Alaska band stokes Appalachia tradition

Musicians holding instruments stand on hood of truck
Photo courtesy of the Great Alaska Bluegrass Band, The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band, with Brooke Munro (left) Scott Burton, Andrew Heist and Jeremy “Junior” Kane, celebrated the release of their new album, Semi-Bluegrass, at The Alaskan Bar in Juneau.

Think hard-driving rhythms, fast-paced improvisations, and high-pitched vocals that wind up and down the melody like an inquisitive strand of kudzu.

by Amy Condra

This article was originally published in The Juneau Empire

There is something brave about bluegrass, about the honesty of a group of musicians who stand up on a stage, before a crowd, with nothing but their instruments and a story to tell.

And when it’s done right, a good bluegrass tune will make your pulse quicken and your blood rise up; it’ll be like a ride down a wild, rushing, twisting river.

What makes bluegrass different from, say, a standard country song?

Think hard-driving rhythms, fast-paced improvisations, and high-pitched vocals that wind up and down the melody like an inquisitive strand of kudzu.

“People ask me, does it have to be so fast? Well it does for us to get the point across that we’re bluegrass music,” said Jeremy “Junior” Kane, vocalist and banjo-player for The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band (TGABB). “Without the high tenor, the mandolin, the banjo, then it’s bluegrass style… but it’s not bluegrass.”

And traditional bluegrass, the way it was played back when it began, is what TGABB wants to epitomize, says Kane.

TGABB, which also includes Andrew Heist on mandolin, Brooke Munro on upright bass and Scott Burton on guitar, recently recorded their first album, “Semi-Bluegrass.”

They’ll be celebrating the release of the CD this Saturday night at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.

“‘Semi-Bluegrass’ has been in the making for a long time,” Heist said. “We were all waiting until things got tight enough to make something that we could really be proud of… it’s really exciting.”

Heist, who started off playing the electric guitar in a rock band, gradually shifted his skills to the acoustic guitar before moving on to the mandolin, an instrument he had inherited from his great-grandfather.

“Bluegrass was the first real high-energy acoustic music that I heard, and I was hooked,” Heist said. “I loved the bluesy sounds of Bill Monroe’s mandolin and the intense drive of Earl Scruggs’ banjo… learning to sing three-part harmonies and to play instrumental breaks and to improvise on the mandolin was addictive.”

“In other types of music I felt like I was just playing along, whereas with bluegrass I really felt like I was a part of a living tradition,” he added.

That tradition began and evolved with musicians such as Monroe, Scruggs, guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Ralph Stanley, all of whom were born in the Appalachian South.

Bluegrass musicians took the old-time mountain music of the region and added influences from gospel tunes, work songs and blues music, taking traditional acoustic instruments past their former limits and adding distinctive vocal harmonies.

Back in the 1950s, Lester Flatt told NBC journalist Frank McGee, “The banjo is the lead or background in all of our numbers; if you notice, we have no electric instruments whatsoever in the outfit. And that’s what we call bluegrass.”

Earl Scruggs added, “The fifth string is plucked with the thumb, the rest of the strings are plucked with these two fingers… it’s as simple as this!”

But when you see the rapid, intense, heavily syncopated style of bluegrass players, “simple” probably isn’t a word that comes to mind.

“If you can’t play music to the fast pace of bluegrass, it’s very evident that you’re not proficient,” Kane said. “We run speed drills, or play for an hour straight, to keep our proficiency up.”

In other types of music I felt like I was just playing along, whereas with bluegrass I really felt like I was a part of a living tradition.

Andrew Heist

The band is committed to practicing and playing regularly, despite the members’ day jobs: Kane is a ceramics professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, Munro is a middle school teacher, Burton is a graduate student and works with Discovery Southeast and Heist works for Allen Marine Tours.

It all began when Heist met Munro and Burton in 2003.

“It was one of those things like, ‘This is Scott, he plays guitar. You should hang out,’” said Heist. “It actually worked. Scott had a bunch of tunes he knew from the songs of Utah Phillips, and I started trying to sing harmony parts with him. After a couple years playing together, we had a good bunch of tunes worked out and were both wishing we had a banjo picker to bring into the group.”

“We went to the Alaskan Bar one Sunday when there was an old-time jam there, and Junior walked in,” Heist said. “He brought out his banjo and hijacked the jam with some driving bluegrass banjo, and everything else fell into place. Brooke bought a bass and learned how to play it pretty quickly, and we were gigging within a few months.”

Kane, who had played in Fairbanks-based bluegrass band Clark County before moving to Juneau, says that touring around Alaska evokes what he thinks it was like for the first bluegrass musicians in Appalachia.

“You drive around, and there’s not much money involved, you’re playing in little tiny country bars in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “In a way, it’s the closest thing to being back in 1950! You’re playing by fires, gone for days at a time, and trying to get back home.”

When asked about the expansion of bluegrass from the rural South to the far North, both Kane and Heist bring up Carl Hoffman, a musician who brought his band, the Pine Hill Ramblers, to Fairbanks more than 35 years ago.

“Carl Hoffman basically introduced bluegrass to the state in the days of pipeline construction,” said Heist. “He has taught so many people here, including Jeremy, how to play and sing bluegrass.”

“Carl has amazing stories — when he was on the East Coast he booked bluegrass bands like Monroe and Stanley,” said Kane, who considers Hoffman a mentor. “Then he gets here and is a very well-regarded musician, bluegrass player and guitar trader.”

What about the band’s self-proclamation as The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band?

“That’s not a cocky thing,” said Kane, who says that the band was called Bluegrass 101 until they found out that another band down south had the same name. “It’s respect for the state, for the music. And we think it’s kind of funny, because there’s a ‘Great Alaskan’ everything. So we kind of go with thinking OK, so we’ll have a ‘Great Alaskan Bluegrass Band!’”

And Alaskan audiences have treated the band well, says Heist.

“Juneau is a great town in which to be a musician,” he said. “There are great venues that welcome live music, and never a shortage of excited people out to have some fun. And I’ve been blown away by the number and exceptional talent of musicians in this state — there is a huge community of musicians that all feed and nurture each other, and when I became part of that community, I instantly had friends and family in all corners of Alaska.”