Folking It Up

Kevin Pakulis has been part of the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association from the start

If he remembers it correctly, Kevin Pakulis was there in the beginning of the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association, which began in the late 1970s and today runs the annual Tucson Folk Festival.

"The origin is often debated. My recollection of it is that it started in Kathy Rote's kitchen. I could name six or eight people who were there," Pakulis recalls.

"I seem to recall Gerry Glombecki, who recently passed away, and who probably gave it the name the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association, although I wouldn't go to the mat on that. I am sure you can find other people who would remember it differently."

TKMA has grown into a nonprofit organization with more than 300 members—and Pakulis and his band will close the 26th Annual Tucson Folk Festival with a performance at 8 p.m., Sunday, May 1, on the Plaza Stage at El Presidio Park.

Pakulis is the local headliner for the 2011 fest, while Tony Furtado, a singer-songwriter, guitarist and banjo player from Portland, Ore., is the festival's national headliner. Furtado's set at 9 p.m., Saturday, April 30, will conclude the festival's first day.

As in the past, most of the festival will occur in and around El Presidio Park. More than 120 acts will fill 20 hours of music on four primary stages: the Plaza Stage, next door to City Hall; the Courtyard Stage, in the patio at the Old Pima County Courthouse; the Museum Stage at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave.; and the Old Town Artisans Stage, 201 N. Court Ave.

Also as in the past, the festival will feature a young artists' showcase, a children's show, a ballad tree, an all-acoustic showcase, a songwriting contest and a generous variety of workshops in singing, songwriting, instrumental technique and practical concerns such as touring, band-leading and audio engineering. Food, music and craft vendors also will inhabit El Presidio Park. See for a complete schedule and other information.

Pakulis was born in Queens, N.Y., and raised in the backwoods of New England. Like so many others, he became entranced with music at an early age.

"I bought a GE Wildcat stereo, and the speakers were detachable, so I'd lay on my bed and put the speakers on either side of my head. And when I bought it, I had enough money left over to buy one album. So I bought Led Zeppelin I ... and I took it home and took the plastic off, and the album inside was King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King."

Pakulis' early attempts at music were more folk-oriented. "I bought myself a little Gibson at a furniture store. I had a neighbor named Skip Buck, a fantastic musician. I started baby-sitting his kids and stuff, and he mentored me. He was really into folk music, as well as really into rock 'n' roll. He showed me a lot of stuff, and I basically cut my teeth on folk with him."

Pakulis would play acoustic folk and rock with school friends, often going to the cemetery to do so, because it was quiet and not crowded. "Carrying that guitar case and having a pocket of picks always felt good; it felt like home," he says.

He came to Tucson in his late teens. "I was out of high school, directionless; my older brother had come out the year before, and it just seemed like an adventure to me."

He had to adapt, he says, coming from a region that had four distinct seasons and lots of surface water. "I had worked that summer, bought a car for a hundred bucks, and I believe I had another hundred bucks in my pocket. I drove out at the end of August, and I believe it was the end of August, early September when I arrived here. I thought I had entered the fiery furnaces of hell."

He stayed anyway, working at a gas station for a couple of years. Pakulis has resided in Southern Arizona most of the time since, although he took a break to study as a luthier in Vermont. After returning to Tucson in his early 20s, he repaired guitars at the Workshop Music store. And he started playing small clubs such as Bogey's as part of a duo with a partner, Larry Brown.

Pakulis moved to Nogales for a while to run a branch of Workshop Music, rotated back to Tucson, and then spent time most of the '80s working at a ranch in Sonoita. He returned to Tucson in the early 1990s, playing in a series of cover bands and working the corporate circuit.

"I was always a hired gun as a guitar player," he says.

He decided he needed an outlet for his original music around 2000. He has released four well-received albums since, the most recent being last year's roots-rockin' Shadesville.

"I had started to pay more attention to the poetry, the lyrics, the words. I had some melodies in my head, some chord progressions, and I put them down. And I thought, 'Wow, why didn't I do this before?' It was around that time that I thought I had something to say, and maybe a good way to say it."

These days, he's one of Tucson's most popular nightclub draws. "Right from the first record, I was very lucky to have a small but mighty fan base. I am eternally grateful for that."

At the festival, Pakulis will perform with his longtime backing band, consisting of bassist Larry Lee Lerma, keyboards player Duncan Stitt and drummer Ralph Gilmore.

Pakulis, who has alternated between acoustic and electric over the years, doesn't concern himself with the question of whether the festival should be a pure acoustic-folk experience.

"Every song I've ever written is a folk song, and when I take it to rehearsal, we can add different rhythms to it, or what have you, and people can call it whatever they want. They're all folk songs. At the festival, we'll play some of the more folk things I've written, and then we're going folk up some of the rockers."

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