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Wing men: Sioux City natives 'flying high'

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By the side of every great recording artist is a "wing man" -- a band member who provides musical support for the person in the spotlight.

Bruce Springsteen has Steven Van Zandt, Pat Benatar has Neil Giraldo and Sheryl Crow has Peter Stroud.

So, is Grant Mickelson "wing man" for the Grammy-winning Taylor Swift?

Could be, if you ask Mickelson, a Sioux City native.

"I'd love to have enough longevity to be put in that group (to become a wing man)," the 2003 North High School graduate said. "Working for Taylor is incredible."

Given the opportunity to hit the stage along side Billboard Magazine's 2011 "Woman of the Year" is quite a coup for Mickelson, who describes his Sioux City upbringing as "wholesome" and "great."

"I started playing guitar in the eighth grade and almost instantly knew making music was what I wanted to do with my life," he remembered. "Thankfully, (North High School music teachers) Larry Kisor and Kevin Linder put me in one of their jazz bands."

On the other hand, Denny Hemingson seldom played his guitar when attending East High School.

"Other than performing at talent contests and, once, playing for a Christmas program, there wasn't much for a guitar player in school (in the early 1970s)," recalled Hemingson, a Sioux City native and a future member of Tim McGraw's "Dancehall Doctors." (School band) was mostly orchestral instruments."

Instead, Hemingson started playing in a band with friends Tom Davis, Jerry Minter and Bob and Dwayne Leach when he wasn't listening to Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and Cream.

But Hemingson, a 2010 Iowa Rock 'N Roll Music Association Hall of Fame member, didn't initially dream of becoming a musician.

"Maybe, I did deep down," he admitted with a laugh, "but I think I repressed it."

Hemingson had his sights set on becoming a radio disc jockey.

"I started making a little money playing music in high school and after graduating, I moved to Minneapolis and attended the Brown Institute (now Brown College) School of Broadcasting," he said.

After a brief stint in radio, Hemingson said performing music was more to his liking than playing records in a control booth.

"(Music) was something that just evolved," Hemingson said of a career that subsequently took him to Hawaii (working with comedian Howie Mandel) and, then, to Nashville.

Was it intimidating to leave Sioux City for the uncertainty of playing music for a living?

"It was a little intimidating, I guess," Hemingson said. "I was 18 and bullet-proof, so I didn't dwell on the downside. I just went for it."

Although Mickelson knew that music was his calling the second he picked up a guitar, he admitted leaving Sioux City for Nashville was tough.

"Telling your parents you wanted to become a musician when you grew up was like telling 'em you wanted to become an astronaut or the president of the United States," he said. "Thankfully, I had a very supportive family who always pushed me to follow my dreams, regardless of how lofty they might be."

Dreaming of becoming a professional musician is different than actually making a living at it.

"I'd play guitar down on Broadway Street (in Nashville's downtown district) in hopes of finding a paying gig," Mickelson remembered, "but I barely had enough work to survive."

That all change, five years ago, when he was hired to back up the then just-emerging Taylor Swift.

"Becoming Taylor's guitarist changed my life," he said.

Like Mickelson, Hemingson's life changed after becoming a guitarist for Tim McGraw, a singer who has had 21 No. 1 hits on Billboard's Hot Country singles chart.

"I was lucky I was with Tim when he hit it big and everything exploded," Hemingson, a member of McGraw's Dancehall Doctors since 1994, explained.

In that time, Hemingson has played back-up for such artists as McGraw's wife Faith Hill, Robert Plant and, even, Tony Bennett.

"(Bennett) was the ultimate gentleman," Hemingson said.

As for Mickelson, a career highlight occurred when Swift was named the Country Music Association's 2009 "Entertainer of the Year."

"During her acceptance speech, Taylor called each band member to the stage to accept the award with her on national television," he recalled. "It was an incredibly generous move by Taylor and something that no other artist had ever done before."

Working with Swift meant Mickelson has been able to play on "Saturday Night Live," the Grammys and, earlier this year, at the Beatle's legendary Abbey Road Studios.

Mickelson has also shared the stage with such heavyweights as Def Leppard, Stevie Nicks and Usher.

Is there any musician Mickelson would still like to meet?

"I'd love to meet U2," he said. "They've always been my heroes."

Performing in such venues as Madison Square Garden, the Whiskey A-Go-Go, and even in Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony one year, Hemingson reflects for a moment.

"Has my Sioux City upbringing helped prepare me for my music career?" he asked. "Absolutely! I think the harder you work, the 'luckier' you get. If you're prepared, you won't be afraid to walk through a door when it opens."

Mickelson agrees.

"Growing up in the Midwest definitely taught me the importance of a great work ethic and it also taught me the importance of always treating people with kindness," he said. "You can achieve just about anything in life by working hard and being nice to everyone while you do it."








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