The low lighting serves the bar well, what with wood paneling for walls all covered with various bric-a-brac, broken neon beer signs and assorted animal heads. A few gruff characters in dirty coveralls glance around uneasily from a low table. In the corner a rock band with a twang performs. The setting is distinctly Alaskan, a place where local musicians get their feet wet for little pay, cheap beer and scattered applause. In fact, this place reminds me a lot of The Marlin, a Fairbanks, Alaska basement watering hole where a few years back I first encountered The Whipsaws guitarist Aaron Benolkin. I was covering the band for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner then, and when the first set ended, saw an opportunity to say hello.
Aaron is a musical visionary also blessed with Alaskan determination and drive. Completely focused on his instruments on stage or in the studio — electric and acoustic guitars, pedal steel, bottleneck slide, lap steel, Weissenborn, Dobro, plus the occasional banjo — he’s a musician’s musician with plenty of creative flair and nuanced knowhow. Off stage, however, he’s laid-back and as affable as can be, happy to talk music, share a beer and a good story.
Aaron has a good story.
While there are plenty of guitarists in Alaska, it takes special devotion to make it to the top and earn the peer recognition that’s allowed him to perform with dozens of musicians in all genres, and guest on a similar amount of albums. That was obvious when Aaron told me that as a kid — an Alaskan kid, no less — he sold his skis to buy his first electric guitar, a Gibson SG. That investment 25 years ago was the first step in his true dedication to the craft of guitar playing, to sacrificing other interests to make the time needed to foster a style uniquely his own. It is a point of pride for Aaron.
“I've been told that I have a ‘sound’,” Aaron says with a laugh and a smile. “But I’m fortunate that I’ve been sought out for that sound. I’ve worked hard to develop into a unique player.”
Aaron’s distinctive guitar phrasing synthesized through years of saxophone playing in school bands, listening to and playing with his organ-playing grandfather and absorbing his dad’s rock records. After Aaron “acquired” his first guitar (a beat-up nylon string found in his neighbor’s trash) — and later his precious Gibson SG — he applied his jazz construct to a larger love of alternative country, esoteric folk, British roots revival, rockabilly, classic rock and “anything that had interesting texture and feeling.”
“Coming from a jazz-playing background, my early guitar playing served to fill the holes in the overall sound,” he says. “I still employ a less-is-more approach. I'm not interested in guitar pyrotechnics; I’m more of a feel player. Sometimes the simplest guitar part can add important texture that makes the song.”
Whether it’s a high-lonesome pedal steel wail, something darker and rumbling with Southern mystery, rock with-a-country-edge stomp, souped-up road music, or some good ol’ rock and roll, Aaron deftly fills just the right spaces. As founding member of The Whipsaws, an Alaska institution for more than 14 years, Aaron’s guitar skills carry him in many directions. Presently, Aaron anchors Hope Social Club—Melissa Mitchell, Spiff, Tim Haren, Tony Restivo & Rik Nielson (currently touring Alaska and the Lower 48)—and handles the core guitar work on Alaska-gone-Nashville singer-songwriter Nellie Clay’s latest album “Never Did What I Shoulda Done.” Other projects include the Southern rock/country-infused Jack River Kings and the deep groove Fat City Revival Rock'N'Soul Revue, all of which showcase the many sides of Aaron’s musical personality.”
“There isn’t just one thing, one style I want to play—I don’t see a point in that,” he says with the air of a guitarist ready to venture into and conquer unknown musical territory.
Only in his 30s and a regular on the local scene (which, despite its size, is all of Alaska), Aaron has been sought out for plenty of session and stage work. His signature guitar playing can be heard on dozens of recordings from Alaska to the East Coast to Europe (The Whipsaws are signed to German imprint Blue Rose Records). He’s also shared the stage with Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Rayland Baxter, Dan Bern, The Mountain Stage Band, Hot Club of Cowtown, Leeroy Stagger, and Kevn Kinney among others.
“I know it sounds silly, but I get stir-crazy if I’m not playing,” he says, assuring me that at this phase of his career more is definitely better. The next obvious career steppingstone is increased exposure Outside (what Alaskan’s call everywhere else) and securing more guitar-for-hire work, be it in the studio or on the tour — wherever there’s a need for a top-shelf guitarist versed in multiple instruments and musical idioms.
“I've been lucky enough to work in projects that allow me to create my own parts and have a creative input,” he says, “but I also have no problem filling a role. Actually, I really enjoy any situation that provides me with a musical challenge, which is stimulating to the musical process.
“Music has brought me nothing but good experiences—and maybe a bit of drama,” he adds with a laugh, “but right now, I look forward to whatever opportunities the future holds.”