Being Alaska’s ambassador of country music is a gig that’s far from one note.
Earl Hughes has been Alaska’s ambassador of country music since former Gov. Frank Murkowski was in office. He has an executive proclamation from former Gov. Sarah Palin affirming the title.
“I like country, and I like folk,” Hughes said, “and if I was to do my best for you I would have to combine. I would play maybe something by Clapton, something by the Eagles, something by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson.”
Hughes came up to Alaska in the early 1980s after living in Hawaii, where he was also the ambassador of country music under former Gov. George Ariyoshi. He performed with Don Ho for years and opened for The Beach Boys and Natalie Cole.
If they don’t know him from his performances around town, there’s still a chance locals may recognize Hughes when he puts on his train conductor’s hat.
“I’m probably the busiest entertainer in all of Alaska, only because I play five times a day at the train,” he said, “and then I play sometimes twice a night, seven days a week all summer long.
The train is Gold Dredge 8, where Hughes has long been fiddling away on the Tanana Valley Railroad. He plays on the train, at the Westmark Hotel and for Princess.
At this year’s Tanana Valley State Fair, Hughes played on stage for three nights. Each night was a different tribue: one night for Johnny Cash, one for Willie Nelson and one for The Beatles. He said he likes the music because it’s what he grew up playing.
“I’m a guy now that I can do a song for you and I have a reason or a story with it,” he said. “For example, why do I do Johnny Cash? Because I opened up for him.”
It’s the same reason for Lee Greenwood; Hughes opened for him when he came to Alaska. He didn’t open for The Beatles, but when he was in school he played their music.
Music is Hughes’ life. He’s a man who hears notes of music drifting through the air, inclines his head and catches the rhythm.
Even at the fairgrounds, where someone is belting an original song into a microphone, Hughes falls into the flow and hums a few notes while flipping through a binder full of lyrics, deciding what song he wants to play when it’s his time on stage.
Hughes’ father, Bernie Hughes, performed on the Saturday Night Jamboree, a country music television show that ran on NBC decades ago. He credits his father with his love for music. One of his albums is titled “Fiddler’s Son,” with a photo of Hughes holding his own fiddle up, ready to play.
Hughes’ original music is an ode to fiddling and string instruments in general. Fiddle slides through “Northern Lights Waltz,” while in “Train Riding Man” the tempo suggests the hustle and bustle of the railroad.
Another thing that becomes clear about Hughes through his work is that he cares a lot about veterans. His song “Brother’s Coming Home” is special to him, he said, because his brother was hurt while in the service and had to go to Brooke Army Medical Center.
Last year, his brother came to Alaska to play rhythm guitar with him.
“That was one of my best weeks because he was here,” he said.
Hughes’ music been broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and his song “Desert Storm” is about the operation of the same name. Currently, Hughes is scheduled to play during Red Flag, out at Eielson Air Force Base.
When he took the stage at the fair on Friday evening, his fiddle case reads “MUSIC FOR VETS.” He has a leather, USO jacket with the same inscription on it in his car, which carries his instruments and copies of his CDs.
When he sits down with his guitar, set up takes a few minutes, but it isn’t long before he’s playing alongside local musicians Fred Weiss and Kit Carson. When he starts crooning “Folsom Prison Blues” his voice deepens and, for a few minutes, he sounds just like The Man in Black.
For a man who can sound spot on like Johnny Cash and has even opened for him, with music connections as long-lasting as his, Hughes still likes Alaska. He prefers the smaller, intimate shows he can have here.
“That’s what I want to do because I can do this and visit,” he said. “I don’t have to pack up and go.”
He added that he enjoys being able to thank his audience and talk with them, to sign their CDs or whatever they might want. It isn’t uncommon for him to invite Gold Dredge 8 visitors to come see him at any one of his other shows.
Hughes said it was “in the calling cards” for him to come to Alaska. By performing at Gold Dredge 8 and at hotels, not to mention the concerts he’s held around town, he says he’s been able to stay home and watch his children grow up. His daughters play cello and piano, and his wife, to whom he has been married for 32 years, plays flute.
He’s been a volunteer teaching hockey at Lathrop High School and, twice, he was a blackbelt grand champion. Hughes owned a kickboxing school, drove buses and operated heavy equipment here in town.
But nothing has ever stuck like the music.
“My blessings have been with my music,” he said. “So I think I kind of found my niche and I don’t want to change it.”
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.