Just out of high school, relatively new to Fairbanks and his tape deck full of the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, Jeremy "JR" Kane was an 18-year-old banjo player, a transplant from Springfield, Ohio, when he first met bluegrass guitar player Carl Hoffman in 1996.
Hoffman had been in the state for more than two decades and was widely considered one of the pioneers in Alaska bluegrass. His band, Northern River, played every few months at Ivory Jack's Bar & Grill, in the hills on the outskirts of Fairbanks.
Kane and his crew of Ohio friends, the fledgling bluegrass band Clark County (Kane, banjo; Nathan Schwartz, guitar; George Gianakopoulos, bass), would watch.
"They used to sit there and watch every lick and try to learn the harmony singing and so forth," Hoffman said. "And the guys in the original Northern River band would help them and give them pointers and so forth."
Now almost a decade later, Kane, a ceramics professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, plays banjo in the almost-year-old Bluegrass 101 with Scott Burton, guitar; Brooke Munro, bass; and Andrew Heist, mandolin.
The band has been playing regularly for the last few months at Squires Rest in Auke Bay and The Island Pub in Douglas. Burton, Munro and Heist met and picked with Hoffman at this year's Alaska Folk Festival and also during the summer on a tour of the Interior bluegrass festivals.
northern river with bluegrass 101
the alaskan hotel and bar:
10 p.m.-close, friday and saturday, nov. 18-19
the island pub, douglas:
4-8 p.m. saturday and sunday, nov. 19-20
This weekend the band will bring down Hoffman and mandolin player Joe Page for a series of shows at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar and The Island Pub. Page, a folk fest regular since 1978, is a revered Interior player and an original member of Northern River.
"Folks like (banjo player) Gary Markley and mandolin player Kenny Snow, and Joe Page and Carl Hoffman, they're these big hitters; they're home-run hitters," Burton said. "We're coming up from the minors and they're letting us pick with them and sing with them. They're sort of passing down what they've been doing for years, and I think they enjoy seeing 20-somethings, 30-somethings taking up there kind of music."
"Carl brought bluegrass up here (to Alaska) and he's been up here ever since," Kane said. "He's in love with the state, and he's pretty much my biggest mentor ever as far as how to do things."
Hoffman, a New Jersey native, brought his band, a well-established East Coast trio called the Pine Hill Ramblers, to Fairbanks in 1973. Marty Cutler played banjo. Bob Applebaum played mandolin.
The group was hired to play the 20-odd construction camps up and down the length of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Many days, they'd play twice, once when a shift let out at midnight, again when a shift finished at noon. On occasion, the legend goes, they were paid in gold nuggets.
The tour wrapped up in 1975, and Hoffman stayed in Alaska while Applebaum and Cutler headed off on their own journeys. All three are still widely respected in the bluegrass world.
Hoffman kept plugging away in the Interior, touring and teaching bluegrass to anyone who showed the enthusiasm to learn. He inspired a second-wave of players throughout the state, who are now passing on the music to the next generation.
Bluegrass 101 falls in that third wave, and the band's connection started with Clark County's formative nights at Ivory Jack's. Soon, the band had a job playing one night a week at the Doghouse, a nightspot in Fairbanks. Fairbanks mandolin player Holland Sands had joined the band by then, and Danny Berberich played dobro. They asked Hoffman to play rhythm guitar. He also sang many of the lead and baritone parts.
"I was just kind of the old man in the group," said Hoffman, now in his early 60s. "They were just young kids out of school, so the main difference was the enthusiasm, which I appreciated."
"I won't take credit for teaching them much, rather than I think we kind of inspired them," he said. "They were just young up-and-coming musicians at the time. They became proficient at it because of their own ability. It was just their intense interest really. I would say that was the driving force."
One formative experience was in the spring of 1997, when Hoffman invited Kane to sit in with Northern River for a gig at Tok High School. It was such a big deal for Kane that his parents flew from Ohio to Fairbanks, rented a car and drove to Tok to watch.
"Carl said, 'Here's what you need to learn,' and he gave me all these songs on a list and made a tape for me," Kane said. "I was just sitting there listening to the tape and hearing the intricacies of the banjo thinking, 'How am I going to do this?' I learned more from getting that tape than I had in the past three years."
Hoffman might still be playing with Clark County, but Schwartz left the state to travel and Kane left for a residency-in-art at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Mont. Hoffman's latest band, No Time Flatt, includes Gianakopoulos, Clark County's original bass player, and Markley and Berberich.
Burton, an Oregon native who grew up listening to some of the great of West Coast bluegrass, and Heist, from Philadelphia, started to pick together in Juneau in 2002. They met after Heist's girlfriend, a waitress at the Fiddlehead, learned that Burton played guitar.
"We ran into him later on the street, the same day," Heist said. "I said, 'It's good to meet you. Let's have a drink at The Alaskan.' We got together and started playing music within a week or two."
Burton and Heist practiced a set list that included "Shady Grove" and "Wild Bill Jones" for weeks, until they were comfortable enough to play a 10-minute Thursday open mic slot at The Alaskan.
In June 2004, they had a major breakthrough. The northern Colorado five-piece bluegrass band Open Road played Centennial Hall and happened to wander into open mic at The Alaskan as Heist and Burton were halfway through a 10-minute set.
"It would be like Michael Jordan coming to watch you play basketball," Burton said. "They ended up coming on after us. So we opened for Open Road."
About a year ago, Munro, a SAIL/ORCA employee who met Burton a few years ago in Japan, started playing bass. The trio began picking regularly. That was shortly before Kane moved from Helena to Juneau to take a job as ceramics professor at the University of Alaska Southeast. The four of them met and quickly discovered they had a shared interest in bluegrass philosophy.
"They understand the importance of doing something right, and that's why I like playing with these guys," Kane said. "If we have a bad night, we know it, and we're calling the next day to say we're sorry."
The 2005 Alaska Folk Festival was the real turning point for the band. Under the name "Big Grass," they played the Centennial Hall main stage an hour before Jawbone, the headliner.
But also, Burton, Munro and Heist finally met Hoffman, the guy Kane had been raving about for months.
Hoffman was playing with No Time Flatt (Markley, Daniel Berberich, Schwartz, Gianakopoulos, Hoffman). And as is tradition, he had the "Carl Hoffman Suite" reserved upstairs at The Alaskan Hotel.
"He was one of the first guys to invite us into his room to pick with him and share our bluegrass with him, and I didn't get a funny look or one moment of feeling uncomfortable," Burton said.
Heist was invited to sit in on mandolin at the Imperial when Joe Page was unable to play.
"I had barely met Carl, and I was, not intimidated, but just aware of his presence," Heist said. "He would just, in the middle of the song, lean over and say, 'I really like how you chuck the mandolin' or 'That really sounds good, that was a good break.'"
This summer, the band traveled to many of the Interior festivals, places like Hope, Anderson and Hunter Creek. They jammed with Hoffman and many of the Interior musicians.
"I felt like it was a really nice process and we're really thankful to have met a lot of the Alaska music scene, which was really supportive and talented group of people and a lot of fun," Burton said.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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