Burl Sheldon teaches a guitar workshop during the Alaska Folk Festival on April 13, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

It’s late afternoon on Saturday at the Alaska Folk Festival and more than a dozen people are sitting in a small room at Juneau’s Centennial Hall. Most are holding guitars. It’s quiet, except for the occasional idle strum as people wait. 

Burl Sheldon teaches a guitar workshop during the Alaska Folk Festival on April 13, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Finally, Burl Sheldon strides in, sees the crowd and says “Yay!” He pulls out his own guitar and dives right into his workshop, “Blues Licks in E,” starting with the basics. A mix of young and old players, new and experienced, get a lesson in scales, building chords, the circle of fifths, and an admonition to “practice!” before they start playing a bluesy walk in time with his counting. 

A lot of great musicians have come through the folk festival and Sheldon — who has been attending for decades — wanted to learn something from them. 

“It was kind of frustrating…there are players that I’d like to take a lesson from or get a little pointer from,” he said in a later interview. “And they don’t do workshops.” 

So, for about the last decade, he’s made it a point to pass on a few of his own skills each year. This year, he helped students learn some basic blues and boogie-woogie licks.  

The weekend workshops are a key part of this 49-year-old festival, as are the hundreds of people who performed on the mainstage this year. 

Sheldon and his wife Nancy Berland were among them. The two played to a packed Centennial Hall on Friday evening. 

Top left: Nancy Berland and Burl Sheldon dancing together April 12. Middle: Berland watches Sheldon for cues as the two practice for their Alaska Folk Festival set. Top right: Berland adjusts Sheldon’s medallion before the two head onstage to perform. Bottom: Berland and Sheldon practice in a crowded hallway at Centennial Hall in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

With Berland on the violin and Sheldon on the guitar and singing, they ran through a set ranging from irreverent — a song about a woman placed a personal ad asking for the return of a spoon she lost at a potluck and another poking fun at snowbirds —  to bittersweet with Lefty Frizzell’s “I Do My Crying At Night,” to reverent with a song called “Roll River Free” dedicated to the people of Klukwan and their fight to protect their way of life and preserve the Chilkat River system.   

Sheldon and Berland were just one of the more than 130 acts scheduled to perform this year.  Folk festival board member Meghan Chambers told the Juneau Empire the event had over 170 applications. 

That means nearly a third of the acts that applied got waitlisted, something Sheldon thinks will keep happening as the festival gets more and more popular.

“It’s a very unusual festival. All of this amazing set up, even if there was a 10-year-old with their guitar for the first time — it’s all there for them. It’s an amateur performers festival… It’s really good for cultivating talent and interest in music and performing,” he said. “That means people who have been performers for years are going to put in their applications and find themselves waitlisted because we have to make room for new people.”  

Top left: Nora Zimmerly sings during her set with Ryan Irvin at the Alaska Folk Festival on April 8. Middle: Irvin watches Zimmerly as the two play during open mic night at the Pioneer Bar on April 5, in Haines. The two used the opportunity to practice their Alaska Folk Fest set. Top right: Zimmerly and Irvin practice before their mainstage set. Bottom: Zimmerly carries her banjo and guitar backstage. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Among the new people who played this year were Haines’ Nora Zimmerly and Ryan Irvin. Both are new to the folk fest stage.

The two had been playing in jams together with friends and then started playing open mic nights together at the Pioneer Bar. When Folk Fest performance applications opened, they applied“kind of assuming that maybe it wouldn’t work out,” Irvin said. 

But then they got a slot, so they started working on a set of originals — and one deep-cut Gillian Welch cover — in earnest. 

The two played under the name “Lame Dog,” a nod to Zimmerly’s dog, Chico, getting hurt on New Year’s Eve. 

“I was planning on going out,” Zimmerly said. “But something came up because I had a lame dog — lame in the sense of injured and needing attention but also lame as in like -— not cool.” 

A couple dances during the Lame Dog set at the Alaska Folk Festival on April 8, in Juneau. Haines musicians Nora Zimmerly and Ryan Irvin debuted the band on the folk festival main stage this year. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Her dog is fine, but the name stuck after Irvin impulsively put it on their application. They called their particular blend of banjo and guitar tunes “music for rusty cowfolk,” which fits.

“If you had to put it in a box, I guess it would just be folk, really,” Irvin said. “Bluegrass influence, but we’re definitely more on the folk end, I’d say.”  

They performed Monday evening and both said it was a positive experience in part because everything was well organized. 

The folk festival is run by an army of volunteers, from backstage runners to stage managers to sound crew and everyone in between. 

“You could tell they knew what they were doing and it was very respectful and seemed pretty dialed in which was good and also pretty cool for the first day of the event,” Zimmerly said. 

Zimmerly has been a performing musician for some time, but it has been awhile since she was on stage. Irvin is new to performing in front of people. 

“I was super thankful to have Nora [Zimmerly] there,” he said. Listening back to the recording of their set, he said he could tell he was nervous “because I kept saying stupid s***.”

But people seemed to enjoy it. Some came specifically to Centennial Hall on Monday night to see Zimmerly, who has played in Elfin Cove and Juneau before and has the reputation of being a good songwriter. 

“We didn’t get any negative feedback,” said Irvin. “Definitely sometimes with stuff you wonder if it’s just social pleasantries. But what was reassuring was random strangers coming up to say they liked our set over the next couple of days.” 

After their set, the two spent the week trying to see live music every day both on the main stage and shows at bars and performance spaces in downtown Juneau. 

Irvin said he enjoyed Taking Care of Bluegrass, a high-energy Juneau band that played to a packed crowd at the Red Dog Saloon and Zimmerly said she was excited to see the Muskeg Collective — a supergroup of Juneau songwriters that formed last year. 

A packed Red Dog Saloon for a Taking Care of Bluegrass show on April 11, during the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Both said they were surprised that everything is free. 

“It’s so amazingly accessible,” Zimmerly said. “It kept coming up over and over again, like ‘is this for real?’ If they’re at capacity, you might have to wait in line but, the bar shows are free, the gallery shows are free, the Centennial shows are free, the workshops are free. I just feel like in this day and age there’s just a paywall to so many things or things feel impossible because there’s not enough money. So it’s just amazing to see a free event like this be so successful for so long.”  

Irvin and Zimmerly said they’d like to come back in 2025 and Sheldon and Berland plan to do the same. The two make it a priority and have longtime friends they see every year at the festival. 

“I jokingly say it’s like Christmas and New Years all rolled up into one,” Berland said. 

Top left: Tony Tengs plays a set for the Alaska Folk Festival on April 14, in Juneau. Tengs used a guitar made for him by Haines luthier Rob Goldberg. Middle: Shannon Stevens and Rachel Saitzyk, of Haines, dance during a set of Cajun and Creole-inspired dance music on April 12. The two are part of a group of Haines residents who headed to the capitol city for the Alaska Folk Festival. Top right: Katie Henry shares a laugh with Tony Tengs as the two practice for Tengs’ set. Bottom: A group of Haines residents meet up during a show at The Imperial bar on April 11, in Juneau. For some, this was their first experience at the Alaska Folk Festival. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)