Non-fiction funk: Former country rocker, current librarian brings noise to the bookshelves

By Austin Jackson | Published Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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Still in tune

STILL IN TUNE – Newark librarian Linda Ortberg plays guitar at the Newark Public Library. Ortberg used to be a touring country rock musician in the band Home Brew in the ’70s. She still plays guitar for the Rose Hill Band and during story time at the library. Messenger photo by Austin Jackson

A turn of a crisp page echoes through the Newark Public Library, as kids and old-timers bury their heads deep into colorful novels and history books.

The sound of a patron riding the free wifi wave sends clicks bouncing across the colorful, poster-laden walls – another brief interruption to the silence in the building.

At first glance, Newark’s library seems just like any other small-town library, a place of solitude and books, where it feels obtuse to speak at any level above a whisper.

Many libraries demand this hush, but “shhh, silence!” is not a phrase in Newark librarian Linda Ortberg’s vocabulary.

She has the glasses, the love of books and history down pat, but Ortberg is a little different than the stereotype of a normal librarian.

That’s clear on Thursdays, as Ortberg slides her hands into a power chord, filling the library with the sweet strums of her guitar.

“It’s not always quiet,” Ortberg said. “We rock it out in here.”

On Thursday mornings, about a dozen kids and their moms bop along to her story time tunes at the library. The sing-a-long audiences are a bit smaller than the crowds she used to face.

The glint in her eye, however, is the same as she had back in the 1970s, when Ortberg played in front of thousands as a country rock musician.

“It was a different time,” Ortberg said. “A crazy time.”

Ortberg grew up in a small town in Iowa. She said her dad gave her an acoustic guitar at an early age, and for as long as she can remember she played and sang in church.

As Ortberg neared graduation, Woodstock sent waves of culture shock through her small town. While some of her friends and classmates hitchhiked to become peace sign waving participants in the hippie movement, Ortberg stayed home.

“I sang in the choir and played in church,” Ortberg said.

Vinyl to streaming

VINYL TO STREAMING – Newark Librarian Linda Ortberg has cut several albums, both digital and vinyl from her time in the 70s as a lead singer and guitarist for the band Home Brew to her work for The Rose Hill Band, which was formed in 2012. She also used her music on her documentary covering the history of Newark, titled “Odessa.” Messenger photo by Austin Jackson

But while she didn’t follow the path of the counterculture, Ortberg did eventually find herself on a musical journey.

After graduating college with a degree in English, Ortberg and her husband, Scott Ortberg, went head-first into a pursuit of music.

They had a band, Home Brew, and a old Ford truck with a camper on the back. They toted an organ around and played at supper parties in towns, working their way into a following in the Midwest.

“It was always a big event,” Ortberg said. “People would come from miles away for the show.”

Ortberg played guitar and was the lead singer. The band played covers at first.

“Lots of Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton,” Ortberg said. “We were country, but we grew to country rock.”

They toured and had gigs, large and small, playing six nights per week most weeks out of the year.

Along their circuit, which covered six states, they drove thousands of miles, through blizzards and inclement weather, sleeping in hotel beds most nights. Ortberg said they were featured on airwaves on the radio stations in towns like Yankton, S.D.

Eventually, as the word got out and their reputation for their shows spread from venue to venue, the crowds grew larger and larger for the band.

Ortberg said in several of their shows, they performed in front of around 2,000 people. It was an experience she didn’t believe was possible at first.

“It was exhilarating,” Ortberg said. “You always get nervous until you get into it, but we were pretty polished. And it was a blast. We had a lot of fun and we made a lot of friends.”

Young love and a passion for music carried the four-piece band through, truck breakdowns, fires and crashes Ortberg said. But she said they were constant professionals, making gigs and performing their brand of country rock across the Midwest.

“We were young, so it worked,” Ortberg said. “We couldn’t do it now, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine what we went through some days, but we made it work. We had a dream of making it.”

Home Brew cut a few albums over the years, but eventually, after three straight years of touring and traveling to gigs, the pressure of life on the road and the desire to have kids lead Ortberg and her husband to settling down.

“It was time,” Ortberg said.

Ortberg and her husband got office jobs, had kids and eventually grandkids. Throughout, she and her husband still played music.

In 2012, Ortberg started Rose Hill Band, recording two albums. The 2015 album, “Buckles and Barrels,” featured originals, with her most personal song, “Fire N Flood,” recounting her journey through music and love. The music from the band is the soundtrack for her documentary on the history of Newark, titled Odessa.

Ortberg and the Rose Hill Band, which is comprised of her and her husband still play, usually at local churches.

She’s enjoyed playing on stage with her grandkids. She’s also embraced bringing music into the library, where she has taken the charge of impacting the community.

She hopes to bring shows to the community, and at festivals in Newark.

“Libraries have changed so much,” Ortberg said. “It’s more than books. It’s about getting out and making a connection to the community.”

Through her guitar and her love of Newark, Ortberg is looking to do just that.

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