The idea, like successful ones often are, was a simple one.
Conceived during a drive to Girdwood in 2012 between an aspiring Anchorage event promoter and one of Nashville’s leading songwriters, the Backyard Country BBQ is back in Alaska this week with shows in Anchorage, Soldotna and Fairbanks.
Brad Erickson, owner of Alaska promotions company Erickson Unlimited, and Grammy-winning songwriter Kendell Marvel created a lineup led by platinum-selling Joe Nichols, who has a half-dozen No. 1 singles to his credit, and grassroots phenom Cody Jinks, whose last two albums hit No. 4 and No. 2 on the Billboard Country charts in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
Backyard Country BBQ is an acoustic event that’s become a highlight of the summer for country fans since the beginning in 2013. As he’s done at each event, Marvel will also take the stage along with Las Vegas-based Elvis Monroe and local favorite Ken Peltier of Wasilla.
While in previous years the showcase was at Eddie’s Sports Bar in Midtown Anchorage, this year the Wednesday kickoff will take place at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Nichols, whose hits include “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” “Brokenheartsville,” “Yeah,” and “Sunny and 75,” will headline all three shows.
Wednesday’s show in Anchorage will be the only night featuring Jinks, who’s a different sort of artist for the Backyard BBQ, said Marvel, who recruits talent for the concert series out of Nashville.
“He’s probably the first guy we’ve brought up that is truly an underground artist,” Marvel said of Jinks, who he described as having a “cult following.”
“He’s put out four or five records and every one gets a little bigger and his crowd gets a little bigger. He’s selling out venues better than people I’ve brought up there that have had a lot of mainstream success.”
In his usual uncompromising style, Jinks foreshadowed making it outside the mainstream in his 2010 song “Hippies and Cowboys” from the album “Less Wise.”
I’ve never been a part of any musical scene
I ain’t just talking Nashville, if you know what I mean
They don’t write about me in their magazines
And I don’t ask for no reviews on the songs that I sing
I never had a lot of friends and I’m alright by that
But people keep on coming back
A singer-songwriter showcase
Fans have kept coming back to the Backyard Country BBQ, from about 800 who showed for the 2013 debut of the event to more than 2,000 in Anchorage each year since.
Erickson got the idea for the acoustic format of the showcase in 2012 following a promotion he put together for radio station The Wolf (now The Moose), where he was doing afternoons along with mornings on KFAT.
The Singer-Songwriter Showdown competition offered radio play and opening for Marvel as the top prize.
A friend of Erickson’s that worked for music rights management firm BMI got Marvel and fellow songwriter Tim James to make the trip. In addition to hits for George Strait, Jake Owen and Blake Shelton, Marvel has written about 60 songs with Chris Stapleton. “Either Way,” a collaboration between Stapleton, Marvel and James, won the 2018 Grammy for Best Solo Country Performance.
As Erickson drove James and Marvel down the Seward Highway for some sightseeing and a trip to the Wildlife Conservation Center, he tossed out an idea.
“He was like, ‘man, I’d like to do some more acoustic stuff like that. Do you think you can get any artists up here to do that?’” Marvel recalled. “I said, ‘you know what, I bet I can.’ The first year had Randy Houser and Josh Thompson, and me, and Ken Peltier. We came back and said what a good time it was and it has just snowballed ever since.”
The type of artists Marvel invites to the Backyard Country BBQ are representative of a group determined to take country music back to its traditional roots of the singer-songwriter. He seeks out artists who can command a stage with nothing but a guitar and a powerful voice, singing about the genre’s timeless themes of romance and heartbreak, success, failure and redemption, and, of course, having a good time.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit, close, small community,” said Marvel. “There’s not that many people in that realm of things really doing what we do. We all like each other and respect each other so it makes it that much more fun to do gigs together.”
Built by relationships — and fishing
The key to the success for Erickson has been the relationships he’s developed with artists like Marvel and Jerrod Neimann, who performed at last year’s Backyard Country BBQ and is back next month for Erickson Unlimited shows in Wasilla and Kodiak. Ben Carey and Bryan Hopkins, the lead duo of Backyard BBQ regulars Elvis Monroe, are friends with Nichols and helped recruit him to this year’s show.
