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McCarthy songstress tours Alaska

Mike Dunham
Musicians Frankie Hernandez, left, and Michelle McAfee, photographed June 25, 2013, in Anchorage.
Marc Lester
Musician Michelle McAfee, photographed June 25, 2013, in Anchorage.
Marc Lester
Musician Michelle McAfee, photographed June 25, 2013, in Anchorage.
Marc Lester
Melissa Mitchell, who Michelle McAfee credits with bringing her to Alaska, will perform at the Silvertip Grill in Girdwood on Friday. Photo Steve Dunlop
Stephen A Dunlap

Michelle McAfee got hooked on Alaska four years ago when a grizzly bear charged her tent in the Wrangell Mountains.

"He pressured us for four days, wouldn't let us get to our food cache, taught us some amazing lessons," she said.

She turned the encounter into a song, "Wolverine," on her new album, "Float." And she started to put down roots in the tiny community of McCarthy, the only settlement in the region. "I fell in love with the country," she said.

Smoky-voiced McAfee compares her musical style -- with some justification -- to country rocker Lucinda Williams and Canadian indie songwriter Leslie Feist. She blends edgy pop and bluesy bluegrass with intriguing instrumental virtuosity associated with "roots" music. Though "Float" features a number of artists, sometimes amounting to the equivalent of a small orchestra on stage, she says her songs are crafted with an eye toward acoustic performances in tight spaces. Which is good, because she plays a lot of little Alaska bars.

"I love small, intimate venues where I can really connect," she said.

She sometimes maximizes the effect by sharing the stage with other musicians and singing each others' songs. In the upcoming Anchorage area shows, she'll often perform with veteran Alaska songstress Melissa Mitchell and her band.

McAfee met Mitchell when the latter was recording her "Rain or Shine" album in Portland. "We totally hit it off," McAfee recalled. Mitchell invited her to tour with her in Alaska. The two have continued to work together, participating in a music-in-prisons project called One Soul. Mitchell joins McAfee in a duet on the new CD.

Another participant on the "Float" album is Frankie Hernandez, who's accompanying McAfee in several of the upcoming shows. He's also promoting his own album, "I Live Here," recorded live when he opened for Ziggy Marley at a concert in Jacksonville, Ore. It's his first trip to Alaska.

"Frankie's a songwriter" as well as performer, McAfee said. That comes in handy when one is trying to carry a solo show and needs to take a break. "Shows in Alaska tend to start late and go long," she said. "I thought he'd be perfect."

He got off the plane last week and took the train to Seward for a summer solstice performance in the Yukon Bar. It was the first in three days of nearly-nonstop music and Alaska hospitality, including partaking of the bounty of Russian River.

"I stayed up all night eating fish," he said. "I've become a big fan of sockeye."

The two have traveled very separate musical paths. McAfee grew up in the Rockies near Nederland, Colo., where she played weekend gigs with a family band. Hernandez was exposed to everything from bluegrass to punk in his hometown of Austin, Texas. But he says he really became interested in music as a second-grader when he heard a performance of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata.

"It spoke to me," he said. "It was so present -- without words."

Now based in Ashland, Ore., he described his eclectic style as "soul-funk-country ... from all countries."

The pair crowded onto the tiny stage at the Yukon Bar with Mitchell and others. "There were six of us scrunched up there," McAfee said. "The bar was packed and the Seward people really dug the diversity of the songs and the singers. It was so much fun."

Hernandez will be playing with her for 31/2 weeks before he returns to the Lower 48. "It seemed like a lot of time when I first agreed to it," he said. "Now I see that it's not enough."

Their Alaska travels will include McCarthy. "You haven't been there yet," McAfee told him, explaining that the summer population of the remote hamlet is about 150, "15 in the winter."

An odd expression came over Hernandez's face. "That really is small," he said in a quiet voice.

"McCarthy's a crazy place to base out of," McAfee said. "But I bought land and hope to build a cabin there next year."

But first there's the tour to promote the CD, her second, which continues with gigs in Girdwood, Indian, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Some are one-woman recitals, others will see her performing alongside collaborators she's collected -- or who have collected her -- over the years. People like Mitchell in Alaska or gypsy jazz singer Myshkin in the Lower 48.

And in between, McAfee will be working on material for yet another album, not even in the planning stages at the moment, but something that sounds like it most certainly will happen sooner rather than later.

"I have about half the songs written for the third album," she said.



Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

By Mike Dunham
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