Growing up, Christmas celebrations in the Rook household were fairly traditional with one notable exception. On Christmas morning, we knew it was time to get up and see what Santa brought when we heard the Trail Band's holiday tunes emanating from Dad's sound system (then a Pioneer six-disk CD changer).
Unlike conventional holiday tunes sung by choirs of prepubescent boys or Mannheim Steamroller, the Trail Band's seasonal songs had a distinctly Oregon vibe, harkening back to pioneer day and incorporating other historic traditions not typically part of the standard Christmas fare.
But we were well-primed by the time Christmas morning arrived, since it was our family tradition to see the band perform live at the McMinnville Community Center each December.
The shows were a band nerd's heaven. A group of clearly talented musicians playing an assortment of instruments usually given short shift—really, how often do you see someone play the reed contrabass?—gave hope to a certain adolescent trombonists whose rock star dreams were as short-lived as the re-emergence of ska.
The band's success has been as impressive as it is improbable. When Marv Ross—of the popular '80s band Quarterflash—got a gig back in 1991 organizing a show commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, he had no idea he was about to embark on a quarter century-long journey through a host of cultures and musical styles.
At the request of the State of Oregon, the self-described history buff created a musical theater piece based on six real diaries from the Oregon Trail and pulled together a diverse group of talented musicians to pull it off.
"The band was just selected as a band for this performance piece, they were like a pit band," he explains.
Funded by the state, the band tour through the summer. Despite the narrow focus of the performance, Ross says audiences were eating it up.
"The band was getting an amazing reception," he recalls. "I thought maybe this can be a real band."
The band stood out in a crowd, a hodgepdge group of hotshot musicians playing music from another era.
"That's what was unique about the band right from the beginning," Ross explains. "You just don't see a bluegrass band playing with a tuba, trombone, and cornet."
So they tried their luck, taking their evolving show on the road beyond the anniversary celebrations. In the beginning, they stuck closely to the original concept, performing old tunes in period costumes. But over time, the band branched out, experimenting with different styles and instrumentations. Before long, they added a holiday show to their repertoire.
Today, every member of the touring group was on the stage for that first performance. Even the sound engineer and lighting designer have remained the same over the nearly 25 years the band's been in existence. Only one original member, Lex Browning, is no longer with the band.
"Every once in a while pinch ourselves," Ross says. Not only is the band still together, it continues to sell out shows. "It's incredibly lucky and we're very fortunate."
The band also gets to stay true to its roots, even in holiday shows, playing a mix of recognizable classics, unfamiliar relics, and original numbers. Finding the balance of these elements, however, sometimes keeps Ross up at night.
"If I have a gift, I have a pretty good sense of what the audience is feeling when I'm up there on stage," Ross explains. "I'm an empath for the audience."
That means that after each of the first few shows on a tour, Ross makes tweaks to the lineup until he strikes that perfect chord that he believes will resonate with listeners. Fortunately, the band now has some 70 holiday songs in its catalog, from Mexican numbers to Klezmer tunes.
"People who come to the holiday show are coming there for the Christmas vibe, so we try to make that balance," he says. "We do the same venues every year. So I have to change the show otherwise people wouldn't come back."
This year marks the group's first performance in Bend. But it's not the first visit for Ross. Before he and his wife Rindy started Quarterflash, the young couple spent three years teaching in Central Oregon. Marv taught at English at Cascade Junior High in Bend and Rindy taught fifth grade at John Tuck Elementary in Redmond.
"We lived in that tiny house that's a museum in Hollinshead Park," Ross recalls. "We put an ad in the Bulletin, two teachers looking for a rental place. We got a letter from Dean and Lily Hollinshead."
On the weekends, the young couple would play gigs at Inn at the Seventh Mountain, the Elks Club, and other local venues. After about four years, they moved to Portland and tried (and succeeded) at making it in the music businesses.
Though Bend has changed since the musical couple made it their home in the 1970s, Ross says he's looking forward to returning.
"That's very special for us to play in the Tower," he says. "When we lived in Bend it was totally depressed. The Tower Theatre was showing porno movies when I was there. There's sort a poetic circle quality to coming back there and playing."
The Trail Band
3 pm and 7 pm, Saturday, Dec. 19
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall