Rockin' the dairy state
Music competition offers chance to play Summerfest

By KAREN PILARSKI - Freeman Staff

April 2, 2016


Jane and Dennis Graham and Les Paul pose in front of the Club 400, where Paul and Mary Ford first played guitars together in public. Dennis Graham, organizer of the ROCKONSIN youth band contests that will see its top acts playing Summerfest, hopes aspiring musicians can take a musical cue from Paul.
Submitted photo


WAUKESHA - Hey, middle and high school students, are you ready to rock? ROCKONSIN is offering young musical hopefuls a chance at playing the Big Gig: Summerfest. Dennis Graham of Dennis Graham Associates, in association with the nonprofit Madison Area Music Association, is kicking off his 12th year of producing a statewide youth band competition. He encourages 7th- to 12th-grade bands of all musical genres to enter. Previously the competition was called Launchpad and the organization worked with the Wisconsin School Music Association. They have worked with over 500 high school bands and had 59 regional shows. Graham said it was a great run and terrific 11 years.

The new format, called ROCKONSIN, is a welcomed change since it now provides opportunities for younger students to apply.

“The great aspect is there is no registration fee,” said Graham.

Graham has worked with the Summerfest crew for 25 years bringing bands in and working with production and talent buyers. What he enjoys about working with young artists is giving them a format to play in. He said young musicians can’t get into bars, which is where many garage bands start out.

“The new program will be a finals-only format for 12 statewide garage bands of all musical genres to be held at Summerfest,” he said.

Six finalists will play on the Johnson Controls stage on June 30 and the other six finalists will perform July 1. Shows are from noon to 3:30 p.m.

What you need to do

Applicants are asked to submit a video but Graham said participants shouldn’t dig deep into their pockets. They can use a smartphone or video recorder of their band performing a cover or original song. The band needs to submit a link to the video and fill out an application.

The applicants’ video performances will be reviewed by a panel of music industry professionals. Bands will be notified by May 15 if they are selected to perform at Summerfest. The finalists will all receive a Shure microphone.

The winning band and the runner-up will each receive a second 45-minute session at Summerfest on July 10 on the Harley-Davidson stage. The performances will be at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

“Each band will also receive a professional recording session,” said Graham.

Les was the best

Graham compared sports to music, saying there needs to be a drive to succeed.

“You have to practice and have discipline,” he said.

The reward for him is to stand on the side of a stage and watch incredibly talented kids perform.

Graham grew up in Whitewater and has known many well-known and highly regarded names in the music industry. One such person was Les Paul, the Wizard of Waukesha. He was working with Launchpad and the organization wanted to do a Lifetime Achievement Award for someone who touched a person with music. He suggested Les Paul since he changed the world of music with sound on sound. On Oct. 27, 2004 Paul was given the first Lifetime Achievement Award in Music from the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music (part of the Wisconsin School Music Association). Paul also was supportive of Graham’s format for young performers and the two became good friends.

As for the Les Paul postage stamp discussion, he feels a stamp in Paul’s honor should have been made years ago.

“This guy is a treasure; he is Wisconsin’s treasure,” Graham said.

Graham said Paul was a sweet guy and loved Waukesha. Graham has heard of musicians visiting his grave in Waukesha and leaving guitar picks. He hopes the musicians of tomorrow will follow in Paul’s footsteps by being kind and humble.

He is moved by the talented people who come up to him and say “thank you for the opportunity,” in true Les Paul style.

For more information on the competition and ROCKONSIN, go to