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Harping on life

There are two types of musicians in this world — those who play for the heck of it around a campfire and those with such a deep-seated passion…

There are two types of musicians in this world — those who play for the heck of it around a campfire and those with such a deep-seated passion they are willing to play at the Kopper King Tavern for 12 hours straight in return for a $20 bill.

Dawson harmonica player George McConkey is one of the latter. And he’s earned his fair share of $20s.

Actually, he only pocketed $15 for those marathons at the KK — the other $5 went back to the bar to help pay for the PA system.

“I couldn’t believe someone would hand me $15 to play,” he said, on the phone from Dawson Thursday morning.

That was back in 1977, a year after McConkey had landed in the territory.

Just “a kid who loved to play,” the budding harp player and his friends jammed out “anything that would go.”

“It was a bit of an event,” he said.

More than 30 years later, McConkey’s still “kicking around the Yukon,” still playing mouth harp, and about to release his first album.

He recorded it without grant money.

“Grants are not always the only way to do something,” he said.

“I wanted to do it on my own.”

Although it’s his first album, McConkey has appeared on numerous CDs over the years, and played with notorious Yukon hillbilly rockers the Undertakin’ Daddies.

McConkey’s musical passion started years ago with Friday dart nights at the family cottage in Muskoka, Ontario.

A tiny McConkey would wait expectantly for his father’s friend to show up with his squeezebox and a bunch of harps.

“I was fascinated by the harmonicas,” he said.

And after one particularly inspiring session, McConkey persistently requested a harp, as only little kids can, throughout the boat-and-car-ride home until his exasperated father swerved into a music shop and bought his whining son a C harmonica.

McConkey’s been playing ever since.

“I was fascinated by their sound and portability,” he said.

Listening to as many styles of harp as possible, he’d unconsciously turn to an album’s credits to check for harp parts before making a purchase.

McConkey credits his natural ability to pick out a melody for his musical career.

“If you can learn enough (on an instrument) to keep yourself entertained then you keep at it longer,” he said.

After a few years in the territory, McConkey headed to Vancouver, where he met Caribou Record’s Bob Hamilton, who was playing bluegrass in Victoria.

Plucking out tunes on the five-string banjo, Hamilton was looking for a guitar player, so McConkey hung his harp around his neck and started strumming out chords.

Back in the Yukon, McConkey has continued to play both instruments, although harp is the priority.

“I’m never as good as I want to be,” he said.

“But you can’t compare — if you compare yourself to other people forever, you’ll go nowhere.”

Although he produced his CD without grants, McConkey is not adverse to a little boost here and there, and went to study under Toronto harp-great Carlos Del Junco with support from the government.

“He can hit all the chromatic notes on a diatonic (single key) harmonic,” said McConkey.

On his album, McConkey plays with different harps.

“There’s a bigger one that sounds like a squeezebox and I recorded other harp tracks over that,” he said.

McConkey, who was joined by his wife, used a studio on Gabriola Island, BC, to record.

“We wanted to go south and take a break,” he said.

Tin and Bone was recorded at Nathan Tinkham’s studio, an old friend of McConkey’s who played with the Daddies and adds steel guitar riffs and dobro to the album.

Former Yukon musician Rob Bergman, who’s back in the territory constructing green homes in Watson Lake, happened to be in Victoria at the time and brought his upright bass over to lay down the CD’s rhythm.

Five of the songs are original, said McConkey, who’s enlisted Marg Tatem to join him for the release, along with Bergman and Tinkham, who he’s flying up for a couple of weeks.

Tatem will replace the harp parts that sound like squeezebox with an actual accordion, since McConkey, despite his many talents, has not yet mastered the art of playing two mouths harps at once.

“Albums act like snapshots in time,” he said.

“They show where you were at a certain point.”

Tin and Bone will also act as a calling card, and may help McConkey snag gigs around the world.

“There are some interesting harmonica festivals, especially in Europe,” said McConkey.

“It’s like fishing, you just never know.”

McConkey’s CD release is at the Old Fire Hall on November 22nd. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door, and are available at Arts Underground and the Yukon Arts Centre.

On November 23 McConkey and his band are playing Atlin’s Globe Theatre, also at 7:30 p.m. And on December 5th they are playing the Odd Fellows Hall in Dawson at 8 p.m.

Contact Genesee Keevil at