Stringing along with Mellencamp
Anderson grad is veteran of Hoosier rocker's band
By Bill Thompson
For Miriam Sturm, it's been a (fairly) long, (somewhat) strange trip from Anderson Township to ... Anderson Township?
Sturm, the violin player in John Mellencamp's band for the past 12 years, will take the Riverbend Music Center stage Wednesday night. She's been there before, most recently in 2005 when Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Fogerty opened the show.
"Oh, yes, the John-John tour," Sturm laughs. "That was fun."
Fun defines Sturm's outlook. She is relentlessly upbeat, and why not? When the 1977 Anderson High School grad returns Wednesday, she will be part of a Hall of Fame ensemble, not just sharing the stage with one (Fogerty). Mellencamp was honored at this year's ceremony in March, a night that Sturm will never forget.
"I was so proud of him," Sturm says of her boss. "And it was so much fun (that word again). We learned to play 'Glad All Over' and 'Bits and Pieces' by the Dave Clark Five because we were kind of the house band for the finale. John and John Fogerty and Joan Jett were going to sing those songs, then at the last minute, guess who came up and wanted to play piano? Billy Joel!"
It almost seems odd that Sturm sounds like a fan instead of a jaded rock star. Perhaps it's because she couldn't imagine the path her career has taken.
Shortly after the Rev. Raymond Sturm and his wife, Catherine, moved with their four kids from Newark, Ohio, their only daughter joined the Suzuki violin program in the Forest Hills School District. She practiced diligently, becoming "serious by the age of 12." She took private lessons with Sigmund Effron, then the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concertmaster emeritus.
"Most kids go to the mall or play sports or something like that," Sturm says. "I used to go down to Music Hall on Saturday nights and usher at symphony concerts. We didn't get paid, it was a volunteer job. I got to know some of the musicians, and we (the family) just assumed that I would go to college and then audition for a symphony."
Sometimes, though, life gets in the way of plans. Sturm followed her two older brothers to Indiana University, where she studied with another string master, Josef Gingold. While in Bloomington, she became fascinated by gypsy music, which led to a stint in a trio called Eclectricity that served as a counterpoint to her classical studies.
"Eclectricity was really the turning point," she says. "I was studying with this legendary teacher, but he knew how important this gypsy music was to me.
That "gypsy music" gave her the opportunity to travel and perform, and it also served as her introduction to Mellencamp in 1986. Two members of his band, drummer Kenny Aronoff and guitarist Mike Wanchic were fans of Eclectricity, and with Bloomington being a small town, the musicians became friends. As Sturm remembers it, Wanchic would call occasionally to see if she was interested in recording with Mellencamp when Lisa Germano, then the violin player in the band, wasn't available.
In 1988, Sturm moved to Chicago, where she still lives with her husband, Pat Fleming. She stayed in touch with her music pals, and in 1996, she got a call.
"It was May Day and John called, which was unusual because Mike was usually the one who would call and ask if I was available to record," Sturm says. "And John asked if I was available to go to Hong Kong with the band. Of course I said yes."
Sturm's wide-ranging experience is valuable in a rock band. Her first record with Mellencamp, "Mr. Happy Go Lucky" in 1996, begins with "Overture," which is as it sounds, a two-minute solo from the new kid. It didn't take long for her to feel at home with the more famous Bloomington resident.
"I think John has a special respect for women who can stand up to the rigors of this (touring and recording)," she says. "This job is richly satisfying. I never get tired of John's songs, whether it's the ones from the new album ('Life, Death Love and Freedom,' out last week), or ones that are 30 years old.
"I mean, really, how could I get tired of good songs that are decades old when I'm still excited about playing classical music that was written centuries ago?"
Sturm might have spent her teen years practicing Bartok, but it wasn't the only music she was listening to.
"My parents loved classical music, but my dad had a great jazz collection as well," she says. "And my brothers had albums by Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cream, Steely Dan, groups like that.
"And I remember this great radio show, 'Jelly Pudding' (then on WEBN-FM, now on WOFX), and falling asleep while listening to 'Suite Judy Blue Eyes.' "
Maybe that's why they call it classic rock: It's all music, from Copland to Crosby, from Stravinsky to Stills, from Mahler to Mellencamp. It has defined Sturm's life, and she couldn't have planned it better.
The violinist's virtuosity isn't lost on Mellencamp.
"Anything you hear that is contrapuntally beautiful on our records comes from Miriam Sturm," he said in an e-mail, sending non-musicians scrambling for a dictionary (Webster's defines it as characterized by counterpoint).
"It's a privilege and a joy to play for people," she says.
That translates into fun for the audience.
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Stringing along with Mellencamp