Contributed by Heather A. Resz
Although the band Feral Cats has gone through several incarnations, each is part of the rich legacy of Palmer artist and musician Greg Gusse.
Gusse, the original guitar player, named the group and is the social glue that brought its members together first in 2015, and in a new form after his passing in 2017. Julie Hopkins Feaster, Heather Resz and Kit Jones have played with the Cats since the beginning, at the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers Home, Primrose Retirement Community and various community events such as Art on Fire and Who Let the Girls Out.
In the months following Gusse’s death, the Feral Cats continued to perform, but without his musical leadership and solid guitar and vocal work, there were some very frustrating gigs.
“Forgive us, City of Wasilla, for Christmas 2017,” said Hopkins Feaster who sings and plays dulcimer with the Cats.
The Feral Cats never had a “band leader” before vocalist and guitarist Rod Rongstad began playing with the group. He joined in 2018, along with his wife, Sharon Hein, on hand drum and vocals. Their long-time friend and musical collaborator, guitarist Robert Howard joined along with them.
Howard and Rongstad have played together off and on for the past 30 years. But most of the time they performed separately in a pair of Alaska’s best-loved duos – the ‘Duo Sonics' and ‘Little Radio.’ Howard and Jim Lasiter formed the ‘Duo Sonics' in the 1980s. And Rongstad and Greg Mellinger performed as ‘Little Radio.’
“Greg and I could play together immediately. We just sort of compiled a list of songs that we could sing harmony and play right off the bat,” Rongstad said. “I think one of the first times Robert and I played together was when he came and played with Greg and I at some event; I’m not sure he got paid!”
Always learning from each other
While he has been described as Alaska’s best slide blues guitarist, Howard wears the magic his fingers conjure modestly.
He has performed with bands at a wide variety of gigs from school dances to state fairs and countless bars and lounges. He’s also performed as the opening act for various national touring artists during his more than 50-year career on stage in Alaska.
Many musicians also know Howard, now retired, for his role as the longtime official warranty person for Gibson and Martin guitars. He’s also trained a handful of apprentices since he had his first stringed instrument repair bench in 1967 at Carlson’s Music Mart & Studios in Fairbanks.
“Sharing those skills has been rewarding and gone hand in hand with the making of music,” Howard said.
With over 35 years on the professional music scene in Alaska, Rongstad said he “has played in most joints from the Peninsula to Talkeetna.” His lead guitar style earned him the nickname of Lightning Boy from his longtime music partner in Little Radio. Rongstad is a favorite of many local musicians for his vocals, lead guitar and overall support and service to the song.
“We’ve both played with musicians of varying skill levels, but mostly just to find common ground, get a bunch of songs together, and try to get paid,” Rongstad said. “And musicians are always learning from each other if they are open to it.”
By comparison, Hopkins Feaster, Jones, Hein and Heather Resz are musicians with just a few years’ experience performing with their instruments. Hopkins Feaster said she learned to play music about five years ago as an older adult. She started with guitar, then moved to harp before settling on mountain dulcimer. “We’re all grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow,” Hopkins Feaster said. “It’s been great having experienced players to lead the way.” Rongstad said the experience of playing with the Cats has been somewhat unique in that not only are people trying to get more proficient on their instruments but also are learning to assemble a song.
“I’ve always enjoyed passing on what I know, especially to those eager to learn.”
Throughout his long career, Howard has taught guitar students, some of whom have gone on to perform in bands with him – such as bass guitarist Jonn Barber.
A universal language
Howard and Rongstad say music is a means to communicate and collaborate on a different, more universal level.
“Music, being undoubtedly the most universal of languages, is the best gift I can share a bit with other musicians and listeners,” Howard said. “I love to see folks forget their travails for a time, dance and smile. Being able to make that happen from time to time is most rewarding!”
“It’s a strange and good feeling when you are in sync with other players,” Rongstad said. “It’s the carrot on the stick that you are always chasing.”
Hear the Feral Cats at Art On Fire, June 22, at the Museum of Transportation and Industry in Wasilla.
You can also see Rongstad and Howard perform with “Judy and the Lane Changers,” with Judy Lane on keyboards and vocals and Edward Gagnon on bass.
And Howard and bluesman Gary Sloan are performing around the state again this summer. The two have performed together in many bands since the 1970s.
Longtime Alaskan writer Heather Resz plays fiddle and mandolin with the Feral Cats.