Biography of Warren Nelson

Songwriter, Musician, Poet, Performer, Writer, Producer, Storyteller, Historian, Tent-show junkie "Man of the Cloth"

A professional musician and entertainer since the late 1960's, Warren Nelson's trail has taken him across the US, "both sides of 1970." From his first full-time professional group The Tenth Story Window (he met Elvis twice!), to Colorado where he spent five years writing and playing music in the mountains, to the Madison, Wisconsin area where he formed the Lost Nation String Band with Don Pavel. He moved to northern Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula where he founded Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in 1986. For 23 seasons, through 2008, Nelson was the ringmaster, centerpole, artistic director, resident writer and lead dreamer of the Big Top, a venue that is widely celebrated. He also started and hosted Tent Show Radio for 15 years, a nationally syndicated program.

Canvas had been in his dreams since he was a young boy in Fairmont, southern Minnesota, tagging along behind his Dad, who worked three or four county fairs a summer, five days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day in the machinery rows and the Dairy Barns. "And then there was the great State Fair," Nelson says.  "I ran the bright swirling lights of the carney lots, went around and in and out of all the exhibit halls and caught every Grandstand Show and Thrill Cade. I got bit by the shine and good time. I wanted a stage from then on. I want to thank my mother who was a storyteller extraordinaire every hour of every ordinary day."

He began writing songs and performing at age 15, inspired by the Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio, Smothers Brothers, and many other folk artists. His ultimate hero and mentor was, still is and forever will be, Mason Williams.

Nelson’s career took a foretelling turn in 1976 with the production of "A Martin County Hornpipe," a concert music history show, singing and telling and showing by old photographs the story of his hometown.  "In my journal, I had written an entry called "A Thing," states Nelson. "Combine your interests in history, storytelling, concert producing, songwriting, scriptwriting, humor and old photographs into a performance piece that reveals the history of place through music and visuals." It was the prototype of the unique shows that gave birth to and gives Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua it’s unique identity. He has long been admired for his songwriting, script works, and stage presence. For the story of how he got his start in producing historical musicals, you can watch this interview.

He has had many honors bestowed upon him in his prolific career. Here are some highlights:

1998 - Commissioned by the State of Wisconsin to write a musical for the state's sesquicentennial.

1999 - Voted "Best Folk Musician" by readers of Wisconsin Trails Magazine.

2005 - Awarded Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree by the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and invited to give their spring commencement address.

2005 - Honored as an official Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters.

2006 - Honored with the first ever Wisconsin History Award from WI Historical Society for superb storytelling and unforgettable music to make history come alive for the thousands of people who have attended its (Big Top Chautauqua’s) performances.

2007 - Named "Minnesotan of the Year" for his outstanding contribution to the arts in Minnesota by the Minnesota Territorial Pioneers.

2008 - Given the Wisconsin Governor’s Award In Support of the Arts in partnership with Big Top Chautauqua.

Warren Nelson Interview

Warren Nelson Interview

A video interview with Warren Nelson about how he got his start in music and how that blossomed into his career in historical musicals. Video by Nick Larsen.


In addition to the nearly 400 songs he has written, here are the major shows he has written and composed alone as The Sioux River Song Farm, or in collaboration:

1976 - A Martin County Hornpipe: Selections From Lost and Found Fairmont Histories
1983 - Souvenir Views: Pictorial Centennial Show of Washburn, WI. Nelson-Ferris Concert Company
1984 - Dance Of The Seasons with Dianna Randolph and Sally Kessler
1985 - Riding The Wind - Nelson-Ferris Concert Company
1986 - Take It To The Lake - Lake Superior Show
1987 - Whistle Comin' In - Centennial Show of Ashland, WI. Nelson-Ferris Concert Company
1988 - Wild River - Musical celebration of the St. Croix River, conceptualized, and led collaboration with composers of Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua
1989 - Keeper Of The Light - 200th Anniversary Show For The U.S. Lighthouse Service. Nelson-Ferris Concert Company
1990 - Earth To Wendell - Musical/Theatrical Environmental Show
1992 - On The Velvet - Railroad Musical- Nelson-Ferris Concert Company
1998 - 30th Star - Wisconsin’s Sesquicentennial Show, Nelson-Ferris Concert Company
2003 - Riverpants
2004 - Old Minnesota: Song of the North Star - Minnesota's Sesquicentennial Show
2005 - Centennial Green: The Over and Understory of the U.S. Forest Service in Song - Centennial Show of U.S Forest Service, Eastern Region
2007 - Yo Ho Buffalo
2012 - PLAY BALL!  Warren Nelson’s Music Hall Baseball Show

In The Works

Okoboji Dime - Show Celebrating Iowa Great Lakes Resort Community
Loose In The Caboose - Finishing writing and recording new CD, featuring Warren’s son, Rowan, banjo player extraordinaire
Brandy Leave Me Alone - All new CD. Finish writing songs and recording new CD about alcoholism
Compiling old poems, lyrics and writing new for printing a chapbook of his chosen works

For a list of his available recordings, stop by Warren's Store. Also be sure to check out Songfarm, Warren's personal webpage of writings, lyrics, poems, letters to you and "jingles." 

The Brandywine Singers - 1965
The 10th Story Window - 1969
A view of the tent at Big Top Chautauqua - 2005
The cast from 30th Star - Wisconsin's Sesquicentennial Show - 1998
During a performance of Centennial Green - 2005
Warren onstage at the Minnesota State Fair - 2008