(Photo above by Chelsea Calicott)
Stepping into the sun-dappled studio of Eli and Dottie Ashley, one is engulfed in the good vibes of a space dedicated to creativity. The studio sits on their expansive Tumalo property, where the Ashleys moved 12 years ago, and serves as the epicenter of their band Appaloosa, for which they write and produce Americana music. This large, happy room, filled with vinyl, art and instruments, is where Eli and Dottie compose songs and practice with each other, daily.
Married in 1982, the Ashleys lived in Tacoma for 30 years where they each worked full time; he in performing arts management and she in TV ad sales and commercial production. Their creative careers were all encompassing and music was something they loved but had to postpone until later. They moved to Bend in 2005 and Eli worked as manager of the Tower Theatre and Dottie took on a management a position at KOHD. Once they both retired, they had the time to devote themselves to their passion, and today their life is filled with songwriting, practicing and performing. Eli and Dottie possess the easy give-and-take of a couple who are longtime partners and collaborators as they shared the evolution of their work.
Their transition into playing music was funny, as Dottie shared: “When we retired, we thought we’d get some gear. One weekend Eli came home with a pickup full of used instruments.” They invited friends to come and play with them and got connected with Sisters Folk Festival, where they took guitar and other classes, including the Americana Song Camp. Neither of them have formal musical training, although Eli played the electric guitar in a high school band. “There was no Julliard for us,” says Dottie.
Eli adds, “I went from a three-chord wonder to creating tension moments in my writing. What I cottoned onto was songwriting and we learned the basics we hadn’t gotten before.”
From this simple beginning, the Ashleys were invited to play in the Sisters’ fundraiser, the MOTH festival, their first local gig.
Their evolution to a trio was a natural one and occurred after they heard John Prine play at the Athletic Club of Bend and experienced how simple, basic and authentic his music was. They saw other trios in town and decided they needed a bass player. At a Bethlehem Inn fundraiser at Silver Moon they met Steve Jensen, who was playing in a ukulele band at the time. Appaloosa’s first gig was at the Alpaca store in Sisters in 2013 and the trio has been playing together ever since.
Last year, Appaloosa played over 30 gigs, mostly as a trio, but occasionally with a larger band, usually for weddings and special events. They easily have 50-60 songs to keep them playing for four hours.
The Ashleys really enjoy playing at public venues and you will often find them harmonizing at local farmers markets and festivals.
Dottie says: “When we play for a market we take a basket of percussive instruments. At this one event in Madras, there was a little girl in pink cowboy boots who took a tambourine and came forward to play with us. We love to bring people into our music.”
Eli adds, “At weddings we learn several songs that are important to the bride and groom, which is really special. We love to create rapport with our audience.”
One way the Ashleys connect with their audience is through what Dottie calls her ‘Queen Bee of Trivia’ persona. As they perform a lot of original music, they often feel the need to explain to the audience what the song is about. She says, “When we pick up a song to cover, let’s say by John Prine, I have listened to him on YouTube or watched an interview about him. And I know that he was a mailman and would take these long walks and during them come up with his stories. And I just tell ‘em!”
The Ashley’s musical influences, though different, come from similar roots. They grew up with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and believe that by the time you’re in high school you’ve gravitated to the music that becomes your sound.
“Our audience is pretty much typically our generation, and now younger folks are coming to this Americana roots music stuff, too,” says, Dottie.
Some of Appaloosa’s best songs are ballads, inspired by travel or current events. They’ve written protest songs, such as Uncivil War, about the police protests in Baltimore. On a trip to the south they happened to arrive in Nashville on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin. “It was surreal experience,” says Eli, “witnessing this re-enactment, as those of from the west don’t have a strong grasp of the Civil War. This was a needless battle, in which 10,000 soldiers died in five hours and our song Fallen Arms came from this experience.”
Dottie adds, “We’re using our music to touch people. We wrote a homeless song that got recorded for Bend Community Center’s Hoedown for Hunger called Down on Wall Street. We have the time and the resources to make a difference somehow out there.”
The pair have performed many other benefits and fundraisers, including events for the Deschutes River Conservancy and Equine Outreach. “We love what we do and we’re really fortunate and lucky that we can do this,“ she adds.
When they are at home, the Rock House and surrounding 12 acres are consuming. “The house is truly built out of rocks and we have challenges in the winter.” The Ashleys have four horses and three dogs and a typical day starts before it gets light, feeding the animals and lately, shoveling snow.
In addition to their music, the muscians are active in the Sisters Folk Festival and Eli serves as President of United Way for Deschutes County. His 91-year-old mother lives in an assisted living home in Bend so they are also engaged with her. When weather permits, they love to ride horses and ski. But music is more than a hobby, and they practice, write and compose every day.
When asked about a favorite song, it was hard to select just one, as Appaloosa has 18 new songs the Ashleys are about to record on what will become their third CD. Dottie shared a story about how songs come to her: “People tell me stories and lots of times they stick in my head. My friend Alana Francis shared this story from her childhood, a memory of watching a train go by along the Deschutes River and seeing a hobo sitting in a car. And this story became The River Song.” As co-creators, sometimes she’ll write a song, and Eli will collaborate, or it will go the other way around. As Eli says, “The collaborative process is fun because we each like to write music separately and play together, so that’s special.”
Dottie adds, “We have a sense of where we meet and where we want to be and what we want to do.”
After playing several songs for me, including the haunting and lovely River Song, I understand why Appaloosa has created quite a following. And the Ashleys are as humble about their work as they are dedicated to it. Eli closes our conversation by sharing his gratitude: “We love this community, it’s a good music community. And we’ve enjoyed getting to know other musicians and the venues here are very supportive. This is a great music town and that has allowed us to flourish.”
To learn more about the Ashleys and Appaloosa, their CDs and upcoming engagements, please like Appaloosa on Facebook.