Caitlin Warbelow plays an Irish jig on her fiddle while a dozen Alaskan huskies swirl around her feet, rolling in the grass and sniffing her microphone. Behind them, the Chena River flows past quietly, fringed by tall white spruce reaching toward the sun—a classic summer day in Fairbanks, Alaska.
As Caitlin tips her head back and the song gathers speed, a black-and-white dog saunters over to her chair and casually lifts a leg.
While the scene is different than the set of Caitlin’s Broadway show, the Alaska-grown musician is perfectly at home in this land of sled dogs, mountains and boreal forest.
“It doesn’t matter the weather or temperature or the mosquitoes, I’m probably happiest sitting around a campfire with friends singing songs or playing tunes,” she says.
Part of a well-known Fairbanks aviation family, Caitlin grew up flying around the mountains in her father’s Super Cub, landing on ridges and sandbars to catch a view or a grayling. While she comes from a long line of bush pilots, she gravitated to music early, starting violin at age 3. She later discovered the melodies of Ireland, learning to play reels, jigs and slow airs by ear from any CD she could find.
Caitlin’s musical talent took her to New York City and onto the world’s largest stage. But the coronavirus pandemic forced her to create an entirely new stage—one without walls or crowds—where she could share traditional music with people around the world, infused with the spirit and beauty of Alaska.
As the tempo picked up at Caitlin’s outdoor performance in Fairbanks, the huskies shared in the excitement. But they weren’t the only audience for the riverside jig. More than 100 people were watching through Tune Supply, an online platform Warbelow created with her partner, Chris Ranney—a native of Spokane, Washington—to help traditional musicians make up some of the income from lost jobs and performances.
Traditional music—often called “trad” music—refers to age-old tunes and songs from Ireland passed down through generations, typically learned by ear and played by memory rather than written down. Telling the stories of mountain mists, barley fields and beautiful barmaids, the style has taken root across the world, helped along by popular exports like Riverdance.
When the pandemic hit last year— shuttering theaters, pubs and restaurants where many trad musicians earned their keep—Caitlin knew she had to do something to help.
“Trad musicians have very little safety nets, even in the best of times,” she says. “Now all these people were about to lose their work right before St. Patrick’s Day.”
Tune Supply sells a variety of products: private gift performances delivered via video; music and dance lessons; and a unique subscription service wherein customers receive a daily video—often with a theme of some sort—in their inbox.
Caitlin and Chris work with more than 250 musicians from all over the world, from Argentina to Belgium, Boston to Dublin. The group started with friends and blossomed from there.
Since March, Tune Supply has paid nearly $100,000 to more than 250 musicians. In the process, Caitlin has built an international community, pioneered new ways to listen and learn, and even raised the level of music.
“It’s really unfortunate that such a cool thing was born out of such a massive amount of suffering,” she says.
One upside of a virtual business is the ability to create content from just about anywhere. Last summer, Caitlin and Chris crisscrossed Alaska recording shows for their online audiences, traveling to remote bush villages, playing at historic copper mines and swooping over snowcapped mountains.
“We saw a few bears when we were filming in Denali National Park,” Caitlin says. “That was pretty exciting.”
The couple took their viewers along for the ride. Chris, the associate musical director for the hit Broadway show “Come From Away,” mixed these recordings with others sent in from eight countries, creating two-hour productions viewers could watch and play along with.
These sessions, which air Thursdays, have the feel of a variety show, flashing from Caitlin fiddling on a crevasse-streaked glacier to an accordion player sitting by a peat-burning fireplace. The sets are stitched together with live commentary from Caitlin and Chris, trivia questions, nuggets of history, and the occasional puppy or black bear video submitted by their viewers. A chat bar on the side of the site resembles the banter heard in a music circle at a pub.
A pub is where Mimi Chapin would typically get her music fix. Before COVID-19, she and her husband, Terry, gathered at a local pizza pub every week to play folk music with friends.
Mimi and Terry are part of a vibrant arts and music community in Fairbanks that rotates from backyard sessions to breweries to lively concerts and summer festivals, producing professional musicians, Broadway stars and scholars such as Mimi’s son Keith, who is a music professor in Wales, U.K.
“I think people in Alaska tend to play music more because we’re used to it being dark and cold in the winter, and so we spend lots of time inside,” Mimi says. “We use music to get ourselves out of the cabin fever.”
Now that she’s holed up at home during the pandemic, Mimi spends Thursday evenings watching Tune Supply sessions, often while cooking dinner or washing dishes. If she hears a tune she knows, she’ll grab her cello and strum along.
During a period of social isolation, with children and grandchildren living far away, Tune Supply has brought music back into the couple’s lives.
“It’s a high spot for the week,” Mimi says. “It relieves the sameness of the days for us.”
Mimi always makes sure to throw some money in the virtual contribution jar, which supports the day’s performers.
They earn a gig fee on par with what a bar would pay.
Around Christmas, Mimi also bought a “Tradvent” calendar, a spinoff of a traditional advent calendar. Subscribers received a special performance by email each day—some with a holiday theme, others celebrating the winter solstice.
“They were really excellent performances and made the dark days of December exciting,” Mimi says.
She is not the only one who has leaned on Tune Supply to get through the pandemic. The platform has helped keep some musicians afloat.
Aidan Connolly is a young special-education teacher in Dublin who gives fiddle lessons on the side. When Ireland went into lockdown last spring, he lost his job at school, as well as his teaching gigs.
“Tune Supply got me through economically,” he says.
Aidan has performed a handful of concerts, becoming something of a celebrity for his intricately layered tunes and ability to connect with people, even through the screen. He teaches students with a fiddle and a Zoom account from all over the world—South Korea, Boston, France and Japan.
In addition to concert performances and classes, Aidan fills orders for gift videos for clients who want to buy a personalized performance for a birthday or an anniversary.
“It’s a great idea that you can’t replicate live,” he says. “I think they’ve found a unique little niche there.”
Ironically, the pandemic has helped trad music grow. Hunkered down in Limerick now, Aidan has plenty of time to practice more challenging tunes, weaving in sounds from Spain, Latin America and other places he’s traveled.
“I spent the day learning northern Spanish jotas (folk songs), which are very different than Irish music,” he says. “I needed a pen and paper to write down the structure. If it weren’t for COVID, I don’t think I would have invested the time.”
Still, Aidan misses the vibe of a live crowd. It’s just not as fun, he says, when there’s no chance of messing up in front of everyone.
“You run the risk of it becoming sterile and too perfect,” he says. “If you go onstage and things go wrong, you can’t do anything about it. I find it invigorating.”
Aidan is not alone in missing in-person events, of course. While much of the world aches to get together again, Tune Supply has given us something to listen to while we wait. With the click of a button, you can hear Aidan on the fiddle, accompanied by a bodhrán or Irish drum, close your eyes and wander, for a moment, to the west coast of Ireland—with its castles, cliffs and brilliant greens—letting the music take you places you wish you could go.
Molly Rettig is a writer in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her first book, “Finding True North: Firsthand Stories of the Booms That Built Modern Alaska,” was published by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Press in March 2021.