"I've never seen anybody headbang while playing the accordion before," a woman whispered at the Beachland on a recent Friday. She'd probably never seen a polka artist in form-fitting jeans and a Lycra halter top either. Most folks, when they think of polka, picture portly, kielbasa-scented dudes in lederhosen, with beer bellies as prodigious as their abilities. As for sex appeal, well, polka is right up there with nude photos of Strom Thurmond.
But introducing the genre's flabby butt to the Soloflex is LynnMarie Rink, a Cleveland-born squeezebox ingenue who has earned the nickname "The Dixie Chick of Polka." At the Beachland, it was easy to see why. Flexing biceps that would make Angela Bassett envious while dancing/bobbing/twisting/shouting, Rink was a flurry of energy and country sass. Very much aware of her physical charms, she worked the crowd with feminine guile, at one point sitting on the laps of some gray-haired gents. Amid the din of their palpitating hearts, it was clear that polka's first modern superstar has been born.
"We played Cincinnati last year, and I'm not kidding, you'd have thought we were a rock band; there were 10,000 people there, flicking their Bics," Rink recalls. "I was just going, 'Do y'all know this is polka?'"
Well, alt-polka is perhaps a better descriptor. Spiking traditional polka with a rollicking backing band that sometimes features trumpet and sax, Rink has penetrated mainstream America like few polka artists before her. She's performed on the Tonight Show and Letterman, Regis and Today; she's been profiled in Us and Entertainment Weekly; and last year she was the first female to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Polka Album category, for her album Squeezebox. She's even produced her own polka exercise video, Polkaerobics With LynnMarie. It's all part of her attempt to open an aging polka scene to a wider, younger audience, a process that began in earnest in the mid-'90s, when Rink and her husband moved to Nashville.
"I ended up sitting in with Chet Atkins, and he's the one who basically looked at me and said, 'Why are you not doing this?'" Rink recalls. But she's run into difficulties along the way. Though she grew up playing traditional polka in Cleveland's Slovenian neighborhoods and has been performing at weddings and dance halls since age 11, her neo-polka has raised the hackles of traditionalists.
"I think LynnMarie is very talented and a great button accordion player, and whatever she can do to help polkas would definitely be an advantage," says Cecilia Dolgan, president of the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame. "The only thing is, I believe that there is a fine line when it comes to crossing over, like a lot of country people have crossed over into pop music.
"In her case, I would say that whatever direction she has now, she still does a lot of polkas, but I can't say the majority of what she does is polkas."
Rink is well aware of the criticism.
"The majority of the diehard polka fans are saying, 'Well, that's not polka,'" she says. "But if you don't allow the innovation and the change, it is going to die. In polka, unlike bluegrass or any other small genre of music, there is no main core support system, because the ethnic lines that were drawn a century ago are still strong here in the States, believe it or not. Polish people will not go hear Slovenian bands. Slovenian bands will not go hear German bands. Basically, there's all these different sects of polka, they all think they're right, and none of them are willing to compromise."
Still, Rink seems to be making some headway with the hard-liners.
The crowd at last year's East 185th Street Festival liked her. "Several thousand people gave her a rousing reception. It was tremendous," says Tony Petkovsek, host of the longest-running daily polka show in the country on WELW-AM/1330, who also schedules acts for the festival. He says it draws a lot of traditionalists. "We were in this huge schoolyard, and it was just people, people, people. They were just there to see her perform. It was a tremendous night that people are still talking about."
Besides, it seems kind of silly to argue about a form of music predicated upon mirth.
"Polka is so fun that I think people need to experience it and realize that," Rink says. "It is not deep, intellectual, change-the-world kind of music. It's like 'Get out there and enjoy your life.'"
That, like Rink herself, is the beauty of polka.
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