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All-star music, poetry review coming to the Paramount on Thursday

Nov. 05, 2012 @ 11:10 PM

The 20th century Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener, who wrote books that were based on his many journeys, said that budding writers should get out from behind the keyboard and travel and see the world.

That was the path chosen by book author, fiddler and poet Ken Waldman, who brings his all-star music and poetry review to the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, on Thursday, Nov. 8.

Waldman is a Pennsylvania native who eventually found his way to Alaska. Over the years, his accumulated stories about life in The Land of the Midnight Sun as well as his adventures in learning how to play the fiddle have led to eight books and an equal amount of music albums. In recent years, he has put all of this together into a "Prairie Home Companion"-type show that is getting positive reviews wherever it is performed.

This week, Waldman will not only put on a concert Thursday at the historic venue, but will also do a free performance at the Boyd County Public Library (1740 Central Ave.,) at 6 p.m. today, Nov. 6, as well as some educational shows for school kids on Thursday afternoon.

Joining Waldman in his concerts this week is a fine array of artists from the region. The featured performers include: Brett Ratliff, musician and program director at WMMT-FM radio station broadcast by the Appalshop Traditional Arts and Education Center in Whitesburg, Ky., Jesse Wells, musician and education director at the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University, and Sabra Guzman, multi-talented roots music artist who has performed with bands such as Old Sledge, the Flat Iron String Band, the Mercury Dimes and others.

Another musician who will be brought in is John Lilly, who is a recording artist as well as the editor of the West Virginia-based magazine Goldenseal. And, in what will be a homecoming of sorts, acclaimed fiddler Rex Blazer returns to Ashland, where he spent his childhood.

Waldman grew up outside of Philadelphia and then went to college in North Carolina. At one point, he had a house mate who was a clawhammer-style banjo player and that experience led him down to the path to becoming a fiddler.

"I was already listening to some of the traditional music by then, but I didn't really know what I was listening to," said Waldman. "Because of the banjo player, it was all over from there. He had friends that were really good musicians 30 years ago and who are really good now. And, I ended up getting a fiddle kind of 'by accident on purpose' and started playing it in the 1980s in Chapel Hill, N.C. I was at a party and there were really good musicians there like Joe Newberry and Jim Collier and the guys in the band Big Medicine, who were friends of my old house mates, and one guy there who wasn't so good a musician was a furniture maker. He left a fiddle in the house and asked if anyone wanted to buy it for a hundred dollars. And we were all broke, in our early 20s, but I ended up buying that fiddle. I was awful, but I was stubborn and I turned into a reasonable old time player. I took lessons by fits and starts. What I said was, if I played it every day for two weeks, I'd treat myself to a lesson. It took a couple of years to get to that point. Then, I played every day for the next 10 years."

Waldman eventually moved to Alaska, where he would be based for over two decades. There, he honed his creative writing skills while in college and continued his musical journey.

"Fairbanks was a great place to keep playing the fiddle," said Waldman. "I wrote a poem about learning to play the fiddle that I do in my shows. There has always been a nice little scene around Fairbanks of people who play string band music. I had long winters there, and I kept playing and over the years I got better."

Waldman is excited about bringing in former Ashland resident Blazer, who returns as a respected fiddler who plays more in the Celtic style. The Blazer name has been a part of Ashland history for a long time.

"I've known Rex for 20-plus years," said Waldman. "He lived in Fairbanks when I lived in Fairbanks. He was in Juneau when I was in Juneau. He lives in Florida now. I saw him at Clifftop (the Appalachian String Band Festival in southern West Virginia) this year. He had never been to Clifftop. And, he saw that I would be playing in Ashland and said, 'Man, is there a way I could get in on that show? My family was involved in turning that old movie theater into that performing arts center.' So, when I am doing these kinds of shows, it is really like a variety show. One of the jokes I have is that when I arrived in Alaska, I was turning 30 and I had played fiddle for a few years but I wasn't very good, and I hadn't written a poem in my life, and 10 years later I'm on tour as Alaska's Fiddlin' Poet. I tell stories. I'm a former college professor. I'm a teacher. When I do these shows, people will say, 'I don't like poetry, but I like your poetry. I didn't know much about traditional music, but now I think it is pretty cool.' I can present it in a way that is not threatening or necessarily virtuosic, but it is real."