Near death, Greg Drust found in music a reason to live

By Mary Carole McCauley of the Journal Sentinel, March 1, 1998

If music is a little piece of heaven, Greg Drust has acquired substantial real estate in the Pearly Gates subdivision.

Drust, deejay, music historian and a founder of the Polka Hall of Fame, has a personal collection of 240,000 records meticulously organized and stored in his south side home.

Yup -- that's 240,000. "A few years ago, I went over the top," he said. His basement is lined floor to ceiling with shelves, and each shelf is stacked with 45s and 78s. There's a section for Cajun zydeco and western swing, for Irish folk, rockabilly and hymns. Polka has its own subsections: for the oompah, Slovenian and Polish styles, and for accordion music.

"Greg is a musicologist of the highest order with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of many different styles," said Michael Kaufer, president of the California-based Foundation of American Roots Music. "He's one of the world's foremost authorities on American roots music."

Drust, 43, is blind, so the albums have Braille labels. They're cross-referenced by artist, chronologically, by record number, and by genre. And the stuff in the basement is just part of his collection. More albums, all of a uniform height and skinny as pencils, are crammed onto shelves in his living room, dining room, bedroom and hallways, and the overflow is kept in the garage.

"I'm lucky," he said. "I have a real passion."

Boy, does he ever. And it helped bring him back to earth at a time when the Pearly Gates had begun to open prematurely. When Drust was 19, he was in a near-fatal car accident in California. He survived, but lost his eyesight.

"Music gave me a reason to live," he said. "It gave me validation and acceptance. It's the place where I belong." Some might think his preferred type of music is a bit offbeat, but Drust always has marched to a different tuba player. He studies all forms of indigenous ethnic music, but his favorite is polka.

He knows the rap (and yes, he's studied that, too): Polka isn't hip. Polka isn't cool. Musically, it's subtle as sandpaper. The lyrics are insipid. And it's not exactly burning up the charts. (The five top-selling artists who record polkas exclusively have sold a combined 195,300 albums, according to Soundscan.)

Guess what? Drust's not apologizing. "I've never loved the popular music of my day," he said. "Roots music is music that's of the people and by the people and for the people. The honesty of it appeals to me.

"Country music uses the allegory of male-female relationships to talk about how hard life is. The blues is about catharsis. Jazz is the closest to life, with its themes and variations, and you have to improvise to get through. And polka is happy music. It's uplifting. It doesn't matter if the band is that good, or if the lyrics make sense. The object is to have fun."

Born to Spin

His interest in roots music began when he was a sprout. "Records were my toys," he said. "If I had a top, I'd put a record on it and 'play' it. If I had a dump truck, I'd put a record on the dump truck. Before I could read, I could say what record was what. I could tell by the design on the label. I was particularly enamored of the polkas and their good, lively beat."

He learned to operate a broadcast mixing console at age 11, and at age 12, landed his first deejay gig doing a Christmas special for WTOS-FM, a country music station in Wauwatosa. He later became a regular guest. He moved away from Milwaukee in 1972, when his father, an electronics worker, was transferred to the West Coast. That fall, he enrolled in the University of California-Santa Barbara and became involved in the campus radio station.

One day, while his father was driving him to school, they were involved in a head-on collision. Drust was unconscious for two days.

"Every bone in my face was smashed," he said. "My head was swollen to two to three times its normal size, and my face was wired together. I remember listening to a radio in the emergency room, and the sound came and went in waves. I couldn't taste, I had a tracheotomy so I couldn't speak, and my sense of feeling was affected."

Four of his senses returned, but when doctors removed the patches from his eyes, Drust couldn't see even a flicker. The first thing the 19-year-old did after learning he would be blind for the rest of his life was to call in a request to a local radio station from his hospital bed. Could they play the 1956 hit by Nervous Norvus, "Transfusion"?

"Even then, I had a sense of humor," he said.

But even a prominent and well-developed funny bone couldn't protect Drust from the depression that followed. Every part of his life had changed. His broadcasting career was on a temporary hiatus, and all his relationships had to be renegotiated. "I was the same person, but everyone treated me differently," he said.

But at least Drust still could hear. When he learned that a local thrift shop was having a one-day sale and records would be priced at a penny, he pushed for an early release from the hospital.

"I had real periods of depression," he said, "but what carried me through was that there were always more records to find."

