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It was birds that first brought Alaska Folk Fest performers Art Johns and Nola Lamken together. Lamken, who lives in Skagway, was on her way up to Faro in 2004 to see the migration of sandhill cranes.
Duo plays old-time cowboy tunes 032917 AE 1 Mackenzie Fisher, Capital City Weekly It was birds that first brought Alaska Folk Fest performers Art Johns and Nola Lamken together. Lamken, who lives in Skagway, was on her way up to Faro in 2004 to see the migration of sandhill cranes.

Nola Lamken and Art Johns perform at the 41st Annual Alaska Folk Festival at Centennial Hall on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Michael Penn | Capital City Weekly

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Story last updated at 3/28/2017 - 7:01 pm

Duo plays old-time cowboy tunes

It was birds that first brought Alaska Folk Fest performers Art Johns and Nola Lamken together.

Lamken, who lives in Skagway, was on her way up to Faro in 2004 to see the migration of sandhill cranes.

“I love their sound, I wanted to hear their voices ‘cause that was the first sound I heard when I came to Alaska, in Fairbanks,” she said.

It was a long drive to Faro, so when Lamken learned Johns, a Tagish resident, was traveling there to play in a festival, she knew by “the light in his eye” and his “honest and soft-spoken attitude” that he was the road trip buddy for her. The rest is musical history – Johns and Lamken have played Folk Fest together since 2005, missing only two years.

Art Johns, who was born in Carcross in 1933, has had an extensive musical career that began while playing his father’s guitar as a kid. That guitar was named “Mabel” and was later lost in the mountains near Johns Lake in the Yukon, where he had a hunting camp. When Johns went up to look for it, he found nothing. He said he knows the culprits.

“The porcupines ate it all up. That’s no lie.... They ate it all,” he said.

Johns’ father was the Yukon-famous Johnny Johns, who moved his family to Tagish because of better land for the horses they owned. Johns grew up as a genuine cowboy and lovingly calls Tagish his “home base.” As a boy he remembers turning the crank for his sister’s gramophone and hearing Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams, who were his introduction to country western music and became his musical inspiration.

His Tlingit and Tagish culture are a deep part of his identity. A few weeks ago he was awarded the “Elder of the Year” at the Yukon Arts Center in Whitehorse.

Lamken said he still surprises her by remembering songs she hasn’t heard in all their years of playing together. She attributes that memory to the Tlingit and Tagish oral traditions.

“He’s really unique that way but he’s very closely tied to his culture’s history. They aren’t allowed to elaborate. They don’t embellish things. He has this incredible memory from way back. He remembers all the words exactly right,” she said.

Johns also has a knack for organizing musical get-togethers. Lamken remembers when “They use to cram into the halls of the Alaskan Hotel and jam in there all night long. The room would be so crammed there’d be people in the bathtub and (they) would overflow into the hallways. All these musicians jamming at the Alaskan hotel. It was quite the scene.”

Lamken was born and grew up in Southern California, immersed in classical music by composers like Beethoven, Schweitzer, and Mozart. She became concertmaster in high school and went on to play second violin, front row, in a symphony orchestra in Los Angeles for 23 years.

While backpacking through the Mojave Desert, she heard country singer Merle Haggard’s voice over the radio. It was her first introduction to country music. But she was turned off by the station’s politics. After she moved to Skagway in 2003 and met members of its country-playing community, her concept of country music changed, and she found she was a natural when it came to playing old-timey cowboy tunes.

She doesn’t, however, sing.

“That’s my job,” Johns said, followed by laughter by Lamken.

Three years ago, Johns also put out a CD, “Take Me to the Country.” On the cover is a photo Lamken took of Johns and other elders building a canoe. Although Johns hasn’t played any farther south than Juneau, Johns and Lamken perform from Alaska to the Northwest Territories.

“Really, really rich things happen around the people with music (in these communities) and a lot of that happens during Folk Festival,” Lamken said.

Buddy Tabor, a close friend of Johns and Lamken, was one of those people, she said. Although he died in 2012 he’s remembered as a fantastic songwriter and artist, and for his sense of justice. Tabor wrote a song for Johns called, “Go Ask That Old Cowboy” as well as a song in memory of Johns’ son, who was named Tagish. Tabor encouraged Lamken to play in balance with Johns’ musical style and helped her transition into playing “hillbilly music.”

This Folk Fest, Johns and Lamken will play at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, April 4. They promise to stay true to form and will be performing one of their favorite country songs, “Mississippi River Blues,” by Jimmy Rogers, along with many other old country jams.

Capital City Weekly intern Mackenzie Fisher can be reached at mackenzie.fisher@juneauempire.com.