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From classic to country

Red Wing native Alex Nelson recently on stage at CMA Fest in Nashville.1 / 2
Alex Nelson, sitting on the right, joined the band Charissa and Country Cross in the spring. The group recently returned from performing at CMA Fest in Nashville.2 / 2

Alex Nelson can the play the piano. With his classical training and naturally gifted ear, the 22 year-old Red Wing native was recently hand picked by the up-and-coming country band Charissa and Country Cross to join their summer touring schedule.

Since joining the six-member crew as a keyboardist, Nelson has been exposed to the world of the traveling musician - from his recent time in Nashville to preparing for the nation's largest music festival, Summerfest in Milwaukee.

"I have already really enjoyed being part of this band as we have become a close group," Nelson said.

The 2009 Red Wing High School graduate started taking piano lessons at the age of seven and continued through all of his schooling.

Now, as a senior at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., Nelson is majoring in music performance/piano pedagogy as well as pursuing biology with a minor in chemistry.

"Music has always been a part of my life," he explained. From his early years taking piano lessons to playing percussion through high school to performing as a member of the Sheldon Brass Band to even dabbling in the garage-band world while in Red Wing - Nelson's passion for music speaks for itself.

"I've grown up listening to and playing all genres of music - rock, blues, R&B, classical, pop to pretty much everything I could," he adds. "I've always had a naturally gifted ear for music so I could learn songs on the piano by just listening to a recording and not even using written music."

It was that uncanny ability to play by ear that landed Nelson in the country group.

The opportunity first came about when the drummer Cole Carson's dad approached a piano professor at Carthage looking for a recommendation of a keyboardist. Nelson's name was mentioned, he was contacted by the band's manager and an audition was scheduled.

"The audition consisted of playing a few of the band's songs - which I had to learn by ear the two days before," he explained, "then basically just jamming with the band and seeing if they liked me and my playing."

Well, the band liked him. A few days after the audition, Nelson received the call telling him he was in, and practices began. "We rehearsed a couple days later so the new rhythm guitarist and I could learn the entire two-hour set list."

The full band includes Charissa Mrowka on lead vocals and acoustic guitar; Kevin Schroeder on lead guitar; Trevor Rische on rhythm guitar and backup vocals; Taylor Rivas on bass; Cole Carson on drums; Renee Strauss on backup vocals; and Nelson on keyboards and accordion.

Last year, Mrowka got an all new, younger band - Country Cross - and has continued playing at numerous events opening for stars such as Hunter Hayes, Leann Rimes, Gretchen Wilson, Phil Vassar, and Jarrod Niemann.

"This summer the band and I will have opened for stars including Florida-Georgia Line, Darius Rucker, Randy Houser, Phil Vassar, Jana Kramer and Kelli Pickler just to name a few," he said.

Most of the gigs are at county fairs throughout Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa and are a part of the band's Ford sponsored "Ford Night at the Fair" tour.

They just returned from Nashville's CMA Fest, where they played at numerous infamous places like Tootsie's, Ripey', and Honky Tonk Central.

Nelson adds, "This trip was more huge exposure for Charissa and the band as there were thousands of people there all week."

While most of Nelson's time these days is used playing classical music for school -- which he says he loves -- he is thrilled to take part in this experience and to play with the other talented musicians.

"While it looks promising that Charissa will get signed by a record label in the near future, I can only feel grateful that this opportunity sort of fell in my lap," Nelson adds "It has always been a dream to play in a touring/recording band and only time will tell what this will lead to."

For more information about Nelson's touring schedule with Charissa and Country Cross, check out the band's website

Stacy Bengs-Silverberg

Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.

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