Local, live music on the rise
Live music is on the upswing in Haines. You can hear it at weddings, at the assisted living center, and between the rows of books at the public library. And more than ever in recent memory, it’s playing in local bars, year-round.
Groups of local musicians performing here include Divine Funk, The PBRs, The Irish Lords, Swing Set, The Fishpickers, The Pimentos, Sweet Sunny North, The Hi-De-Hos and a loose jam session sometimes called the “The HAL Band.”
That doesn’t include local choral groups Men of Note and Haines Women’s A Capella Choir, solo musicians, or youth and church groups.
The numbers are a big increase from about 25 years ago, when patrons at the Harbor Bar danced until sunrise to cassette tapes of popular music recorded by deejays at public radio station KHNS. Musicians say there’s been a renaissance of live music that started here in the early 1990s and now may now be creating its own momentum.
For Christy Tengs Fowler, a musician and songwriter who grew up in Haines and bills acts to play at her Pioneer Bar, the change is welcome. “It’s fantastic. I’m thrilled. Now we have a variety of music to choose from when we’re booking bands. It’s great for our customers,” she said.
Tengs Fowler said live music was a staple when she was a waitress at the Pioneer during the halcyon days of the logging industry in the mid-1970s. The bar business was brisk enough that for much of the week, the place needed two bartenders.
But the mid-1980s brought the downturn of the logging industry and a statewide recession caused by plummeting oil prices. Local tourism and real estate industries were only in their infancy. The live music scene all but evaporated.
Mechanic and plumber Gene Kennedy kept an ember of it alive with jam sessions at his Mud Bay homestead. A fiddler, Kennedy was living in a school bus in the early 1980s, working long days and spending his free time clearing brush on his property near Chilkat State Park. Fishermen he befriended at the nearby Haines Packing cannery would come over on Thursday nights with their instruments when Kennedy was burning brush.
“We’d touch off the sticks I’d piled up during the week and play music. I have a sign out there that says ‘Work like Helen B. Murray.’ That kind of summarized the spirit of those days,” he said.
Kennedy’s weekly jam sessions became an enduring tradition and were about all the live music that was happening in 1989, said Eric Holle, who moved here that year. “Maybe there was a rock-n-roll band, but I don’t remember hearing anything. There were some enclaves of folk singers and Thursday nights at Kennedy’s was kind of the scene.”
Holle, a professional musician, had played in Lower 48 bands that had the likes of Tom Waits and John Prine as opening acts. Tapping into schooled musicians including clarinetist Guy Hoffman and trombonist John Hunt, he assembled “Lunchmeat and the Pimentos,” a Dixieland swing band that started playing local bars and events like the Haines Chamber of Commerce banquet.
The arrival of musicians like Holle, Hunt and guitarist Steve Ritzinger – who can switch genres and sit in with a variety of acts – made a big difference in the local scene by broadening the sound and range of music here, said Greg Horner, a lifetime musician and longtime resident who started performing with two local bands about a year ago.
“There’s always been a big acoustic thing in town. What’s different now is the bar band thing and the electric music. The Swing Set and the PBRs are a big part of that. (Hunt) is a big part of it,” Horner said. “He’s real versatile and can play with different groups.”
Holle said one of the side benefits of live performances is they’ve encouraged some former or casual musicians to dust off their instruments or try playing in public. “Listening to live music makes people who are shy or reticent more willing to kind of hang it out there in public. They say, ‘Hey, I could do that.’”
Some aspiring performers have been showing up at Haines Assisted Living on Monday nights, where they mix with seasoned musicians to play pop hits for residents. “If you’re not ready to hang it out on stage, you can cut your teeth at HAL. You build your confidence in a place like that, then you take it to the next level, to the (state) fair or the square dance at the ANB Hall,” Holle said.
Holle also cites recent performances by Skagway bands that have helped “cross-pollinate” music here.
When Julia Scott arrived in town in 2009, she hadn’t performed in public since singing in church and school choirs. She was living next door to musician and former Mayor Fred Shields, who played at his house in a basement band of friends.
Recognizing Scott’s singing potential was being eclipsed by her shyness, roommate Kelly Mitchell dragged her over to Shields’ house and made her sing. Scott has since fronted for several local bands and has produced an album, “Coming in Hot,” that’s due out this summer. She spent six months last winter in Washington getting voice lessons from Michael Trimble, an internationally renowned tenor. She’s now investigating music as a career and will be taking classes in a few weeks under recording artist Livingston Taylor.
“I’m glad other people got me involved. If I hadn’t come to Haines, I don’t think any of this would have happened. People here were very encouraging and accepting,” Scott said.
Holle said the range of music being played now is a benefit to musicians seeking exposure, and for ones wanting to learn. “As a musician, if you’re good enough to be in a band, there are more options to fit into. Also, there may be only one band that may be appropriate for an event, so there’s not competition (among bands). In places like Nashville and Austin, bands pay to play, just to be heard.
“Part of being a musician is listening to music. In fact, it may be the biggest part. Hearing other musicians play and hearing what they have to say is great, and it can be inspiring,” Holle said.
Guitarist Tom Heywood arrived here in 1994 and has served as Haines Arts Council president for more than a decade, booking traveling acts for local shows.
Heywood describes the local music scene as “a real culture of creativity that’s feeding off itself” and spinning off blends of rock, jazz, blues and folk music.
Some of that culture is coming from young people, including ones learning music in local churches, Heywood said. “There’s some quite sophisticated music being made in churches here. That’s another significant part of the music scene, but unless you’re in the churches, you don’t see it.”
Heywood said other factors may be the “do-it-yourself” attitude Alaskans tend to bring to endeavors and a growing number of “empty nest” households, where baby boomer parents are looking to express themselves and picking up where their music hobbies may have stopped or stalled during child-rearing.
Trombonist Hunt noted that several members of The PBRs were high school students when The Pimentos were getting going. “Maybe they saw how much fun we were having and wanted to have the same fun. They saw how easy it is to become a millionaire, or at least a thousandaire.”
Bar owner Tengs Fowler said the growth of live music is similar to how the town attracted growing numbers of artists in recent decades. “Artists attract other artists. Musicians attract musicians. They want to be with their tribe and there’s a good tribe here now.”
Tengs Fowler, who lives above her bar, said she sometimes stays up late at night working on her business’ books, listening to the music downstairs. “Because I come from a musical family, it feels so much like home when we’ve got music coming out of the place.”
Gene Kennedy, now a caller at local barn dances, said he’s not surprised the live music scene is much bigger than the crowd around his campfire.
“Playing music is so much fun. It’s like taking a drug, a good drug. It makes you feel good. The more people who know that, the happier the world is,” Kennedy said.