A Freelance Life

After graduating in 1979 from the UC-Santa Barbara (where he earned a 3.7 grade point average and established the Santa Barbara Blues Society) he worked part-time for a few radio stations, but discovered that he preferred the life of a freelance music historian.

Today, he writes liner notes for albums, collects and sells rare records, and produces two local radio shows from a second bedroom that he's converted to a home studio. His segment of "Polka Parade" on WYMS-FM (88.9), airs from 11 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays, and he's one of three hosts for the two-hour show. He also produces the "Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame Radio Show," airing from 11:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays on WTKM-FM (104.9) and WTKM-AM (1540). Even when he's off the air, Drust sounds like he's on the radio. He has one of those voices that makes everything he talks about, including macaroni and cheese, sound a bit fabulous. When he's finished speaking, you half expect to hear a drum roll, or maybe trumpets.

Drust also has compiled an oral history archive of taped interviews with about 500 musicians, including Tito Puente, Bo Diddley and Koko Taylor.

Being around a blind person can be strangely liberating, because you dispense with conventional niceties. You can yawn openly, and freely indulge your most disgusting, most comforting habits without worrying about getting caught. You want to gnaw on your knuckles, suck your thumb, adjust your underwear or pantyhose, scratch where it itches? Go right ahead.

The same phenomenon seems to be at work in the interviews Drust conducts. When the interviewer is vulnerable,the interviewees relax and the resulting conversations are noteworthy for their candor and intimacy. It was Drust who snared a rare, on-the-record conversation with the notoriously shy Fernest Arceneaux, a little-known but influential zydeco button accordionist.

"Fernest never does interviews, but Greg really got him talking," Kaufer said.

"Sometimes Greg actually knows more about the musicians' lives than they do. They'll be talking about a recording made in 1954, and he'll say, 'Wasn't so-and-so on bass? And wasn't it raining that day?' "

Back to Milwaukee

Drust ran into a second front of stormy weather in his own life in 1987, when finances forced him to abandon a lifetime dream and pull two shows that he'd syndicated on National Public Radio: "Back at the Chicken Shack," a blues show, and the "Cactus Ranch Barn Dance," a country show. They aired on roughly 250 stations a week for two years.

"It's always been my vision to get the music out," he said. "But I'm not a very good businessman, and I didn't market the shows properly. My overhead was far outrunning what was coming back."

To make it worse, Drust realized he'd never been comfortable living in California. In 1987, he went to a polka festival in Cleveland and ran into the contingent from Milwaukee. "I enjoyed the people and the music so much," he said. "I'd been depressed, but I wasn't depressed when I was there. I knew I had to come back and be with these people."

So Drust shipped his record collection to Milwaukee (by refrigerated truck, a process that took six months) and came home -- literally and figuratively. Through a stroke of luck, he was able to purchase the house he'd grown up in. He became active in the ethnic music community, helped found the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame in 1995, and served as its first president.

It was revealing to watch him preside last November over the first annual Polka Hall of Fame Awards. Just as he makes no apologies for polka, Drust doesn't apologize for and isn't embarrassed by his blindness. Standing at the microphone, he told the audience he'd decided to get a job as a crossing guard. And he wanted to know who'd turned off the lights.

Drust ended his remarks with an impassioned oration about his favorite music.

"You need to let young people know what polka has to offer," he said. "You need to let them know that it's not just old farts drooling into their tubas, but a growing, vibrant art form."

It's obvious that Drust has been warmly embraced by the local polka populace. A close friend, Noyes Lane, built the bookshelves for Drust's record collection -- truly a formidable task given the size of that collection. Local legend Concertina Millie worries about Drust's eating habits and recently got him into health food. An interview with a reporter was cut short when two friends dropped by to drive Drust to a concert in Chicago. Naturally, he volunteered to drive.

"Here in Milwaukee, I've been re-experiencing all the best parts of my childhood, the parties and the weddings," he said.

"I thought that was gone for good, and I've gotten that back. I have a very good life, a very full life. And I haven't hit my stride in my career. The best is yet to come."

Greg Drust's life is finally settling into an oompah beat.

Write or call Greg Drust
3824 South 58th Street
Milwaukee, WI 53220
(414) 543-9948

Last Updated 08/27/12 09:47 PM