Five of the seven Sand Witches Duras Ruggles, Heather Mountcastle, Brandee Gerke, Zoe Grueskin and Annie Bartholomew perform Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 at the Red Dog Saloon. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Five of the seven Sand Witches Duras Ruggles, Heather Mountcastle, Brandee Gerke, Zoe Grueskin and Annie Bartholomew perform Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 at the Red Dog Saloon. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Seven-women group focuses on harmonies, collaboration

They perform everything from murder ballads to Springsteen

A murmur rippled across the Red Dog Saloon stage Thursday night. Avery Stewart uses looping to be a one-man band]

The Sand Witches performed multi-part harmony takes on everything from old-timey classics and gospel tunes to much more recent Bruce Springsteen songs.

“Anything is eight-part harmony if you’re brave enough,” said Rashah McChesney, before a sound check.

A Folk tale

The group started after the last Alaska Folk Festival, and initially included Wendy Hladick, Heather Mountcasle and Bartholomew and McChesney.

[44th Annual Alaska Folk Festival coverage]

The multi-part harmonies from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack served as a definite influence — particularly the collaboration by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, McChesney said.

During Friday’s show, McChesney and Mountcastle joined Vidic for a cover of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” from that soundtrack.

Since it’s inception, the Sand Witches have had members come and go, and have settled into a current lineup of seven singers and multi-instrumentalists with Zoe Grueskin, Brandee Gerke and Duras Ruggles adding to the initial foursome.

Guitar, banjo and accordion — the latter two courtesy of Hladick depending on the song — add another dimension to the Sand Witches’ sound.

The Sand Witches could continue to grow.

The typically have weekly singing sessions 4-6 p.m. at the Alaskan Hotel and Bar, and folks are welcome to sing with them once those resume Sunday, Jan. 13.

Those singing sessions provide a chance to work out harmonies, but group-described “Tech Goddess” Hladick also helps by working with vocal tracks on the audio editing program GarageBand.

Plus, Sand Witches said it’s easier to coordinate songs than might be expected. Ruggles specifically compared it favorably to an orchestral performance.

“It’s both simpler and more intuitive because you’re not reading sheet music,” she said.

Collaboration not competition

The various Sand Witches have different levels of on-stage and life experience.

Some are longtime Juneauites and fixtures in the local music scene and others. There’s even an inter-generational aspect thanks to the presence of Wendy Hladick, one of the group’s founders and its senior-most member.

[What it’s like for vinyl vultures in Juneau]

“I looked at videos of Emmylou Harris, and she’s with a bunch of youngsters,” Hladick said. “Instead of Emmylou, I’m Wendylou.”

All Sand Witches familiarizing themselves with the Red Dog’s stage Thursday said they enjoy the group.

“It’s really empowering when people sing together, especially if you think you can’t,” said Ruggles who moved to Juneau over the summer. “It’s very healing.”

Empowerment is a big part of the Sand Witches’ dynamic, members said.

It’s a sounding board for ideas, a chance to workshop songs and iron out harmonies with other musical women.

“There’s definitely a dynamic that chances when you have dude’s in the room,” said Annie Bartholomew.

It’s Juneau’s version of nationally known acts Pistol Annies or boygenius — a chance for female musicians to bring out each other’s best and perform together.

“Instead of competing, we’re finding ways to elevate each other,” McChesney said.


• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com.


Wendy Hladick plays banjo while Rashah McChesney sings during the Sand Witches’ set Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 at the Red Dog Saloon. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Wendy Hladick plays banjo while Rashah McChesney sings during the Sand Witches’ set Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 at the Red Dog Saloon. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Duras Ruggles, Heather Mountcastle, Brandee Gerke, Zoe Grueskin harmonize during the Sand Witches’ set at the Red Dog Saloon Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Duras Ruggles, Heather Mountcastle, Brandee Gerke, Zoe Grueskin harmonize during the Sand Witches’ set at the Red Dog Saloon Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Wendy Hladick plays banjo while Rashah McChesney sings during the Sand Witches’ set Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 at the Red Dog Saloon. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Wendy Hladick plays banjo while Rashah McChesney sings during the Sand Witches’ set Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 at the Red Dog Saloon. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Heather Mountcastle and Rashah McChesney provide backing accompanying vocals for Taylor Vidic before they performed with five other members of the Sand Witches at the Red Dog Saloon Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

Heather Mountcastle and Rashah McChesney provide backing accompanying vocals for Taylor Vidic before they performed with five other members of the Sand Witches at the Red Dog Saloon Friday, Jan. 4, 2019.

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