Moving toward a contemporary sound, Oregon Trail songwriters take Hillsboro
It was 1843 when one of the first wagon trains carrying farmers, ranchers and families, left St. Joseph, Mo., headed west on the Oregon Trail to start life anew on government promises of free and fertile lands.
In the face of many obstacles - impassable mountains, harsh winters, dangerous river crossings, dust, disease, starvation - it was music that pioneers gathered around to uplift spirits and make life on the trail that much more endurable.
Echoing songs of the era is one of the Northwest's most acclaimed historical music ensemble, the Trail Band, formed in 1991 by local musician Marv Ross at the request of the Oregon Trail Council to commemorate the 150-year anniversary of the Oregon Trail.
The Trail Band, which performs an annual Christmas show at Forest Grove High School, returns to western Washington County for a spring concert at the Walter Cultural Arts Center on Friday, June 8. The eight-piece ensemble features five vocalists (including Rindy Ross who, along with husband Marv, formed the rock group Quarterflash in 1980) and a blend of traditional brass and stringed instruments.
'Live music was the most popular form of music during that time,' said Marv Ross, a native Oregonian raised on Rock n' Roll who began researching pioneer music after the state asked him to put together the historical ensemble. 'It was not unusual for a whole town to be involved.'
To create the Trail Band, Ross enlisted historic-minded Portland musicians Phil and Gayle Neuman, early music teachers and founders of the Oregon Renaissance Band, musical director and composer Cal Scott, jazz violinist Eddie Parente, hammered dulcimer specialist Mick Doherty and drummer/percussionist Dan Stueber.
'You put these eight people together in a room,' said Ross, 'and they just have something very special together. We all like each other and playing music together, and the audience feels that.'
When they first started, the ensemble exclusively performed music from the Oregon Trail with costumes, diary readings, traditional folk tunes, marches, hoedowns and Native American melodies.
In pioneer times, without amplifiers or speakers, loud acoustic instruments were popular, especially those fit to survive the bumpy 2,000-mile journey.
Thus, the Trail Band plays indestructible brass instruments like the cornet, tenor horn, tuba, and saxophone and light-to-carry, good-for-dancing stringed and wood instruments like guitars, fiddles, hammer dulcimer, mandolin - and of course, everyday instruments like the penny whistle, spoons, bones, drums and recorders.
Throughout the years, the ensemble has evolved to produce a variety of music on 11 albums.
With their new album, Off the Wagon (2010) the Trail Band jumps off the Conestoga, leaving behind its pioneer past to play tunes as a modern Americana folk band.
'Keeping it fresh is really important,' said Ross. Not wanting to bore audiences with the same, dusty trail music, he says the band 'loves to work out new material.'
In addition to the Trail Band, most members tour with several other bands.
With most songs written by Marv Ross and Cal Scot, Off the Wagon ranges from Ross's Johnny Cash locomotive romp on 'The Christmas Train,' sung by Rindy and based on Marv's memories of his grandfather arriving late to Christmas as a Union railroad engineer to Scot's Celtic-inspired tune 'London Town,' the mournful, hymn-like song 'A Small Act of Kindness,' and the swing instrumental 'Rooftop Rag.'
There is also the double instrumental 'Eleanor Plunkett / Pinch of Snuff,' by Parente, a gifted and versatile violinist, 'The Blues,' sung by Gayle Neuman about a woman's solitary life in the rugged Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon and other songs ranging from Appalachian folklore to Mexican 'banda.'
'People think they're going to see a dry, historical or ('Oh-my-God!') educational music,' said Ross. 'But it's just the opposite.'
The Trail Band brings life to Northwest history 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 8 at the Walters Cultural Arts Center, located at 527 East Main St., in Hillsboro. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door and are available at brownpapertickets.com/event/191510 or by calling 503-615-3485. Food and wine will be sold before the show and during intermission by Earth Oven Pizza.