Music News

Going Nuts

It's Saturday night at the Knights of Columbus hall in Brighton, Colorado, and about 250 people are mingling near the stage, waiting for the band to strike up. Their patience is soon rewarded: Mike Gaschler counts to three, then gives his accordion a hearty squeeze. Another set by the Polka Nuts is under way.

For Gaschler, playing polka music is a family matter. Since 1982, he and his daughters, Michelle and LaRae, have been three-fourths of one of Colorado's most successful groups, producing several recordings, including Cruisin', and playing at fairs and festivals in 25 states and four countries. Moreover, Debbie, the Gaschler clan matriarch, has traveled along with them most of the way. "It's been incredible," Mike says. "When we first started, my girls were only nine and eleven years old."

Michelle, 23, and LaRae, 25, are now seasoned traveling musicians. But whereas many other performers their age dream of rock-and-roll glory, these young women have dedicated themselves to preserving a musical genre the average listener associates with Lawrence Welk. And they couldn't be more pleased. In fact, all three are as overwhelmingly positive and effusive as the music they play.

"Polka music is happy music--and it sounds really cool," LaRae burbles. "It's happy music, and everybody's smiling. No one's sad."

"It's like nothing I've ever seen," Mike agrees. "People at a polka dance are just happy. You don't see fights at a polka dance."

Mike admits that it took a while for his love of polka to flower. Although he grew up around the music, he was not a fan. "When I was a kid, my mother made me take accordion lessons, and I hated it," he recalls. By the early Sixties, while attending high school, he was a member of various three-chord rock acts. However, his anti-polka attitude changed a few years later, when he had a musical epiphany at, of all places, a wedding reception.

"There was a band there, and they had a guy who played hammered dulcimer," he notes. "He looked so happy playing that thing, and he was having such a good time that I told my wife, 'I'm gonna get one of those.'" A few months later Debbie gave Mike a dulcimer for an anniversary gift, and after practicing on the instrument for a month, he was good enough to land a spot playing alongside local polka purveyor Carl Zeller Jr. The style of polka Mike was drawn to is called Dutch Hop, and it deviates in significant ways from the brass-oriented polka popular in the Eastern part of the U.S. "Traditional polka has more of an upbeat, where Dutch Hop has more of a downbeat," Mike explains. "Also, the feel is different. It's not 'oom-pah-pah' music. And instead of a saxophone and a tuba, there's a hammered dulcimer."

After leaving the Zeller fold and performing with another local polka group, the Al Holman Band, for several years, Mike put together a combo of his own. And when a few of his bandmembers left, his daughters came up with an interesting way to solve his personnel troubles.

"We were jamming in the living room one night and listening to my dad talk about his band troubles," Michelle relates. "And LaRae and I said, 'Dad, why don't we join the band?'" At the time, the younger Gaschlers were still several years shy of puberty, but they'd already developed a small following through guest appearances with the Holman Band. (LaRae pounded the drums; Michelle played keyboards and sang.) As a result, Dad took the girls up on their offer. According to LaRae, "He was real cool about it, because we'd been jamming with him, anyway."

Nonetheless, LaRae had some obstacles to overcome. Her feet could barely reach the pedals of her drum kit, and her second instrument--trombone--presented problems of its own. "The trombone was bigger than she was," Mike attests, "and she couldn't reach an F note, because her arms weren't long enough." But the Gaschlers came up with a solution. "We tied a string from my finger to the tube of the trombone," LaRae says, "so that I could bring the trombone tube back from an F."

At tonight's performance in Brighton, nothing seems out of reach for Mike's progeny. Keyboardist Michelle, wearing an ever-present smile, lays down a solid bass line with her left hand while providing a steady rhythm with her right. Meanwhile, a grinning LaRae rocks steady on drums, and Matt Dinges, eighteen, handles the hammered dulcimer. Dinges recently inherited the dulcimer from Mike, who switched to his present instrument when the Polka Nuts' previous accordionist left the band. "At first my daughters were saying, 'Oh, no, Dad, this ain't gonna work,'" Mike concedes. But after a few weeks of woodshedding sessions, he mastered the squeeze box, and he's been handling it ever since. He plays the device sitting down and, like his daughters, he doesn't shy away from showing his teeth. His good humor is also in evidence while serving as the emcee for the engagement--appropriately, a wedding reception.

Throughout the evening, polka nuts of all ages keep the space allotted for dancing filled. As the band plays a variety of covers and originals, men in cowboy hats and Western shirts slip around the worn wooden floor with toddlers, and senior citizens step lightly with their grinning teenage partners. Two twenty-something men in Wrangler jeans and pointed boots dance with each other, smiling from ear to ear, while another young fellow dances by himself, radiant.

Everyone in this diverse crowd is beaming, but no one more so than 67-year-old Syl Farner, a self-described "German Dutch Hopper" who's the grandfather of the bride. But while he's enjoying himself immensely, he's also a little worried. "The old traditions are dying," he says, sweat rolling down his ruddy face, "because the young people are too busy with other things." Farner is a veteran of many of these old-fashioned German weddings, and he's concerned that respect is not being paid to the past. "In the old days, these weddings went on for three days. Today, you're lucky to get through a full day." He points to the new bride, who's spent the lion's share of the past ninety minutes on the dance floor. "In the old days, the bride had to dance to every song, but, you know, she's skipping out on a few tonight." As he says this, his granddaughter, hoping to take a brief break, is whisked from her chair for one more spin. "When I was younger," Syl boasts, "I never missed a dance."

So is there anything that can be done to prevent the old ways from passing? Syl sees reason for optimism in Michelle and LaRae Gaschler. "I've been seeing the girls since they were kids," he says. "They'll keep it going."

They will, indeed--because of the music, and because of the bond it has reinforced between all of the Gaschlers. "We've all grown up together," Mike states with his customary enthusiasm. "It's been awesome."

"Our family is not like a normal family," Michelle submits, equally chipper. "We're more like friends."

"Just being with my family makes it all worthwhile," LaRae chimes in. "And every time we go to a gig, it's like a vacation. People have asked my sister and me about what we missed growing up in this band, and I tell them, 'We gained more than we lost.'"

"As far as party music goes," Michelle concludes, "polka music is it.

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Marty Jones