One of the best things about the Alaska Folk Festival, said longtime performer Mike Truax, is its consistency. The rules that defined it when he first got on stage — free to the public and open to all performers — still define it today.
“The beauty of the folk festival is that it hasn’t changed,” he said. “The board has kept with the basic tradition.”
Truax’s performance history with the Alaska Folk Festival dates back to year four, in 1978. At that time the festival was a three-night event at the Alaska State Museum featuring about 25 amateur performers and an audience of about 50.
“It was pretty much a chance for the closet musician to get up and perform in front of people,” he said. “Nobody was thinking they were going to do anything with music, as far as becoming a professional.”
Truax said though the festival hasn’t changed, it has evolved — in a good way. Today far more musicians are performing original material; some of them high-caliber professionals.
“It started off with people like me playing 99 percent covers, and now it’s evolved into a majority of singer-songwriters,” he said. “It’s really a wonderful thing.”
The 1978 Folk Festival was Truax’s second public appearance. The first was an event he describes as being the precursor to the festival, a series of folk concerts held at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium in the early 1970s, organized by Dan Hopson, “Uncle” Bob Pavitt and others.
“It’s my understanding that the seeds of the thought process of putting together an actual folk festival started with these concerts at the high school,” Truax said.
Truax performed in a 1975 concert at the high school, along with Michael “Sparky” Gray, John Palmes, Linda Buckley and John Jamieson, among others.
Then in his 20s, Truax was brand new to town. He arrived from Southern California at the invitation of a high school friend and immediately fell in love — first with the landscape and then with the community.
“The plane didn’t land before I knew I was here (to stay),” he said. “I came on a nice day, saw all the islands that you can see from the airplane, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
Not long after his arrival he fell in with a vibrant group of local folk musicians informally known as the Chicken Ridge Rowdies – Jamieson, Gray, Bob Banghart, Paul Disdier, June Hall and others — and immediately began playing music with them. He also formed a strong friendship with Buddy Tabor early on, and credits Tabor with helping him deal with his nervousness at performing in front of others. The atmosphere was one of encouragement and support, he said.
“I can’t hold a candle to Buddy Tabor, Pat Henry, Bob Banghart, Sparky Gray, none of those guys,” Truax said. “But there was no competition. They’d invite you into their living room to sit down and play with them.”
He favors covers of unusual, finely crafted songs he thinks his listeners might never have heard, with an emphasis on those that carry funny or thought-provoking lyrics. Steve Goodman, who wrote “City of New Orleans,” is a particular favorite, as is Tabor, an artist he really admires. This year he’ll be playing a song by an old friend, Mike Addington of New Mexico, who “pretty much taught me to play music,” Truax said. He’ll be joined on stage by Disdier and Banghart.
For an amateur musician, getting to play on stage in front of so many people is an incredible opportunity, he said.
“I‘m guessing there’s 500 to 1,000 people on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s packed. And you get a real stage experience. You’ve got lights, you’ve got a stage, you’ve got microphones — it’s something you’d never get to do.”
Truax said working toward a Folk Festival performance every year for more than three decades has kept him immersed in music in a way he likely would never have experirenced without the festival.
“It’s kept me going. I doubt I would still be playing guitar if I hadn’t gotten a chance to perform in front of other people,” he said.
In addition to his annual Folk Fest sets, Truax is a regular performer at Gold Street Music, a small-scale monthly concert series held part of the year at Resurrection Lutheran Church. He also gets together with a handful of musician friends every Friday back on Chicken Ridge at the home of Terry and Frederick Hoskinson, where he and others take turns playing songs.
Truax said he’s written exactly one song himself but that he’s happy with the level of musicianship he has achieved, and the place he has landed.
“It takes a lot of work to get really good and I’ve just never had that fantasy. I’m real happy with what I do, real happy. I get to play at the Folk Festival in front of 500 people!” he said with a laugh. “And this is a wonderful town. It’s fulfilled every dream I’ve had to live here — and I’ll die here. This is absolutely home.”
Michael Truax will perform as Boldly Going Nowhere at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at Centennial Hall.