An Ode to Fiddle Camp

Jam (photo courtesy of Nicole Christianson)

All through September I kept having the feeling that summer couldn’t possibly be over yet.  There were a few things that didn’t happen; things that make summer feel complete.  This was the first time in the fourteen years that we’ve owned our skiff that we never launched it, which if you live in Homer just seems crazy.  We also never hosted a salmon/halibut barbeque with a campfire.  Incomplete as it may seem without those aspects of summer, the even bigger hole in the season comes from the fact that this year there was no Fiddle Camp.    And I really, really missed it.

In 2005 when I first attended Fiddle Camp I had taken a few Suzuki lessons and had picked out a few Irish tunes on my violin.  I knew I loved playing, but didn’t really have much direction, so on my first day of camp I signed up for an Irish fiddle class, a very basic bluegrass workshop and a “how to play in a band” workshop.  At the end of the day I was happy enough, I had been challenged and had plenty to work on, but then something happened that night.  I witnessed an old-time fiddle jam that changed everything.

It was music different than anything I’d ever witnessed.  Someone would call a tune and the whole group started to play.  Nobody soloed, nobody tried to outdo the next person; everyone just played the same tune together, for a long time. I noticed that after the first five or so times through a tune there was a shift in energy, it became almost meditative for the players, and the music seemed to take on a life of its own.  The melody of each tune stayed true throughout, but the driving force was the rhythm.  It’s difficult to for me to describe an old time jam, but the word “tribal” comes to mind whenever I try.

The next morning I rearranged my schedule to old-time fiddle 1, old-time fiddle 2, clawhammer banjo (even though I’d never held a banjo in my life) and Appalachian singing.  My teachers were Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus, so it’s safe to say I had a pretty amazing introduction to the genre.

I’ve been hooked on old-time music ever since. I play whenever I can; at home, with friends in town, and at festivals. But it’s not quite the same as being at camp.  Where else can I immerse myself in music for an entire week, share meals and stay up until all hours of the night with friends who share my passion?

And really it’s as much about the friends as it is about the music.  I’ve gotten used to seeing certain people every August and I missed them this year.  I missed singing hits from the eighties with Travis.  I missed hearing Eamon sing Irish ballads (and the Bee Gees) at two in the morning.  I missed Jay and Brian’s witty banter.   I missed everyone and the whole scene, especially the poignancy of Saturday night when nobody wants to go to bed because we all know it will be a whole year before we’re all together again.

Here’s hoping that Alaska Traditional Music Camp (Fiddle camp for short) will come together again someday.  My summer just wasn’t quite the same without it.  But even if it’s over, even if I have to get my music fix some other way in summers to come, I’m thankful to have been a part of it for the past five years.

Live from the Four-Corners Folk Festival

photo by Michael Pierce

First of all, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting for a festival.  Maybe Homer has vistas as beautiful as Pagosa Springs, Colorado, but I’m certain it couldn’t muster up blue skies and eighty degrees.  And if you think it sounds too hot, not to worry; the festival grounds are located in a Ponderosa pine forest.  Shade and sun abound.  Beyond the big, white, open-air tent that houses the stage, a panoramic view of the San Juan mountains acts as a frame for the entire scene.

Yesterday after setting up our tent we made our way to the meadow, spread out our blanket beneath one of those Ponderosas and enjoyed The Black Lillies, a country, rock, roots band out of Tennessee.  For the next band up we moved into the tent (skin was turning pink on this pale Alaskan girl) and gave Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen a listen.  Frank, an accomplished bluegrass and classical musician, has Alaska ties and in fact came to Homer for one of the Bearfoot Bluegrass camps that Dillon and Adella attended several years ago.   The last band of the night kinda blew my socks off. The Infamous Stringdusters, a six man string band, put more energy into their performance than seemed humanly possible.  They are young, they are cute and they rocked the house.  They managed to stick to traditional bluegrass, add an element of jam-band magic and throw out some phenomenal solos to create something modern sounding, and incredibly fun.  Thankfully they play a couple more times over the next couple of days.

Festival people know how to have a good time.  And they take their festival set-ups seriously.   I’ve seen a couple of camp arrangements that are more comfortable than my own home.  Marla and I in comparison feel like little orphan girls.  Our creature comforts include a back pack tent and a fleece blanket.  This morning while the camp next door was frying bacon on their triple-tiered fold up camp kitchen unit, underneath their twenty foot shade tent, while sitting at their picnic table on their deluxe camp chairs next to their pop-up camper, we  sat next to our rental car on a couple of rocks and ate our gluten-free sesame bars.  I’m not complaining though.  I’m happy to be here.

Most everyone here is friendly.  We met some folks from New Mexico who welcomed us into their fold for a while to enjoy their chairs and the heat from their campfire.  And they let us play a few old-time tunes with them as well.  We also met someone who went to Alaska Fiddle Camp a few years ago.  While we were chatting with him about Alaska two members from the band Hard Pressed out of Paonia, Colorado wandered past, turns out they were at last year’s Anchorage Folk Festival.

