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THE MUSIC MAN: Five decades in music comes full circle for Willmar resident

Wendell Nash plays a six-string, Blueridge cutaway dreadnought acoustic/electric guitar March 7 in his studio at Whitney Music Center in Willmar. Nash, who has spent parts of the past five decades performing in a variety of bands, offers guitar lessons at Whitney Music. Tribune photo by Dan Burdett

For Wendell Nash, five words changed his life: "Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles." It was Feb. 9, 1964, and the legendary band was appearing on the "Ed Sullivan Show" for the first time. Minutes later they had laid the foundation to a musical revolution that would be the benchmark for everything that followed.

"You could say that moment had somewhat of an impact," Nash, 61, recalled during an interview March 7 at Whitney Music Center in Willmar. "I said: 'I wanna do that.'"

Humble beginnings

He was 14 when The Beatles took the Sullivan stage, but Nash had been involved with music the previous two years, playing guitar in his Milbank, S.D., high school band.

Following The Beatles' performance, the high school renditions gave way to a "serious" musical pursuit. It started with a garage band.

When their parents divorced, Nash and his brother, Dice, accompanied their father to Oregon. Soon thereafter, Nash and his stepbrother, DeVon, formed The Staggs and began playing Oregon City, a suburb of Portland.

Their brand was rock 'n' roll, covers of the era's most popular tunes, and memorized by ear.

"You just turned on the phonograph ... listened and played until you got it," Nash said.

Before long they landed a gig at the high school dance; 10 songs later, the boys were addicted.

"I thought we were terrible," Nash said. "But they were applauding. I was hooked."

Other gigs would follow at Portland-area festivals and clubs. They won Portland's Battle of the Bands, and while still 14, Nash recalls playing the same festival as The (Young) Rascals, who would score No. 1 hits with "Good Lovin'" in 1966; "Groovin'" in 1967; and "People Got To Be Free" in 1968.

Local scene

Nash moved back to Milbank in 1969 following a two-year stint in the Army. He began playing the local scene, and steady gigs broadened his musical scope. In 1980, he moved to Benson and started work at what was then Jennie-O Foods in Willmar.

Along the way he met a girl and relocated to New London. But music remained at the forefront, and two wives came and went.

"Being a musician is hard on your family," Nash says with a hint of ache in his voice. He is once again married; he and wife, Martha, share six children. "Nobody sees behind the scenes. The sacrifices a family makes. The toll it takes. They see the band on stage. They don't get it: To be a successful band at any level, and by successful I mean you play ... you have to have the best equipment, the best lights, the best sound. That's tough when sometimes you need that gig money to buy groceries."

Soon Nash was a member of Borderline Five Piece, a variety act.

"We were working a lot," he said. "All local musicians. All talented."

If there's one constant in music, Nash says, it's that bands have a shelf life. For Borderline Five Piece, it was six years. But other bands would follow.

He played for the best part of a decade with Last Exit, establishing a catalog of covers that included the works of Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Aerosmith.

Then came Generation Gap with his eldest son, Dominic, a drummer, who broadened Nash's musical appreciation with his introduction to the funk-infused Red Hot Chili Peppers and alternative rockers Stone Temple Pilots.

"That band was the crown jewel," Nash recalled of the years on stage with his son. But as he aged, Nash became disillusioned with the bar crowd that often accompanied the gigs, and he left the band.

He moved to Willmar in 1996, and the next decade-plus led to steady shows as a member of The Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of Rock and Roll and tribute acts: The Davey Lee Show, Great Times Band and Four or Five Amigos.

The teacher

Three years ago, Nash, not long retired after 26 years at Jennie-O, was approached by Bob Whitney, a Willmar businessman who owns and operates Whitney Music Center with his wife, Jeanne. The business offers music lessons and specializes in the repair and sale/rental of instruments. The Whitneys also own the adjacent Jazz N Java coffee house, a popular venue for acoustic concerts, recitals and open mic events.

Nash had previously helped Whitney move his expanding business to its current location at 913 Highway 71 N.E. in Willmar.

"Would you like to teach?" Nash recalled Whitney asking at the time.

"My first inclination: 'I'm not cut out to teach.'" Nash said. "But I wanted to do something. I was bored."

Whitney convinced Nash to take on "a couple of students, and see how it goes."

Nash quickly set up shop at Whitney's store. His studio is a cozy, minimalistic retreat; one built for sound more than appearance. Acoustics and amplifiers adorn the four walls. An assortment of well-traveled guitar cases is stacked in the back, as if awaiting word of their next gig. A six-string, Blueridge cutaway dreadnought edition takes center stage. It's a serious instrument, one that retails for more than $1,000, according to the manufacturer's website. Crafted from Santos rosewood, it features a thicker body that creates a louder tone than a standard guitar.

Here, sometimes seven days a week, Nash shares his musical knowledge with a roster of students that has grown to 19.

He has developed a teaching method tailored to the individual's age and skill level, he says, but is adamant the key to their musical growth is "independent study."

"I want them to think beyond the lesson book ... feed off each other. I want them to be inspired to try new things musically," he says.

Still jamming

Nash still finds time for a gig here and there. Last year, he helped organize a tribute to The Beatles. And in January he joined a group of area musicians for a two-night Pink Floyd tribute at The Barn Theatre in Willmar.

Other shows are in the cards.

A Fleetwood Mac tribute has been discussed, but no date is set. Later this month he is scheduled to be part of a musical fundraiser for the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

But for now, Nash is most content in his studio.

"You know, there's so much more to music than learning an instrument. Teaching is deeper than music for me," he says. "I get to watch my kids grow, to watch that light bulb go off in their brain as they learn. This is my greatest pleasure. I wish I'd done this 40 years ago."

(Young) Rascals source: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Dan Burdett

Dan Burdett is the community content coordinator at the West Central Tribune. He has 13 years experience in print media, to include four years enlisted service in the United States Air Force. He has been an employee of Forum Communications since 2005, joining the company after spending two years as the managing editor of the Redwood Gazette and Livewire in Redwood Falls. Prior to his current position, Dan was the presentation editor at the Tribune.

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