Gleaning best of 20 years for CD

Love, God and an old truck inspire Juneau musicians

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

Paul and Melissa Zahasky have captured 20 years of musical collaboration with a new CD called "Master's Design."

The Zahaskys will be joined by a group of musicians for a twohour concert Thursday, April 4, at Chapel by the Lake to highlight music from the new CD.

Their partnership has created thousands of hours of music - and a family - over the past two decades. The couple cite an eclectic blend of influences - local violinist Linda Rosenthal and Lynard Skynard; bluegrass; praise music and Led Zeppelin.

A classically-rained violinist, Melissa also has jammed with plenty of old-time and folk musicians. Her delicate vibrato and clean, lilting lines can swing, rock and drive depending on the tune.

A colorful instrument rack carved and routed by Melissa's father dominates one wall in the living room of the Zahasky's North Douglas home, keeping their instruments close at hand. Their 4-year-daughter's 1/16th-size violin rested on a table.

Paul plays guitar and mandolin, and they both sing lead and harmony. Paul is an accomplished electric lead guitarist and also plays slide guitar, but rarely performs with the electric guitar. His mainstay is the acoustic guitar.

"We tend to put groups together for functions, a concert in the park or folk festival," Melissa said. "With three kids, it's easiest for us to just play here at home."

Paul grew up in the wooded, rolling hills of northwest Iowa, playing electric guitar in rock 'n' roll garage bands. Melissa grew up in Juneau, taking violin lessons from Rosenthal and Jeanette Seale.

Paul rolled into Juneau with an acoustic guitar in 1981. Melissa was in high school and had a summer job playing in a trio with a ragtime pianist and singer and guitarist Mary DeSmet, performing aboard cruise ships at port in Juneau. DeSmet introduced Paul to Melissa and the band became a quartet.

"Paul had to have been completely smitten with me because it wasn't his music at all," Melissa said.

They courted for two years. They moved from playing music for tourists to playing bluegrass, old-time and gospel, as well as precise instrumental duets. Paul worked as a lift operator at Eaglecrest Ski Area, skiing on his lunch breaks unless Melissa came up with her violin.

"We'd play music at the top lift station," she said.

They married in 1983. One song on the CD, "Be Still," dates back to that time, a psalm they arranged as a duet.

Their original songs range from "Blue Thunder," a rock tribute to a beloved old truck, and the blues-rock "I Ain't Suffered Enough to sing the Blues Blues," to a delicate fingerpicked guitar and violin arrangement of an eighth-century Irish poem, "Be Thou My Vision." The jazz classic "Minor Swing" and the fiddle-driven old-time instrumental "Bile Them Cabbages Down" showcase entirely different aspects of Melissa's playing.

"Most of the songs are about relationships," Paul said. "Family, friends, God, with music and with each other. The title track, 'Master's Design' is a song for Melissa, talking about our marriage and relationship."

Church has been a mainstay of their music as well. Their contemporary Christian and praise-music compositions have been sung by the congregation at churches they've attended.

"We're not afraid to express our spirituality with music," Melissa said.

The Zahasky's CD wasn't recorded as a commercial endeavor, but rather as a showcase of their best and favorite material. Paul said every year they tend to feature their best new songs at the Alaska Folk Festival. The folk festival records each set for the performers. He listened to every tape of every set they've played to help decide what to record on the CD.

"It's who we are," Melissa said. "We picked our most meaningful messages, with the best sound - and we played the best we could."

They spent two years on the project, working one or two evenings a week.

"There was a luxury to taking that much time," Melissa said. "We'd sit back and come back six months later with a different angle. 'Different Fields' is one song that turned out totally different."

The band for the concert will include most of the musicians who performed on the CD. Doug Badilla, a keyboardist and drummer, has played with the couple since 1987. Others include percussionist John Wahl, mandolinist Greg Berger, guitarist Ken Truitt and bassist Albert McDonnell, who also recorded the CD at his Juneau studio, Skatebottom Sound.

The concert begins at 7 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $10, and children are free.

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