Bearfoot Bluegrass, the home-grown group of Anchorage and Cordova pickers and singers who have been wowing audiences in Cordova and throughout Alaska in recent years, have expanded their venue and now are taking the world by storm.
The energetic young players recently won the best new band competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. Previous winners of the competition include such well-known national bands as the Dixie Chicks.
"It's the biggest bluegrass band contest in the West," said Belle Mickelson, who has advised and managed Bearfoot Bluegrass since its beginning two years ago. "All the Alaska musicians who have heard about the win are really excited."
Bearfoot Bluegrass -- Kate Hamre, Mike Mickelson, Jason Norris, Malani O'Toole, Angela Oudean and Annalisa Woodlee -- was one of 12 bands from across the country competing at Telluride June 22 and 23.
The judges included a member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, one of the best bluegrass bands in the country, and another judge from the Gibson Guitar Company.
In addition to national recognition, Bearfoot Bluegrass won $750, new strings for their instruments and, perhaps most important of all, backstage passes for the festival's main event.
The main concert featured luminaries from the world of country music such as Emmy Lou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
"It was cool. I liked getting to play on the same stage as a lot of my heroes," said Norris.
"It was the first time I really felt like a band," she said. "As soon as we found out we had won, I looked around at my ecstatic band mates and realized we weren't just band mates, but friends and family. We have come far in just two years."
"They even got to sell their CDs right alongside the biggest names in the business," Belle Mickelson said.
And their CDs sold like hotcakes.
The band already has sold almost all of its first two CD orders (2,500 of them). Their CD "Only Time Knows" was recorded and released in Alaska at the end of February.
Each day of the Telluride competition, contestants in the bluegrass band contest were required to perform one slow vocal, one fast vocal and one instrumental tune. The songs had to be new ones each day and the members had to work for their win.
"The band really hit it hard. They practiced a lot and really worked at it," Belle Mickelson said. "They even missed part of the Emmy Lou Harris concert to practice."
The band also played at the festival's children's tent and at a local youth center in Telluride.
"They are such an inspiration to other kids," Belle Mickelson said. "Youngsters look at the kids in the band and say, 'Hey, I can do that.'"
As befits a group of young energetic players, Bearfoot Bluegrass' dance card is full. They played at the Alaska State Fair on the main stage Aug. 23. The following two days, they performed on the Bluebonnet Stage at the fairgrounds.
They also opened for Nickel Creek, a California bluegrass band that performed at Anchorage's Fourth Avenue Theatre Sept. 7. Nickel Creek is nationally known for its fusion of classical and jazz influences with bluegrass.
Bearfoot also headlined Alyeska Resort's Blueberry Festival in Girdwood Sept. 8.
The band just returned from playing at Ninilchik's Bluegrass Festival and a sold-out concert in Homer at the Land's End Resort.
"The last sell-out crowd we had here for a concert was Jewel Kilcher's, just before she got a recording concert and became famous," said Jon Faulkner, Land's End owner. "Maybe this band will continue that tradition."
Earlier this summer, the band played at Dawson's Music Festival, the Fairbanks Folk Festival, the Anderson Bluegrass Festival, Cordova's first Salmon Jam, the Colorado State 4-H Conference in Fort Collins and at a concert in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Bearfoot band members were instructors and counselors at Cordova's 4-H Bluegrass and Old-time Music and Dance Camp in an effort to get youngsters playing music. They want to get similar camps going all over the country.
The band also has helped communities with Alaska salmon marketing. They take salmon samples and recipes on their travels.
Belle Mickelson confessed a certain amazement at the success Bearfoot Bluegrass is enjoying.
"They've done far more than we ever expected. They're even getting into songwriting, and their arrangements are exquisite," she said. "The band playing together showcases creativity, exuberance, excitement and a magical electricity that the audience loves.
"I think that one of the best parts of this experience is the confidence these 16- to 19-year-olds have gotten from the support of the Anchorage and Cordova communities -- and every place they've visited."
Despite the hectic schedule, the band said the Telluride Bluegrass Festival was its summer highlight.
"The best thing about Telluride was that it was a group effort, and we couldn't have done it without any one of us. I really liked how everyone was so enthusiastic about practicing and working on all the little details to make our songs sound really good," said Oudean.
"The whole trip was really neat," added O'Toole. "As we looked out over the audience from the big stage, it made me realize how much pride we all have in being from Alaska and how much we wanted to represent everyone who had helped us get there."
To order CDs or for more information about the group, contact Belle Mickelson at Box 1362, Cordova, AK 99574, call (907) 424-5143, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bearfootbluegrass.com.
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