Watching Maridon Boario thump on her stand-up bass in a Juneau bar, complementing the Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band's tight bluegrass harmonies with a light soprano, it's hard to believe that she's not from southwest Virginia's blue hills.
Hard to believe, perhaps, that she's also a lyric opera soprano who has sung roles such as Hansel in Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" and Lady Guinevere in Lerner and Lowe's "Camelot."
But the Alaska Folk Festival president's musical talents and tastes are diverse, fitting for an event that draws performers of many backgrounds, skill levels and genres.
Boario was born in Pittsburgh, but her family moved to Alaska when she was 4. Music always has been a part of her life, she says. Her grandmother sang opera; her uncle played bluegrass. Her exposure to music while growing up in Yakutat, Wrangell and Sand Point on the Aleutian chain, was diverse and yet limited.
"Growing up in Bush Alaska, if there was a radio station, you listened to the radio," she said.
At Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, Boario majored in political science, studying classical voice on the side and unwinding by playing shaky Joni Mitchell covers on her guitar, but not in front of an audience.
After college she lived in Homer for a while, but something drew her to Juneau.
With no job lined up but the promise of a couch to crash on, she arrived on the ferry almost 11 years ago. Working nights as a cocktail waitress at The Alaskan Hotel and Bar and days at Heritage Coffee Co., she began to build a life in this town.
She bought an electric bass and learned how to play it, performing in a short-lived girl band called The Manholes that played the folk festival years ago.
Friend Martha Stracener, a fellow folk festival board member and former Manhole guitarist, remembers doing a bluegrass version of the Meat Puppets' "Coming Down."
"We knew how to play four songs and we played 'em all at the folk fest and then we disbanded," she said.
When Boario came on the Juneau music scene, there were fewer women playing than there are today, Stracener said.
"Maridon is just an incredible musician with a great voice and has an ability to just pick up any tune anytime. She really influenced a lot of other women to play music," Stracener said.
And, she continued in her own musical journey, meeting her husband, Sean Tracey, a former skateboarder and punk rock enthusiast who plays harmonica for Crabgrass and hosts a weekly radio show that he crams full of bluegrass and old-time country music.
Boario began singing with Crabgrass part time several years ago.
"I wormed my way in; they couldn't get rid of me," she said.
When the group's former bassist couldn't come on a tour, Boario stood in and acquired the job permanently. Thus officially inducted into Juneau's music scene, it may only have been a matter of time before she assumed the presidency of the folk festival board.
"I've been going to it since I lived here, and I've always known people on the board. I volunteered a couple of times, passing out programs," she said.
Now in the second year of her three-year presidential term, the event nearly has taken over her life, she said, pointing to bags full of festival-related papers strewn around her cluttered but cozy living room.
But the stresses of organizing the festival that starts tonight - finding a headline artist, accepting and sorting more than a hundred performer applications, printing posters and programs, lining up venues and times - are all worth it in the end, Boario said.
"It's just a huge awesome spring party. Everyone gets 15 minutes. You can be a professional or you can be a living-room picker and you get equal time," she said. "It's pretty rewarding when you get to that week. You think, 'Wow, we really got this together.' "
Her involvement in the festival is remarkable, too, given the stresses of Boario's "real" job: staff assistant to state Sen. Gretchen Guess, an Anchorage Democrat. Politics is Boario's other love, and it shows when she talks about it.
"I just love Alaska politics. It's just a young state and the everyday person can make a difference and be passionate. It's still that frontier feeling that anybody could, if they want to, make a difference," she said.
Boario, who ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Juneau Assembly in 2000, says she feels strongly that politics is in her future, though she doesn't know when. She does know where, though, proudly pointing out that her residency in Alaska will soon reach the 30-year mark.
"I can officially call myself an Alaskan after 30 years," she said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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