Bearfoot Bluegrass: A young old-time sound

Alaska band ends its 20-concert tour in Juneau

Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2002

By the time the five members of Bearfoot Bluegrass turn 21, they'll have two CDs under their belt and performances at scores of concerts and festivals across the American West.

The Bearfoot Bluegrass band takes the stage Friday in Juneau, wrapping up a 100-day tour of seven states. This is the second summer the Anchorage- and Cordova-based group has toured the West, and the members have learned more about the realities of being professional musicians than many players twice their age.

The five members, Kate Hamre, Jason Norris, Mike Mickelson, Angela Oudean and Annalisa Woodlee range in age from 17 to 20 and have been serious musicians since their early teens.

"They all got their start playing music pretty young," said Pete Mickelson, father of guitarist Mike Mickelson. "All the parents are musicians except for me."

The band members' parents have taken turns traveling with the band, making sure they eat, get up and get on the road on time.

Mandolin player Norris and bassist Hamre called last weekend from a hotel in Ukiah, Calif., to talk about the tour. The band was taking a break in California to record a second CD, working with Grammy Award-winning producer Todd Phillips.

Amid the cacophony of six people sharing a hotel room, practicing, changing strings and jockeying for space, Hamre talked about teaching bluegrass at music camps and life on the road. The temperature had just dropped from 111 to 97 degrees, and the band members have spent much of their off-time swimming.

"We're sitting in the car all day and there's not really time to take a hike," she said. "We've been camping a lot. Except for this hotel, I've probably slept on three beds and five couches."

The recording session has been a high point for her, and teaching has been especially rewarding.

Norris ducked into the bathroom where it was quieter and said the high point of the tour for him was playing with some of his favorite bluegrass musicians, recording artists he's admired for years.

"I got to play with Tony Trishka, Daryl Anger and Mike Marshall," he said. "And Todd Phillips for one, he used to play with David Grisman."

This summer Bearfoot Bluegrass played 20 concerts, three music festivals and taught at nine music camps from Utah and Colorado north to Alaska. The band is teaching a two-day bluegrass camp for youths this week in Juneau.

"We were doing one of our kids' music camps in Rocky Grass and two of Tony Trishka's kids attended," he said. "Mike taught one of Tony's kids to play banjo - and he (Trishka) is one of the best banjo players in the country."

Norris said it was ironic but not surprising.

"One of the main reasons for the music camps is kids have a lot more influence on kids than parents or other grownups," he said. "When kids see other kids playing bluegrass, older teen-agers playing bluegrass and they think bluegrass is cool. That's kind of what were all about, trying to influence our peers to play music."

Adults have been impressed with the band as well. Last year Bearfoot Bluegrass won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival's band competition.

The kids were introduced to musical instruments between the ages of 4 and 8. A few years ago Mike's mother, Belle Mickelson, started a week-long music camp in Cordova, which further encouraged the aspiring players' musical development. They began performing around age 13.

Hamre said her parents encouraged her to play but she never felt forced. She started on piano, played fiddle and then switched to bass.

"They pushed me to play, but it didn't matter what I played or how much. They just wanted me to keep it in my life," she said. "Some kids I know, not anybody in the band, had to play two or three hours a day on an instrument. My parents were never like that. A lot of us practice that much on our own."

Hamre will be a senior in high school in Anchorage this fall, and the rest are all college students. Norris will be studying automotive repair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"I've thought about professional music but on the side," he said.

Guitarist Woodlee is married and has moved from Anchorage to Portland, Ore., where she'll return for school. She's also released a CD of her own music. The band will include some of her music in the Juneau concert Friday.

"We've got a master list of about 50 tunes and basically we mix it up," Norris said. "Whatever we feel like playing that evening, we make a set list of 20 or 30 tunes. Angela has some almost bluesy sounding tunes and we do some jazzy David Grisman stuff."

Fiddler Oudean chased Norris out of the bathroom so she could shower and he finished his conversation outside the room.

"It's fun living together but it's also a pain," he said. "We stay friends. We all take everything everyone says with a grain of salt. Since we're all in the same situations together we all know what everyone's going through."

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