When Bluegrass 101 in Alaska got an e-mail from Bluegrass 101 in Kentucky asking if the group would mind changing its name, the Alaskans politely answered, "No problem," and came up with a new one - a bigger and better one.
The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band performed its first show under its new name on March 14 and 15 at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.
"It's really the great state of Alaska, is what it is," member Jeremy "Junior" Kane said about the new name. "It's a little sarcastic, but at the same time we feel like we're living up to that, and that's what we're trying to do."
The group features Kane on banjo, Scott Burton on guitar, Brooke Munro on upright bass, Andrew Heist on mandolin and Joe Baxter on fiddle.
As Bluegrass 101, they played all over Alaska, including the Southeast Alaska State Fair, Tanana Valley State Fair and various bluegrass festivals throughout the greater Northwest. Last year, they performed at the Wintergrass Festival in Tacoma, Wash. Locally, they've played at Squires Rest, the Sandbar, Alaskan Hotel & Bar, Rendezvous, The Island Pub, Mount Roberts Tramway and the Alaska Folk Festival.
Burton said the name change hasn't done too much to alter the band's style, but has been a motivator to work on individual skills and take the music to another level.
"It's a never-ending journey. You're always learning, and you're always making it better," he said.
"I think the number one thing for a bluegrass band is harmonies and harmony singing. You can have the hottest pickers in the world, but if you don't have good harmony singing, then you really are not much of a bluegrass band," Burton said.
The group sings traditional three-part harmony with a baritone line, but also sings in the "brother duet" style - two-part harmony with a lead and a high tenor.
Keeping the music fast-paced and energetic, but polished and professional, is a priority for the band, Kane said.
"Essentially, there's a type of bluegrass that is considered rowdy and fast paced and more based on showmanship and the old tradition than a polished sound that a lot of people try to achieve nowadays," he said.
"It's a matter of polishing it, but not sharpening so much that you take the edge off of it. We still want the music to be fairly abrasive," Kane said.
The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band is working on a CD of original and traditional music.
"I think we're really lucky to have a community like Juneau to play in," Burton said. "We're lucky to be living in a place with so few people, but so much support."
Kane said it's OK to bring an end to Bluegrass 101.
"We've been a serious, practicing band for two and a half years, working out the kinks, and now we are changing the name," he said. "In a weird way it's a little bit of a new start for us."
Teri Tibbett is a writer and musician living in Juneau. She can be reached at www.tibbett.com.
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