Most amazingly, the people here are strangely civilized.  Last night the whole place was silent by about 1:00 AM.  No fireworks, no loud parties, not even any music.  I can’t imagine it will be that way again tonight, but who knows?  Maybe Colorado people are more sane than Alaskans.  What the quiet night meant for me was a good night’s sleep.  I woke up well-rested and ready for another day of sun and phenomenal music.   On today’s schedule we’ve got more of the Infamous Stringdusters,  Crooked Still and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder.  Right now, at this very moment, I’m sipping my double-shot Americano on my blue fleece blanket, listening to Sweet Sunny South play old-time tunes.  There’s not a cloud in sight.

Saturated (part 2 of the Anderson Bluegrass Festival experience)

(See previous post for Part 1)

On Friday morning Jay sent us on our way armed with some amazing smoked salmon and a warning to watch out for the “knuckle draggers.”  It turns out he had taken his family to the Anderson Bluegrass Festival several years before and had almost been run over in his tent by someone who went for a middle-of-the night motorized excursion, after consuming much alcohol no doubt.  Jay and his family ended up leaving the festival early.  Sherry had also warned us about the festival, saying it was a wild one.  Maybe it was the alluring weather forecast that called for clear skies and temperatures in the 80’s, but after taking heed of the warnings of our friends we decided to give Anderson a shot anyhow.   We could handle knuckle draggers, or duck out early if we felt so inclined.

We stocked up on more groceries than three women could possibly consume over the span of three days and in order to have optimal awareness before the long drive north we stopped at the Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge for some drinking chocolate, (like we needed an excuse.)  I was looking forward to the drive with two of my favorite ladies, to listening to all the old-time music I liked (something my family doesn’t really appreciate) and getting north of the Alaska Range to where the summertime temperatures get well above what us coastal folks are accustomed to.

Honestly, our first impressions of the festival had us a little worried.  We didn’t feel like we fit in very well.  Not a one of us sports a tattoo or has piercings in unusual places.  We didn’t bring a keg or a hula hoop or a dog.  We drove around the grounds looking for a place to camp, feeling discouraged by our options until we spotted a group of people who looked a little like us.  They were about our age, clothed, and most importantly they were playing stringed instruments rather than a boom box.  We found out they were a bluegrass band from Anchorage called Bootleg Brown and they turned out to be great neighbors.  I think they appreciated us as well.  The group that camped beside them on the other side brought a pig, not the little pet pot-bellied sort, but more of a hog; the kind that would be in a 4-H display at a county fair.  We were the neighbors without the pig, which automatically made us more favorable I think.

After getting our camp put together we headed over to the main stage.  Peter, the birthday boy from the night before, was playing with the old-time string band Lost Dog from Fairbanks.  It was a stroke of luck to get there when we did because out of the hundreds of people at the festival they were the only other old-time musicians we ran across all weekend.  We took a close look to see who they were so we would know who to track down when we wanted to play tunes later in the evening.  Kate is a great friend and a ton of fun to travel with, but I also discovered an added bonus of going to music events with Kate; she knows and remembers the names of musicians from all around the state.  It turns out she recognized the band members of Lost Dog; fiddler Thomas Hart, banjo player Pete Bowers, Kim Blair on the mandolin and Ryan Bowers on the bass.

While watching Lost Dog on the main stage it hit me that I was as warm as I’d been all summer.   It was already late in the day, around 8:00 pm, and the sun was still high in the sky and beating down on my skin.  I haven’t spent much time in the interior of Alaska but at that moment I was a convinced there was no place on earth I’d rather be.  There were a few people in the crowd I could imagine slipping into “knuckle-dragger” mode later in the evening, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  For a while we were just a bunch of people reveling in the sunshine, happy to be away from the real world for a little while.

Saturated (part 1)

Sometimes a person reaches a saturation point.  The dampness of this coastal Alaskan summer was beginning to take its toll on my mood.  My imagination was stuck on replaying a scene that involved waking up in the morning and seeing blue sky and a yard that could be navigated without getting soaked.  I needed some sun and I wasn’t going to get it in Homer.  A field trip was in order, so my sister Marla and my friend Kate and I headed north, to the Anderson Bluegrass Festival.

There were no guarantees that the weather would be nice in Anderson, but whenever people gather to play music there is different kind of warmth that is created, a kind of heat that is a close second to that which comes from the sun, and I needed some of that as well.  Lucky for me the weekend did not disappoint on either front.

We left on Thursday afternoon and headed toward Anchorage to stay one night with our friends Jay and Sigrid, host and hostess extraordinaire.  They have an enviable way of making people feel right at home the moment you enter their presence (not just their home.)  Sigrid attended the play of one of her nieces that evening so we didn’t get to see much of her, but Jay whisked us away to a birthday party of a fellow musician and fiddle player, Peter.

Several friends that I’ve made over the past five years of attending Alaska Fiddle Camp were there, and it was great to get to see them, especially since there will be no camp this year.  After visiting for a while we found our way to the dining room that had been cleared out to make room for the purpose of playing music.  My brain was dull after the drive, and I could feel the beginnings of a headache (I should have known better than to substitute dinner with a mocha,) but thankfully my friend Sherry, another fiddle player, was there with her plethora of tunes, and between her and Peter and George, I enjoyed the luxury of just playing along without having to think too hard.  We played until just after midnight (in order to usher Peter into his 40’s) and ended the evening by passing around a gallon of raspberries that George had picked from his yard and given to Peter as a birthday gift.

It was raining again as we left the party but it didn’t really matter.  I felt content, and warm, and glad to be in Alaska among my friends.