Marvel threw out the idea in the middle of a songwriting session that landed Jinks.
“I done a show with him last year in Nashville and we’ve become friends,” Marvel said. “We were writing songs one day and talking about fishing and I asked him, and he’d never been up there. He said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to come do that.’ So we just worked it out there at the table over a beer.”
Marvel advised Erickson from the beginning that the attraction of Alaska for artists would be critical to selling them on making the trip at the peak of the top-dollar touring season.
“I try to catch people in the Midwest or out West so it’s an easy flight up there,” Marvel said. “Then I sell them on it, ‘yeah, it don’t pay what you normally get this time of year, but here’s what you get to do.’ That’s why we do it on a Wednesday. It’s super hard to get guys on a weekend.
“So I said to Brad, let’s do it midweek, offer them some fishing, some real Alaska experiences. And then it’s not hard to sell.”
Erickson not only flies his artists into Anchorage but also charters flights to a private lodge for guided fishing. Last year, with Brett Young not being much of a fisherman, Erickson booked a glacier cruise out of Seward instead.
“We saw so much whale action,” Erickson said. “It was so awesome, the looks on their faces.
“I’m not just a promoter. I’m also a travel agent and a tour guide. A lot of cool stuff has happened, and it’s all about relationships.”
With Backyard BBQ growing in popularity, Erickson left KFAT in 2016 to pursue promotions as a fulltime business.
Not every event has done as well. Erickson hit a low point at the end of 2017 after striking out on two shows he invested heavily in -- a Halloween show at Sullivan Arena with the band from the Broadway hit “Rock of Ages” and “Christmas with the Nelsons,” featuring the rock duo Matt and Gunnar Nelson.
“They were great shows that nobody showed up to,” he said. “It is a tough market because you don’t know what people are going to go crazy for. I brought Vanilla Ice up for the first time and people thought I was bringing up Jesus.”
Erickson, 43, who still had the 2018 Backyard BBQ in the works along with his Northern Lights concert series that winter booked, had no choice but to keep pressing forward.
“I had to cash out all of my retirement to keep doing it,” he said.
As much as Alaska can be a draw for huntin’-and-fishin’ country artists, the state’s remoteness and market size are the biggest hurdles he has to overcome. The scarcity of venues of the right size is another challenge.
“We’re a small market and it is what it is, so oftentimes you have to turn a venue that’s not a venue into a venue, like Eddie’s parking lot,” he said.
Since last year’s Backyard BBQ, Erickson has put on about 40 events in Anchorage and around Alaska.
In addition to country music , Erickson has brought up rappers like Lil’ Wayne and standup comics including Howie Mandel and T.J. Miller. He put on his second Arctic Comic Con in April, brought up the Michael Jackson Experience in March and the recent Scrap Metal four-city Alaska tour featuring six 1980s rock legends.
In early August, he’ll be bringing up tribute act Queen Nation for shows in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
For Erickson, the risk and stress of being self-employed in the entertainment industry is still worth the payoff.
“When the headliner is on stage, that’s when I get to take a breath and try to enjoy the show and enjoy everybody else enjoying the show,” he said.
“There’s a euphoric feeling I get after you’ve put a show together. There’s so many moving parts. Seeing a great show and the artist is happy and the venue is happy and the people who went to the show are happy — it’s a great feeling. And hopefully you made some money at it so you can keep doing it.”
Backyard Country BBQ featuring Joe Nichols and Cody Jinks in Anchorage is June 26 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Also performing are Kendell Marvel, Elvis Monroe and Ken Peltier. Gates open at 5 pm. Music starts at 6. Kids under 5 free. Camp chairs allowed. $48.
Backyard Country BBQ featuring Joe Nichols in Soldotna is June 28 at Soldotna Creek Park. Also performing are Kendell Marvel, Elvis Monroe and Ken Peltier. Gates open at 5 pm. Music starts at 6. Kids under 5 free. Camp chairs allowed. $40.
Backyard Country BBQ featuring Joe Nichols in Fairbanks is June 29 at The Spur. Also performing is Elvis Monroe. Doors open at 6 pm and music starts at 7. Camp chairs allowed. Kids under 10 free. $38.
Tickets at brownpapertickets.com.