kept him from being that household name over the years.

Now, the Americana singer/songwriter is heading out again on a Midwestern tour that will start Wednesday night at the CAL Center in Reedsburg.

He's ready for what the next chapter in his life will bring. And he's ready for more interesting moments - like the time he joined a religious cult in the late 1960s.

California here I comeOn his way back from playing gigs in the 1960s, Spartz and his bandmates would listen to radio broadcasts by Herbert Armstrong from the Worldwide Church of God.

 

And when that wasn't on, they listened to Wolfman Jack.

The religious message the church had appealed to musicians, Spartz said, because little else would come in on the backroads they traveled.

"But the Armstrong thing was very appealing because it said, ‘Don't believe anything we say and certainly don't believe anything the rest of them say. You look for yourself,'" he said.

No one in the band was overly religious, he said, they were just wondering, "Where's the girls?" and "Where's the party?"

The church was based in Glendora, Calif., and grew quickly in that time because of "The World Tomorrow" broadcasts. Armstrong had also set the year of Christ's return for 1975.

Spartz doesn't begrudge the eight years he spent in California with the religion because he found himself in a good place. He just wished he had left earlier and got involved in music before the sound changed.

By the time Spartz came back to Minnesota in the mid-1970s, there was a dry spell in music there. He joined a band called Jesse J and the Bandits in the Twin Cities area. The trio had a sound like the group Cream, and found plenty of work in big venues.

"That was the best time of my life. We were a large fish in a small pond," he said.

But they never had the big hits.

"We just didn't do anything good enough to make that happen. We should of," he said.

The music world in Minnesota was shifting, and Prince was soon becoming the big thing in the '80s. There also was a strong blues sound emerging.

The comeback

A decade had passed since he left the stage behind, but in 2004, Spartz started to miss the business.

 "Of course I'm not young anymore, but I wanted to give one more shot at this," he said.

Spartz had developed an Americana sound with an acoustic guitar, fiddle and hints of the 1960s with a little blues blended in.

The musical format is something Spartz calls a genre with no genre. He plays everything from Willie Nelson to blue grass, along with his originals.

In the early 1990s he was getting airplay with songs like "Breakaway" and "Stayin' Young Is Gettin' Old" that he recorded in Nashville.

He was performing with his band called Sparky and the Time Pirates. And he was getting noticed, with the Country Music Association naming him a rising star.

But in 1994, his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and Spartz stopped touring. Carol passed in 2001.

During this break in music, Spartz started the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame in Minnesota in 1999, which he still runs.

Originally called the Minnesota Rock Country Hall of Fame, the name was changed to Mid-America Music Hall of Fame because there were blues musicians, jazz, and punk bands inducted and Spartz didn't want to exclude any genre.

"It originated as a ‘reunion' of people who used to play in one of his earlier bands, the Embers," said Cindy Hudson-Spartz, who married Doug in 2008 and does publicity for him.

When Spartz decided to climb back into the music world, he released the album "American Stories, Lies and Tales" in 2006 which produced "Name on the Wall," a song about a family's letter to their son off fighting a war.

The song climbed to No. 66 on the Billboard country charts and Spartz soon had phones ringing off the hook to manage him. He also found himself performing live at the XM Satellite Radio station in Washington, D.C.

Spartz's career was on the verge of taking off once again, with promoters who worked for Columbia and Epic Records on board.

"And for a guy my age (he's now 68), I got really intimidated," he said. He signed with Prince's former manager and "Name on the Wall" charted again in 2007. He also came out with another album, "The One Who's Leavin'."

More obstacles

As the digital age in music was taking off, the bottom was also falling out of the industry at the time. Promoters and executives were downsized.

 "We got an email from a producer with Broken Bow Records saying he was interested in the song and that he would get back to us when he returned from the Country Music Awards ceremony in Las Vegas, only to get an email the next week saying that he returned home to Nashville and found out that he was without a job," Cindy said.

Shortly after this, Spartz also suffered a heart attack. He went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. where they also found he had colon cancer.

After several surgeries, Spartz is now recovered from both experiences, and has put together a seven-piece band of top musicians for the "Unfinished Business Tour" that starts at the CAL Center Wednesday. The tour will feature two musical shows, "American Stories, Lies and Tales" and "Almost Home, an American Christmas."

When he takes the stage now, Spartz said, the feeling is different than when he was that young kid in the '60s playing in rock bands. Now, he wants to put on the perfect show, with his own brand of music.

"You never know what's going to happen," he said. "Back in the day you did all cover tunes and it didn't really matter what happened."

After a few songs, he said, the nerves go away. He's back where he belongs.

Reedsburg student to perform with Spartz's band

Back from a special audition invite for "America's Got Talent," Reedsburg High School student Terra Kauffman will join Doug Spartz's band for a few songs on Wednesday at the CAL Center.

Terra, 15, will keep with the Americana theme and a duet includes the song "Jackson," made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter.

Since she was 7 years old, Terra has been singing and performing at such venues as the Orpheum Theatre in Madison, and in 2006 she won a contest to open for country music star Rodney Atkins.

Currently, Terra has been working with Reedsburg singer Shawndell Marks on writing and performing.

The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16.