Buddy Tabor

Juneau's dean of songwriting to perform tunes from his latest CD

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

Be it a fiery plane crash, loss of limb or the simple agony of lonesomeness, there's not much Buddy Tabor can't lay out in the poetry, put to the lilting rhythm of guitar and anoint with mandolin, harmonica and fiddle.

"Most people cover up the world. In my music I like to take it and look right at it," he said. "Happy songs depress me."

Tabor will release his most recent CD, a melancholy album called "Earth & the Sky," at a concert with musicians John Hartle, Albert McDonnell, Tony Tengs, Mike Truax, Sean Tracy, Jim Stey and Martha Scott Stey at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at McPhetres Hall, at Fourth and Gold streets downtown.

A long-haired, Levi's-wearing house painter by trade, Tabor has been living in Juneau since the late 1960s and likes to tell people about how he hitchhiked to Alaska from the East Coast when he was 19. He's been playing guitar since high school, when he began his life-long study of the nostalgic love songs and political anthems of Bob Dylan.

Buddy Tabor

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•"Cannery Lights" (cassette, early 1990s)

• "Meadow Lark" (1996)

• "Writing on Stone" (1997)

• "Blinding Flash of Light" (1999)

•"Abandoned Cars and Broken Hearts" (2000)

• "Earth & the Sky" (2003)

"I didn't ever read any poetry, just listened to a lot of Dylan records," he said.

Over the past 30 years Tabor's employed himself as a pipeline worker, bus driver, carpenter, cannery worker and trucker. The constant over that time has been his poetry and music. He plays guitar with skill, writes lyrics as lonely as a moonlit canyon, and sings with a cigarette-worn voice rougher than a carpenter's hands. Asked how to describe himself, Tabor says he is a "lyrical songwriter with a poetic influence."

Tabor recorded his first songs on cassette in the early 1980s, and has slowly developed a reputation as a chain-smoking, cowboy-talking, perfectionist dean of Juneau's folk scene. "Earth & the Sky" is his fifth full-length album.

"Earth & the Sky" is a 13-track compilation of whiskey-drunk Tom Waits ballads and red-desert afternoon lullabies that echo with Dylan-esque images and phrasing. The album features local talent of Sean Tracy, Maridon Boario, Albert McDonell, Shoshannah Seligman, Frank Solivan, John Knight and Dale McFarlin.

"Earth & the Sky" runs along an existential theme, and many tracks are dedicated to people Tabor knows or has read about who either died or nearly died - a local poet who was crippled in a motorcycle accident, a friend whose son was killed in a car wreck, Tod Beamer who perished in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.

"Life don't last very long," said Tabor, reclining in his chair during a recent interview, wearing a shirt patterned with cowboys riding bucking steeds. "It goes pretty quick."

In September, Tabor was asked to open for country music sensation Nancy Griffith at the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts. It was the biggest concert he'd ever played.

"I looked out there and there were 2,000 people," Tabor said. "It was like Carnegie Hall."

In a review of the event, the Anchorage Daily News said Tabor played "like the hiking boots he wore: big, loose, the laces untied." Tabor was never introduced to Griffith but he struck up a conversation with her back stage about a cruise tour she was taking to Juneau.

"I thought it would be better than just standing there staring at her," he said, noting that he doesn't really like her music and found her unfriendly. "She wasn't very approachable."

"Earth & the Sky" is dedicated to American Indian poet Adrian C. Louis, who writes about life and politics in the Southwest. Tabor calls him "a cross between (Jack) Kerouac and (Allen) Ginsberg." Two songs on the album, "Black Crow Night" and "Miles to Go" are lifted from Louis' poems.

Over the last few years, Tabor has developed a friendship with Louis that started when Tabor first read his poetry, called him and left a message, quoting Dylan. Louis called him back. Tabor then put one of Louis' poems to music and sent it to him.

"He loved it. I asked him if I could have permission to use it. He said, 'yeah,' " Tabor recalled.

It is not uncommon for Tabor to break into his own poetry or Dylan lyrics in the course of normal conversation. Sometimes poetry is the only way to explain things, he said.

"While calypso singers laugh at them, fishermen hold flowers, between the windows of the sea where the lovely mermaids flow," Tabor recited the quote he left on Louis' machine, trailing off now and then as he recalled the words. "And no one has to think too much on desolation row."

Tabor has maintained a following in Juneau by playing infrequently while generating new material constantly. He also prefers to stay out of the bars, in part to avoid alcohol, in part because he hates to be ignored.

"I don't mind if people don't like me. I don't mind if people leave. But I hate when they just stand there and talk over me," he said. "You talk, I walk, that's my motto. I don't do background music. With my music you have to hear the words."

Making CDs is expensive and time-consuming, and Tabor said he doesn't want to do it again. Considering he has said the same thing for the last two albums, the statement is likely more about current financial debt than actual future plans.

"If you buy this one, I promise not make another one," Tabor said, then paused, letting his face stretch into a genial grin. "But, I guess I said that last time."

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