Local Music, Wine: Walla Walla Musicians Thrive in Diverse Local Music Scene
In a small town like Walla Walla, it seems hard to imagine that a music community could flourish in diversity and style. This, however, is not the case. Walla Walla’s small community enhances dialogue between musicians and creates a close-knit group of creative minds supported by the local venues of wineries and town events.
“The thing about the music scene in Walla Walla is that there’s probably about 10 or 15 people that form bands,” said Whitman Music Assistant Phil Lynch, a member of Walla Walla band The Ruebens. “Those bands then go through changes, and there is this rotation of people through different bands.”
Similarly, Walla Walla citizen, manager of the car repair shop Melody Muffler and informal organizer of the Walla Walla music scene Mike “Melody Mike” Hammond watches these musical variations take shape.
“Bands quite frequently take a do-si-do. They come apart and interchange musicians and get a different flavor,” he said.
The venues for this supportive scene include Main Street Studios, Marcy’s and local wine tasting rooms, most notably Sapolil Cellars. These sites offer two to three nights of live music for customers and provide a space for weekly open mic nights. Other places to play include Walla Walla tourist events, such as the Walla Walla Sweet Balloon Stampede or the Walla Walla Sidewalk Series during the summer. However, live music has not always been this available.
Local musician Robin Barrett, who is currently a part of the popular blues/rock/classic R&B local band Coyote Kings, has been an active player in local music since 1970 and has stood witness to the fluctuating activity of live music in Walla Walla.
“Back in the ’70s there was a lot more music on a nightly basis, and we used to play five to six nights a week. That kind of ended in the 1980s, and in the 1990s it really died off. What really brought it back was the wine industry, and it’s really been over the last 20 years that music has gotten hot again,” he said.
The development of the wine industry has created an economic surplus and tourist attractions throughout the Walla Walla Valley, and this in turn revived the activity of the music and art scene. In the same way, the music industry is tied to the success of the wine industry.
“With the influx of the wineries you saw this real big growth in live music, and that peaked maybe a year ago,” said Lynch. “Since then it’s gone down about 50-60 percent from what it was, and I think that’s due to the economy.”
Despite this slight dip in activity, there are still wineries such as Sapollil Cellars, which Barrett describes as “the live music center of Walla Walla,” that strive to commingle the musical community with the wine culture.
“The wine industry is a very exclusive culture, so a lot of times [patrons] want to be involved in something swankier, [but] our attitude has always been very inclusive. We want you to enjoy our wine and enjoy it in a culture that makes you happy, that takes you to a different place,” said Owner of Sapolil Cellars Abigail Schwerin.
This supportive attitude is shown in Scherwin’s philosophy when it comes to hiring and maintaining bands to play at Sapolil. Hosting musical acts attracts customers to her business, but Scherwin is also aware of the difficulties present for younger up-and-coming musicians.
“I usually hire a musician anywhere between a month to three months in advance to come back, so they can get a following going,” she said.
Scherwin knows that she’s helping budding musicians out by offering them a steady gig. She’s also helping the local music scene by providing incentive to improve and explore one’s talents.
Contributing to the humble music culture are musical veterans like Gary Winston. Winston heads a band known as Gary Winston
and the Real Deal, which has played all around the country and the world. The connection and communication available in a small town has allowed more veteran musicians, such as
Winston, to help teach new musicians and keep the music culture alive.
“There are developing kids all over the place, so there’s new talent always emerging because you have a talent pool that’s really giving and always supportive,” said Scherwin.
Another community group that promotes the love of music for youth is the Walla Walla Blues Society. Founded in the early 1990s, the Walla Walla Blues Society strives to keep blues music alive in the community. One way in which they promote this goal is through their program Instruments for Kids. The program collects old instruments and provides them to kids who would not otherwise have access to musical instruction.
The society also hosts a program called Blues in the Schools. Hammond and Lynch explain that in this program they go to local elementary schools and play samples of blues music at an assembly. This exposes kids to what Lynch describes is a “lost art form” and provides them with an art to which they otherwise might not have been exposed.
“I’m thankful that I was exposed to [the blues] because it’s meant a lot to me, and it’s been a key element in my life,” said Lynch. “It’s like a lot of art. You throw it out there, and to 90 percent it won’t matter, but to 10 percent it will, and I want to search out and pursue [that 10 percent].”
Given the venues and the general society of musicians who are involved in the live music scene, blues, rock, jazz and similar genres seem to compose the norm. There are, of course, exceptions to this, and various outliers are contained in the mix.
“I think what’s interesting about Walla Walla is there’s a different culture for every kind of music experience you want to have,” said Scherwin.
According to Lynch, this diversity does not bring along with it a lack of musical talent. This talent is especially noticeable here at Whitman College.
“What is interesting is that some of the musicians you have here in Walla Walla and here at Whitman are as good as in places like New Orleans,” said Lynch. “But the thing is, the best musicians are here at Whitman, and that’s a fact.”
Hammond also notes that many of the musicians in town are not professional musicians and must support themselves at a regular day job. Their motivation, according to Hammond, is the love of music.
“When you’re playing, and it’s sounding good and feeling good, and the crowd’s cheering you on, and you’re in the groove in the pocket, it’s a high of its own,” said Lynch. “The music spreads itself.”