As the son of a polka music legend, Steve Meisner grew up having some big shoes to fill. Across his own 40-plus-year career, the Whitewater native has stretched those shoes a few sizes of his own.
Meisner’s journey began at the age of 5 when he started learning accordion. As a teen, he began gigging out with his famous father, Verne Meisner. In 1978, as a junior at Whitewater High School, he decided to quit school and hit the road to make a living in the music business.
Since that time, he has flourished in his own right, earning a plethora of international awards along with nominations for various musician of the year and recording artist of the year honors. He is a four-time winner of the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Favorite Polka Artist winner, and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and the Maryland Accordion Hall of Fame. Most notably, he is a member of the International Polka Association Hall of Fame, the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame and the Ironworld Minnesota Hall of Fame.
Away from the stage, he has been married to his wife, Barbara, for 35 years and the couple have three children: Whitney, Lindsey and Austin. They also have five grandchildren and a multi-poo dog named Niko.
To learn more about Meisner and his career, visit SteveMeisner.com or find him on Facebook.
1. Your father, Verne Meisner, was a recognized name in the world of polka music. Did your interest in polka music come because you were surrounded by it growing up, or did you discover a love for it on your own? It truthfully was a little of both with the addition of genetics. From the time I was very young I watched my father and his band perform and make large groups of people happy, but there was more to his success than his musical genius. I felt an electricity and amazing connection between the energy on stage and the people dancing and listening. As a young child, it created an instant admiration for my father and his band and the musical energy they created. It was very much an epiphany that I never thought much about until later in life. By age 11, I began developing an interest in polka outside of my father’s world. That’s when I began developing a real interest in the genre and a yearning for learning. I’ve always believed I was genetically “screwed from birth” and truly believe my gift has always been with me.
2. How is your brand of polka music the same as or different from your father’s? I have been a second-generation, full-time musician since I started paying taxes at 16. I was raised in and around a large musical family and many other second-generation musicians. Though I intended to be just like my father, I was still influenced by all of the music around me—including my generation’s music. My father was considered a progressive in his music for his generation, and like my father, I have tried to be generationally progressive without sacrificing the roots of the music I grew up with.
3. You learned to play the accordion when you were 5. Is that the first instrument you learned to play, or was there another instrument you started on before that? I don’t recall any other instrument before the accordion. I do remember my dad’s Sears & Roebuck stereo counsel, and while my mom was going to college and my dad was sleeping, I’d sneak quietly into the living room and into the LP record cabinet. I was caught several times with the LPs scattered out of the jackets and spewed all over the living room floor. I’m pretty sure I received a licking for that, but I persisted until I was old enough to figure out how to get a stool to the stereo, open the counsel’s turntable cover and put the LP record on the turntable. I never could figure out how to get the stereo on, but I could set the needle on the record and spin it by hand to listen to the music. After breaking a dozen needles, my dad bought me my own record player.
4. People would be surprised to find out that I: Considered being an astronaut at age 11.
5. Share an item that, when you go to the grocery store, goes into your cart whether you need it or not. Cottage cheese. It’s a staple in my daily diet. I eat it right out of the container just like I used to watch my dad do. Now there’s a learned habit that I can truly blame on my parent.
6. Accordions seem like they would be pretty heavy. Do you do any special workouts to help you prepare for a full night of performing? As the bulk of the accordion generation has aged, manufacturers have tried to make the instrument lighter. When I started my own band 41 years ago, my accordion weighed about 30 pounds. My latest accordion weighs about 20 pounds. Roland has been successful with its reed-less MIDI accordions, which were intended to be lighter than a traditional accordion with reeds. I’m told that, depending on the model, it can still be as heavy as a standard accordion. I’ve had my share of back issues throughout my career, but I don’t do anything special other than trying to lift correctly and back exercises when I need to. Carpel tunnel is another issue.
7. Where are some of your favorite places to perform in Wisconsin? There have been so many great venues over the years, and I feel compelled to say that they’ve all been my favorite. They’re all favorites for different reasons, but in the end, it’s all about making people happy and having a good time doing it. With that said, Wisconsin is home to many supper clubs, nightclubs, casinos and great festivals, including county fairs and the State Fair.
