It was so ‘Cold’ here, he wrote a song about it

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    Songwriters have long looked to and even relied on the world around them for inspiration when putting lyrics to paper and then putting it all to music. Relationships, love and love lost are likely the most popular go-to sources when it comes to writing songs that people can relate to and as a result want to play repeatedly and, the songwriter hopes, actually purchase. (In today’s world, that would mean download.) But places visited that made an especially large impression on the songwriter and created lasting memories have also inspired the lyrics that make up countless songs.

    Take for instance, Crookston, Minnesota. But not just Crookston on any random day or Crookston during spring, summer or fall. We’re talking Crookston in the winter, and not just winter in general, but wintertime in Crookston when a massive blizzard packing lots of snow, gale-force winds, white-out conditions, and life-threatening windchills that can freeze your flesh in mere seconds.

    What a song that would make!

    It actually, did, in reality. The song is called “Cold in Crookston,” written and performed by Billy McCall after he came from Chicago, Illinois to the University of Minnesota Crookston campus several years to perform. McCall and his girlfriend at the time made the trek northwest in February for his band’s performance on campus.

    “Which was a bad idea,” he tells the Times. “We almost died in a blizzard.”

    To call McCall a musician is to narrow the scope of his talents and interests too much. He paints, does performance art, writes music and writes lots of other things. Perhaps his greatest passion are “zines.” If you Google it, you’ll find that “zines” and people who are into zines, known as “zinesters” kind of make up their own subculture. A zine, McCall explains, is basically a small, self-published magazine featuring the author’s own words and illustrations. If you click on a couple of links after Googling McCall, you’ll see he’s an epic producer of zines.

    “I’ve been doing them for years,” he says. “I’ve written a couple books and novels as well, and I mail out a printed newsletter to all my friends every month. But zines are what I love the most.”

    Meanwhile, McCall continues to forge ahead on the musical front. He’ll release his first solo album later this month, and among the songs on it is “Cold in Crookston.” Measuring in at 3 minutes and change in length, it’s an acoustic, folk-style song with hokey-yet-heartfelt lyrics. With his guitar and a whistling winds sound effect as a backdrop, McCall pokes fun at Crookston’s two seasons. One is called winter, he sings, and the other one is, too. But after making the entire drive from Chicago only to get their vehicle stuck upon arriving in town, McCall also sings about “heroes” in a big “pickup truck” who pulled him and his girlfriend out of the snow “for free.” McCall goes onto sing that he gave them 20 bucks anyway.

    McCall and his girlfriend at the time of his memorable Crookston visit are no longer a couple, but he still remembers her saying “We would never speak of this horrible trip ever again!” or something to that effect, he adds.

    It was 2008 or 2009, but McCall recalls many memorable elements of the trip, all seemingly weather-related.

    “We were asked to come up to (UMN Crookston) for an event they were holding; the event was planned months in advance and we were paid to come up there, and it just so happened that a blizzard blew in,” McCall recalls. “No exaggerating, we almost died. More than once. They closed down all the interstates, so we were driving on all these snowed-over local roads. It was quite a trek.”

    With white-knuckled nerves still frayed and skin still numb, McCall actually wrote the first version of “Cold in Crookston” very soon after his frightful excursion. He posted it on YouTube a decade or so ago and says it got a lot of plays. “I think everyone in Crookston listened to it, because everyone commented on the video about their own Crookston wintertime adventures,” he says.

    “Cold in Crookston” is actually the first song McCall ever wrote, and back in those days he said he was just learning guitar. (He typically was on drums or lead vocals in his various bands.) “I’ve lived in lots of cold places, but that was the only time I really feared for my life due to cold,” he says, half-jokingly.

    For anyone wondering, McCall is now a safe and warm resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Ah, yes, the desert,” he said the other day, just as Crookston was entering into by far its most frigid and, yes, possibly life-threatening stretch of the winter of 2020-21. “It’s certainly a lot different than the weather you’re all getting now,” McCall adds.

    McCall’s first solo album, “Handshakes, fist bumps, HUGS, and high fives,” featuring “Cold in Crookston,” has just been uploaded to his website, iknowbilly.bandcamp.com, which also features his previous work in several punk and rock bands. People will be able to pre-order the digital download or a physical compact disc, if they prefer that format. Individual songs will be $1 per download and the entire 10-song album is available for $4. As part of the album’s official release on Feb. 26, McCall’s painting of the “Welcome to Crookston” sign near the railroad crossing on University Avenue just south of the UMN Crookston campus will be available for auction on eBay, he adds. To celebrate the album release that day, McCall and collaborative partner Erik Gamlem will host a virtual visual art and music event on YouTube entitled, “We Might Be Okay…” from 8 to 9 p.m. Central time. Find it at youtube.com/PyragraphTV.

    Once the album is officially released, McCall says all of its songs will be able to be streamed free of charge. People who pre-ordered it will at that point be able to download the album and orders of the actual CD will be in the mail the next day, he says.

    If any Crookston decision-makers have any interest in making “Cold in Crookston” the town’s official theme song, McCall says that can be arranged.

In town to perform at UMN Crookston more than a decade ago, Billy McCall painted the Welcome to Crookston sign along University Avenue. He’ll be auctioning it on eBay.
Billy McCall
A virtual art and music event by Billy McCall & Erik Gamlem
Musician and artist Billy McCall now calls safe and warm Albuquerque, New Mexico home.