If Buddy Tabor’s income as a musician was proportional to the number of people affected by his music, or the number of minds that hold pieces of his lyrics, he would easily be one of the wealthiest men in town.
Tabor, based in Juneau since the early 1960s, has written hundreds of songs and released nine albums, earning the enthusiastic devotion of fans in Alaska and beyond, as well as the enduring respect of his fellow musicians. Many Juneauites can quote Tabor’s lyrics at length; most balk at the restrictive idea of naming a favorite from amidst an overwhelming number of strong choices (see their comments here: http://juneauempire.com/art/2011-11-03/man-music#.TrK3lfSa_mU).
Tabor’s public appearances have been relatively infrequent over the years —in part because he doesn’t enjoy playing in crowded, noisy bars — but he’s been an Alaska Folk Festival staple for decades, and sometimes plays shows at Resurrection Lutheran Church. In years past he’s also played major venues like the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts, where he opened for Nancy Griffith. Even further afield, one of his songs, “Get Up Dogs” was featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, as well as in several documentaries.
Still, most have probably developed their connection to his music while listening to his albums in the privacy of their living rooms, or by hearing him play in someone else’s living room. The relationship to his music many of his fans describe reflects that direct, personal familiarity.
Chances to give back to someone who has given so much to so many through his music don’t often present themselves, but one will be offered this Sunday.
A fundraiser will be held at the JACC for Tabor, recently diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. In an interview Wednesday, Tabor, 63, said he is “just trying to buy some time with chemo.” Stage four refers to cancer that has spread from its source into other areas of the body. All proceeds from the fundraiser will go to help Tabor pay for medical care during his treatment. He plans to attend.
Sunday’s event isn’t set up as a tribute concert, it’s a blues concert and dance. Musical acts will include the once-prominent-now-rarely-seen Cook County Blues Band; this iteration features Adrian Minne, Clay Good, Steve Nelson and Justin Smith, in from Gustavus for the event. As fans of the band know, Cook County isn’t a traditional blues band, rather they use the blues as a foundation for more free-form, funk-infused music that tends to get a room moving pretty quickly.
Also performing will be Honky Honk Habit and Kari Groven and the Wristrockets — and there’s a rumor that the Bobb Family Band, also a former staple of the Juneau music scene, may have a reunion set in the works; so far its been confirmed that singer Jane Roodenburg is on her way to town.
Also on the docket for Sunday’s event: a silent and an outcry auction, featuring items such as a guitar, music lessons, Studio A studio recording time, artwork, desserts and more. Food will also be available on a donation basis, and a bar will be provided by the Rendezvous. A minimum donation of $10 is encouraged. The whole shebang gets started about 5 p.m. Sunday at the JACC.
Cook County Blues Band member Smith said he’s honored to play for Tabor’s fundraiser; he’s been a fan since he first came to Alaska in 1994.
“I’ve always loved his music, he’s one of my favorite song-writers, one of my favorite musicians,” Smith said. “To me he’s really one of the greats of our time. And he lives right here.”
Smith said one of the reasons Tabor is such a great songwriter is that it’s clear he’s spent a lot of time listening.
“He really has deep reverence for the roots of the music — and he listens,” Smith said. He does this without being a revivalist, Smith added, making whatever he writes his own, especially through his lyrics.
“He’s an amazing man, poet and thinker.”
Smith’s words were echoed by many other musicians and friends contacted for this article. Tabor is revered not only for his songwriting ability, but for his skill as a poet; in fact, fans once published an anthology of his lyrics to be read as poetry. Musicians he often cites as strong influences — Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt — share this emphasis.
In Tabor’s hands, the poetic may bear more resemblance to Bukowski than Wordsworth.
Albert McDonnell, who has recorded all nine of Tabor’s albums beginning with “Meadowlark” in 1995 and performed with him since the early ‘90s, said he aspires to be a songwriter like Tabor, someone who is able to look at life with his eyes wide open.
“He isn’t afraid to talk about serious subjects with his music,” McDonnell said. “When I think of people doing creative work, meaningful stuff to me doesn’t shy away from taking a hard look at the world. And he doesn’t shy away from that. He digs right in there. He is interested in what being human is all about.”
McDonnell said in many cases Tabor’s eyes have fallen on the downtrodden; social justice issues figure prominently in his work. He’s played numerous shows at Folsom Prison for the inmates there, once with McDonnell, who said the experience of watching Tabor interact with the other men, listen to them talk and share their music, was an “incredible experience.”
McDonnell said though many of Tabor’s songs show a rougher side of life, he isn’t limited to that kind of writing.
“He’s kind of famous for songs about people that are down and out... but alot of what he writes too is sweet and beautiful, talking about love. Maybe for him, music is an outlet and maybe a side of him that isn’t always apparent in his spoken interactions.”
Betsy Sims, who has also performed with Tabor for more than 20 years, said she wouldn’t go so far as to say Tabor’s canon includes “happy songs.” Perhaps four or five out of hundreds could earn that title.
“He always says happy songs make him depressed,” she said with a chuckle. “He has some that sound like they’re happy songs, but they’re not, really.”
Sims said one of the things she appreciates most about Tabor is his honestly, whether its expressed in his songs or simply in his everyday interactions.
“He really walks his talk. He’s very real,” she said.
Long-time friend and fellow musician Martha Scott agreed.
“His music is about the lives that people live. A lot of it is about the hard lives that people live. And he has lived a hard life himself. He’s never been shy to share that,” she said. “His music is not always easy, but it’s honest.”
For her, Tabor’s music and lyrics are an extension of the “true person” that he is.
“The most important part of the music and the lyrics is that, like a rainbow, there is a pot of gold,” Scott said. “The person that he is, that’s the jackpot for me.”
For more information about the fundraiser, contact Sims at 209-3202.