Here in the OTA states, we are busy people. Much like the rest of the world, we all have work and family and schedules to tend to. The day-to-day takes us away, and it can be taxing.
But unlike the rest of the world, we have a place to convene together and laugh about our day-to-day, relax and smile about it instead and reminisce about the happy nuances that make us who we are.
We have two people who draw us in with their wit and their charm, make us feel like friends and help us to forget about our chaos for just a while.
Here in South Dakota, we have Rock Garden Tour.
The Rock Garden Tour is a radio show on South Dakota Public Broadcasting that celebrates our Midwestern life with gardening banter and original music. The hosts are Flowerman and Oil can, but today, we call them Ted Heeren and Tom Hurlbert, respectively. They sing songs and play the banjo and tell stories about rural life. They’re a delight, and the show is a hoot.
So much so, that it’s hard for Ted and Tom to sit down and take it seriously for a few minutes.
“We’ve been doing this 10 years, and this is the most introspection we’ve ever had,” Tom says. “We never talk about it.”
“I’m always uncomfortable breaking character!” Ted admits.
He does his best.
“I’m impressed with Ted,” Tom says. “The fact is, we’ve been messing around with this thing for 10 years, and it’s because Ted just won’t let it die.”
“Survival mode!” Ted smiles. Even though they both have busy careers and big visions for those roles, Rock Garden Tour is just as fulfilling.
“Some people have bowling league. We have this radio show.”
“It’s our fraternity, it’s our legion club,” Tom says.
For the rest of us, it’s a little Midwest treat, and we appreciate this work more than they know.
Planting the seed
The idea for this radio show began 14 years ago, when Ted was still in college at South Dakota State University. He was interning at a local radio station, and they gave him a late-night spot for a couple of years.
“It was one of those ideas I just couldn’t shake,” Ted says. “The idea fringed on maybe dumb but good — those are the ones I like best. If you actually try to do the idea, then you get to figure out if it’s good or not.”
After college, Ted met Tom in Sioux Falls and, in 2005, they resurrected the radio show at Q95.7.
“They gave us Sunday nights at 10 o’clock, and we did it for 60 shows in a row,” Ted says.
They never missed a Sunday.
“We were relentless with it!” says Tom.
“We lucked out,” Ted says. “We had this nice little window of time to figure out our show and the act.”
After Q95.7 changed ownership, Rock Garden Tour eventually transitioned to South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where they still reside today. You can tune in the last Saturday of each month at 8 p.m.
“I think those shows early on were pretty hilarious,” Tom says.
“It was great!” says Ted. “Those 60 episodes were essential to the show. If we wouldn’t have had that time to figure it out, it wouldn’t be what it is today.”
These worker bees make a nice pear
Even though Ted prepares a script for each show, dialogue is pretty off-the-cuff.
“It’s got to feel genuine, and it’s got to feel honest,” Ted says. “We talk about the stuff we want to talk about. We tell the jokes that we think are funny. That’s what’s great about it,” Ted says. “We take it very seriously, but it is with perspective.”
It works for them, and they do well with introducing a statement or thought and then letting the audience decide how they want to feel about it.
“I don’t want to put the show in a position where we are trying to make up people’s minds,” Ted says. “That’s never been the rule of the show. It’s really just observations about what we think and not telling people how to feel.”
“It’s a touch of sarcasm where people aren’t sure,” Tom says. “I enjoy that kind of radio.”
Ted agrees and chimes in. “You can leave a bunch of stuff out! We introduce things, but we’re not going to give the audience a way out,” Ted says. “We’re going half way, and that’s where we stop. Right?”
“That’s when we’re successful,” Tom says.
The guys don’t know too much about who their audience is, but they’re always thinking about them.
“We love our studio shows, because you’re imagining your audience and you’re creating this world they are playing a role in,” Ted says. “So everything you’re doing, they are in on the joke. We’re all in on this together.”
They do host live shows once a month, and that gives them an opportunity to put a face to their fans, but it’s a different kind of energy.
“I think it’s a little bit of a buzzkill when they find out your name isn’t really Flowerman or this is what you look like. That’s what’s so great about radio …”
“It’s anonymous,” Tom finishes.
“I like the mystery, right?” Ted asks him.
They both nod in silence. They have great rapport, and they are perfect for each other.
Lettuce turnip the beet!
As light as the show feels, Rock Garden Tour is an evolving passion project, something Ted says he “can’t help but do.”
“Rock Garden Tour is always there. It’s always just one thought away.”
Even as a side project, their community is important to them and the history of our state is important to them, and gardening jokes help to build that platform.
“We both feel passionate about keeping small-town America alive and being who we are, which is not like everyone else,” Ted says. “There’s so much uniqueness here, and sometimes I feel like people are afraid to be as unique.”
But Ted says that’s what they respond to most: The little, surprising things here that make South Dakota special.
Whether they realize it, that’s what we as an audience respond to most as well. Besides, would any other state smile along to a song about Milbank or Mobridge or Petrified Gardens?
Rock Garden Tour is unique, too.
“Our show is about small-town culture, about connecting to the land,” Ted says. “It’s a gardening show, and what I love about gardening is that you literally connect to the land and you have to think about some of the stuff that rural farm people have to think about.
“It’s a place of connection. Oftentimes, I feel like that’s why we are talking about these things, because — on some level — we feel that they are important to us, as a people.”
Ted called that a tangent. But it sounded genuine to me.
“It’s pretty simple,” Tom says. “Life is short. Celebrate the things we have, and I think South Dakota is it. This show is just a tiny, little celebration of South Dakota.”
Tiny? Perhaps, but it’s perfect for us. As busy, small-town South Dakotans, it feels good to kick back and have some fun, and it feels good to be a part of something.
This may just be fun for Flowerman and Oil Can, but we’re going to keep tuning in anyway.
We’re proud of our region, too.