When most people in Door County hear the name Fred Alley, it evokes memories of nights spent in the amphitheater of Peninsula State Park hearing musical tales of ice fishermen, northwoods lumberjacks and a young woman just released from prison.
While Alley, the late co-founder of American Folklore Theatre (now Northern Sky Theater), is best known for writing the musicals Lumberjacks in Love, The Spitfire Grill and Guys on Ice (among others) that remain in play today, it wasn’t just musical lyrics that he wrote but also folk songs.
On Aug. 23, fans of Alley’s theater output will be introduced to another musical side of the playwright as musicians Katie Dahl, Rich Higdon and Eric Lewis perform a collection of his original songs from their new collaborative album, Solid Ground: The Songs of Fred Alley.
Inspiration for the album came last fall during a joint performance of folk singer-songwriter Katie Dahl and her bass player-percussionist husband Rich Higdon at The Tin Plate. A woman approached the duo with a request for a Fred Alley song, so Dahl and Higdon did her one better: they performed all of the Fred Alley songs they knew.
“We did them all that night over the course of the night and it just got me thinking, this is a really cool bit of repertoire that isn’t pulled together anywhere right now that is accessible to people,” Dahl said. “So many of Fred’s songs were either not released or released on cassette so there isn’t a compact disc or mp3 version of them that’s out there. So I thought, well it’d be so cool to explore that lineage.”
As a teenager, Dahl was a fan of Fred Alley’s music and considers the late lyricist to be the greatest influence on her musical career.
“He created what is now Northern Sky Theater and that’s where I came to write plays, and also where I came to learn about folk music and this kind of singer-songwriter music that we’re covering on the album,” she said. “The theater, even though it was a theater, was a big incubator for musicians and songwriter-type musicians to come together and work on songs.”
Dahl shared her vision for the project with Fred’s brother David, the technical director at Northern Sky Theater and owner-operator of Utopia Boatwurks studio, where all of Dahl’s albums have been recorded. Drawing on her collaborations with Higdon and Memphis multi-instrumentalist Eric Lewis, both of whom were friends of Fred Alley’s and were part of Dahl’s last two albums, the singer-songwriter created a “cool new project for the same old team.”
From last fall to this summer, they worked their way through more than 70 Fred Alley originals – some of which were from his albums Beneath the Northern Sky, Woody’s Fire, and the EP Alley Boys – and a number of which had never been released. The foursome chose songs that were suitable for their vocal skills (a notable challenge, as Fred Alley was known for his wide vocal range) and while many were performed in the style he wrote them, some have been slightly altered.
“Our aim was to keep the integrity of the songs but to make them fresh and make them fit us, too,” Dahl said.
The album features 12 tracks spanning two decades of Fred Alley’s life, from his teenaged years on, performed on a variety of instruments, including upright bass, shaker, washboard, Dobro, mandolin, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, gut-string guitar, and harmonica.
Fred Alley’s lyrics told of romance and a sense of place, and in many cases, the spiritual side of life and death.
“His personal stuff is more poetry,” David Alley said. “He draws on his own life and experiences and things that are meaningful to him.”
The title, Solid Ground, was inspired by lyrics from the album’s first track:
When the day shuts down in this one-cop town
I won’t be back tomorrow
But I’ll leave my song for you to carry along
It’s always yours to borrow
“It felt like a benediction or something for the project, like we could borrow these songs,” Dahl said.
The album release concert is hosted by Northern Sky Theater as part of its Constellation Campaign, raising $6.7 million in funds to build a new creative campus in Fish Creek. The timing of the album release is fitting, Dahl said, reflecting forward momentum and a tribute to the man whose vision helped make it a reality.
“Fred put so much of his energy and time and heart into getting that theater off the ground, not at all to say he was totally responsible but hugely responsible for having that be a prosperous and successful theater that it is now,” Dahl said. “I think it’s neat that the theater is reaching a new point in its journey and that we’re sort of looking back to Fred as we do that. That kind of feels like a good resonance to remember as we go into the evening, too.”
The concert will take place at 8 pm, Aug. 23 at Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek. Tickets range from $20-$32 and are available by visiting dcauditorium.org, calling 920.868.2728, or in person at 3926 Highway 42, Fish Creek.