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After life on the road, 'Prairie Home' guitarist dies at age 81

Russ Ringsak. Contributed photo1 / 2
Russ Ringsak. Contributed photo2 / 2

STILLWATER, Minn. — Russ Ringsak, truck driver and blues guitarist on "A Prairie Home Companion" public radio show, died Tuesday, Oct. 3, at his home in Stillwater. He was 81.

Announcement of Ringsak's death came from his friend Garrison Keillor, longtime "Prairie Home" host, who called Ringsak "one of the finest and most generous storytellers I ever knew, talking about his youth in Grafton, N.D., where his dad was county attorney."

Ringsak was an architect when he and Keillor met in 1971 as members of Jack's Auto Repair softball team sponsored by Keillor's morning radio show on KSJN.

"(Russ) had a secret yearning to be a truck driver and enjoy the life of the open road," Keillor recalled. "And that's exactly what he did, and nobody enjoyed it more. He bought himself a semi cab and became an independent over-the-road trucker, keeping crazy hours, seeing the country, listening to blues and country music almost nonstop, and practicing guitar in his sleeper cab. He wrote me letters from the road, which I read on the radio. He came to the Saturday broadcasts when he was in town, became a friend of all the musicians and staff and joined our Tourists tour in 1981. He signed up to be the show's full-time truck driver in 1991 when we started doing more than half the broadcasts on the road. He was thrilled when one of of his heroes, Chet Atkins, became a regular on the show."

Ringsak loved good jokes, Keillor wrote in his heartfelt email, "and whenever you met him, he always had a new one. He and I mourned the slow decline of joke-telling and we got the idea of the annual Joke Show on PHC."

Sometimes Keillor invited Ringsak to play onstage with the band, and he left the show in "a burst of glory" on May 7, 2016, in Nashville, wearing new cowboy boots and singing and playing "Six Days on the Road" with Brad Paisley on lead guitar.

Denise Remick, whom Keillor calls "the love of Russ' life," was at Ringsak's side when he died.

Ringsak and Remick co-wrote "Minnesota Curiosities," a fun-to-read paperback that examined peculiarities such as the boy who stands in an attic window of a house near Janesville and the city that is the Turtle Capital of the World.

"Russ was a genuine friend to a struggling radio show before we could hire a staff and he stayed a friend for 40 years and more," Keillor wrote. "He loved good craftsmanship, music, trucks, Harleys, his kids (Lisa, Hans and Karen), his friends, and a series of wonderful women right up to the marvelous Denise. The world was richer for his being in it, whether you knew him or not."

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