8. Have you ever tried to incorporate accordion into other genres of music? I do so at every engagement as I provide a variety of music to satisfy music lovers. In addition, I’ve had the good fortune of being asked to perform and record with artists outside the polka genre with my accordion and vocally, including with my father. I released a solo LP in 1987 called “Ivory Romance,” which was a non-polka release, and a 45 that featured two originals—“Girl I Love You So” (a ballad) and “Loves Cheating Ways” (a country waltz). Both were quite successful, but the Meisner name has always been associated with musical variety.
9. What are some of your favorite polkas to perform? My father, brother Daniel and I have written so many polkas and waltzes that are close to my heart. I have special relationships with all of the songs I perform. Some I just like to play because either I like the song or someone listening likes the song. Sometimes it’s just my mood that decides if it’s a pop tune, and old favorite, a family original or something entirely different. To say I have any favorites would be too confining, and I don’t perform that way on stage unless I’m forced into it. When I do find a tune I want to hear over and over again, it’s only until I find the next tune I want to hear over and over again.
10. Do you have any pre-gig rituals? I wouldn’t say I have any rituals. I was raised watching a full-time musician get ready for the gig, driving to the gig with or without the band, set up and then start performing. I guess I do the same thing.
11. Do you understand music theory or do you perform mostly by ear? I was taught to read music but always found playing by ear easier and faster. I’m a slow reader but read music all the way through school. I started taking piano lessons when I was 16 to learn more music theory, so to answer your question, I’d say “yes” to both. Considering music and theory, I’ve learned you can never know it all. In my 54 years of playing by ear, I’m always practicing every time I strap the box on.
12. If you weren’t a full-time musician, what would you be doing for a living? There’s a long answer and a short answer. The short one is destiny! I believed from age 5 that I was going to play the accordion and be a band leader like my father, except for that short period when I contemplated being an astronaut. I was raised that you make your own way in this world, and you have one chance to do it, so I’ve always believed this was going to be my path in life.
13. Are there different types of accordions? There are a plethora of steel reed instruments with bellows that have come from all over the world. Piano accordion, chromatic accordion, bayan accordion, button accordion, concertina, bandoneon and octagon accordion. Tuning for a particular sound is very much a preference as much as it is a style related to regions of the world. Certain types of accordions are very limited and have only one sound depending upon the number of reeds.
14. Do you play other instruments besides the accordion? I’ve always considered the accordion my main instrument. However, I started playing other instruments to be able to work in my dad’s band and in the studio. Bass guitar got me into my dad’s band as a steady musician instead of for three or four songs a night on the button accordion and piano accordion. The piano lessons came at 16 for theory and use in the studio. I started playing drums somewhere in my 20s to get more weekday gigs with my dad and have done some studio work. I played trumpet in middle school and tuba in high school. I’ve learned a little plectrum banjo for a few studio recordings. I don’t, however, profess to being good at any of them.
15. Professional guitar players tend to have large collections. How many accordions do you have, and do you have any personal favorites? I might have 20 or more accordions not counting all of the other instruments I own. I don’t really know why I have so many, but they’re all different and have their own personalities.
16. Name a skill you wish you had. Discipline.
17. Do you have time for any hobbies? I don’t really have much time to spend on my classic car collection, nor do I have the time to drive them all every year. I have 19 vehicles in my collection not counting three daily drivers. Growing up around a father who was buying cars like changing socks and an uncle who was a car salesman, it’s only natural I would inherit this illness. My first car collection started with model cars and riding my wide, white-wall, balloon tire Schwinn bicycle around town with my Polaroid camera collecting photos of local classic cars. I also have a couple of motor boats, but I usually only have time to get on the water a couple of times per year.
18. What is your astrological sign? Do you believe in astrology? I’m an Aries, and though its definition fits my personality, I don’t really put much stock in it. That is unless it suits my purpose at the time. It’s kind of like fortune cookies or the lottery.
19. Have you ever had stage fright? I experience some sort of stage fright or uncomfortable anxiety every time I get on stage. It comes on fast and lasts as long as it takes me to get comfortable with my audience and surroundings.
20. What is the most rewarding aspect of your chosen career? The gratification I get from knowing I’ve spent my life’s energy and time making thousands of people feel and inspire some level of happiness, even if for only a few moments. I believe music is good for the human soul, and it pleases me to know I can touch that part of people’s lives with my music.
Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.