Guitarist Ike Sheldon and his bandmates in the four-piece Kansas City bluegrass/country/old-time band The Wilders have partied with Alaskans on numerous occasions.
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But they'll not soon forget a night gone fuzzy at Tacoma's Winterfest, where their Alaska bluegrass compatriots tried to drink them under the dobro, then went out on another beer run at 4 a.m. In retrospect, it seems like good practice for what may await them this month, as they sweep north for a 12-day tour of Alaska and the Yukon.
The Wilders, one of the hottest hillbilly bands in the country these days, play at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 13, for an Alaska Folk Festival benefit at Centennial Hall, between stops at the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Haines Junction and the Nome Midnight Sun Folk Fest.
"God help us when we get to Alaska," Sheldon said. "We're really excited, to tell the truth, but I think you guys are going to kill us."
Not likely. All four members - Sheldon (lead vocals and guitar), Betse Ellis (fiddle, vocals), Phil Wade (banjo, mandolin, dobro, vocals) and Nate Gawron (string bass and vocals) - know how to milk a sweet ballad. But their take on country, bluegrass and old-time is mostly informed by their love of rock.
"Kansas City will always be a metal town," Sheldon said. "You know when Krokus gets together they're headed here, because they know they can get the people. It's a hard-rocking city, and if you're going to play country music or going to play bluegrass, you better play it hard."
Who: The Wilders
When: 7:30 p.m. tuesday, june 13, fundraiser for the alaska folk festival
Where: centennial hall, all-ages.
Tuesday ticket prices: advance, $15 for adults, $10 for children and seniors, available at hearthside books, rainy day books and the observatory; door, $12 for children and seniors, $17 for adults.
also playing: 9 p.m. monday, june 12, the alaskan hotel & bar, 21 and over only.
For more: www.wilderscountry.com
The Wilders formed in 1996 out of the embers of a variety of noncountry projects.
Sheldon grew up in Phillipsburg, Mo., listening to Tom T. Hall, Faron Young, The Statler Brothers and Lynn Anderson. But he ended up in a lo-fi indie-pop band called The Young Johnny Carson Story.
That band played around Kansas City with Ellis and Wade's band, a hippie-fied, sitar-infused world music duo called The Dhurries. Wade grew up in Missouri watching Hee Haw and listening to country. Ellis was weaned on rock in Fayetteville, Ark., and studied classical violin at a conservatory in Kansas City.
The Young Johnny Carson Story and The Dhurries broke up at about the same time, as all three future Wilders were becoming more interested in country and bluegrass.
"We got the bug bad when we fell into it," Sheldon said. "We were pretty much obsessed with it. For me and Phil, it was returning to our roots. For Betse, it was a brand new thing. She sometimes says that when she grew up 'fiddle' was a dirty word."
All three began playing in 1996.
"At the beginning we really searching things out and looked at where this music came from, who were the first bands to do it in the '20s and '30s," Sheldon said. "It was really just to learn our chops. I didn't grow up in Appalachia and it's not 1930. Eventually we got more rock in the way we did things."
The catalyst was when Gawron joined the band seven years ago, bringing his aggressive bass style, his love of country and his great-uncle's German upright bass.
"At this point, I would say AC/DC and stuff like that has really influenced us more," Sheldon said. "People think we might be driving around the country listening to Bill Monroe on the CD player," he said. "Usually we're listening to Turbonegro or something like that. I guess we're more influenced by nonmusical elements like energy or attitute or that kind of thing."
"Throw Down," the band's sixth full-length CD, is the first to include original songs. Sheldon, Ellis, Wade and Gawron all wrote songs, mixed in with standards by Hank Williams ("The Blues Come Around"), Johnny Cash ("Belshazzar"), the Carter Brothers & Son ("Jenny on the Railroad"), John Hartford ("Squirrel Hunters") and Jack Irby ("Drivin' Nails in My Coffin.")
"We've all been songwriters for years, but we never thought it would quite fit in," Sheldon said. "We all have our own niche. Nate is honky-tonk songs. Phil write the most sad country weepers in the George Jones way. Betse writes all these new fiddle tunes, and I kind of write everything. Some of my tunes are pretty poppy until they get thrown into the Wilders machine."
Sheldon also took a spin at finishing Hank Williams' "Won't You Sometimes Think of Me," a 1947 demo that Williams scratched out on a tape recorder and abandoned. When Sheldon first played his finished version for his bandmates, they took it for a complete Williams original.
"It was totally intimidating," Sheldon said, of lending his voice to an all-time great. "I make a lot of jokes during our concerts about zombie Hank Williams might come out of his grave because he's pissed off.
"I'm realistic," he said. "There's a reason Hank Williams is Hank Williams and I'm Ike Sheldon. In a way, we have to work harder on the originals, because we really want them to not be a let-down."
Dirk Powell, a master of American traditional music and the son-in-law of legendary Cajun musician Dewey Balfa, produced the record after meeting the band at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York.
It was quite a change from their first record, for which they knocked out 28 tunes in four hours.
"There's nothing like singing a song you wrote or singing a song that your best friend wrote," Sheldon said. "There's a feeling that's different than playing a Hank Williams song or Lefty Frizell.
"My guess is the next record will be about the same mix," he said. "We really care about old country music. It's not like we're doing it because it's a fad. We love that stuff."