This weekend will witness the end of one of the state's longest running summer music festivals and the beginning of a new one.
The Talkeetna Bluegrass Music Festival is coming to a close after 30 years. "Many kids have grown up going to this festival and (are) now bringing their kids," said event promoter and musician Lulu Small. She said that "Dirty" Ernie Wheatley, who runs the festival and owns the land on which it takes place, grew tired of dealing with permits required by Mat-Su Borough.
"I personally don't want to take this crap over either," she added with a laugh.
In previous years, Wheatley was able to skirt some permit costs with a business license for an RV and camping facility -- pay to camp and the music is free. The permitting, bonding and licensing cost have grown considerably, Small said. "It's almost as if we're running the state fair."
She thought the extra attention the Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival attracted this year played a part in the Talkeetna festival's difficulties. Trapper Creek organizers managed to avoid added costs by capping attendance at 500 people, but the Talkeetna organizers didn't see that as a viable option.
"We have a property and a festival that can accommodate three or four thousand people," Small said. They're not planning to start turning people away now.
While the three-day concert won't be returning, the festival's longevity made it something of a summertime institution and set the template for many of the newer outdoor concerts that sprout each year throughout the state. The Talkeetna one also garnered fierce devotion.
In 1997, 18-year-old Thorton Cope, known as T.C., lived in Seward where he was treated for advanced cancer. He convinced his doctor to train a friend to administer his medicine so the two of them could take a road trip to Talkeetna. T.C. passed away at the festival.
Last month, Talkeetna Bluegrass staple Donald "Doc" Schultz passed away in his sleep at the age of 71 from heart complications. Small figured she and Doc played more sets at the festival than anyone. The final set on Sunday is traditionally a jam session featuring all the weekend's players, and this year that set will end with a rendition of "Amazing Grace" dedicated to Schultz.
Though a somber mood might color this year's fest, it's still a party. Among the more than 30 artists performing (out of the hundreds who requested to play) are Small and her band the Aquanets, Winterland, Gary Sloan, Fluidhead, Sourdough Biscuits, Dale Gillespie Band, Matt Hammer, Wild Cat Trio, T. Harvey Combo and many more.
"You add the word bluegrass to any music festival in the state of Alaska, and people are going to show up. You can thank Dirty Ernie for doing that," Small said. "Thirty years ago we were the only game in the state. Now it seems like every weekend there's a new music festival."
One of those new festivals is Salmonstock, a three-day event on the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik. It's touted as a celebration of one of Alaska's most vital natural resources.
"Everyone in Alaska is connected to salmon somehow," said Melissa Heuer, program director for the Renewable Resources Foundation, which organized the event. "Our local musicians are really in favor of supporting salmon, so I guess that's really what spawned it," she said.
The foundation's executive director, Anders Gustafson, said the festival has been in the works for a couple years. "We wanted to put opposition to the Pebble Mine in a positive light," he said, referring to the controversial mining proposal in Southwest Alaska.
When asked about potential competition with the Talkeetna Bluegrass Festival, Gustafson said that was never their intention, but there were only so many weekends available at the fairground.
Salmonstock is also very different in both style and geography, he said.
The lineup runs the gamut of roots rock, indie, reggae, folk and jam bands. Aside from the many locals (Pamyua, Melissa Mitchell, Big Fat Buddha, The Whipsaws, Wolf Electric, The Hoons), Outside artists Bill Kreutzmann and 7 Walkers, Clinton Fearon, Flowmotion and Great American Taxi headline the festival. You might recognize Kreutzmann as the drummer from the Grateful Dead.
Gustafson said that organizers have noticed excitement for the three-day concert around the region. If all goes well, they hope Salmonstock can become a yearly event, attracting more talent and a bigger audience for the Renewal Resource Foundation's message.
"This cause needed a kick in the pants," Gustafson said.
Music festivals: It's end of one era and start of another