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Duarte: Music keeps her young, family keeps her inspired

By Phyllis Laurie

Special to Okanogan Living

One of the most beloved and respected musicians in the Okanogan Valley is Lota Duarte. With a recollection of about 300 songs in her memory, Lota is a fixture in the local live music scene, often playing up to three times a week at local vineyards, restaurants, clubs, farmers markets, and events large and small, including countless benefits. You might see her playing solo with just her guitar and her voice, or as a duo with her son Michael on bass, or as a trio called The Raveling Toad Show with Michael and long-time friend Kirk Gildroy on percussion. Her band for several years has been called the Road Dawgs which included the late Michael Blakely and now Kirk Gildroy on drums, Glenn Lisenbey (Night Riders) on guitar and whenever possible, Brock Hires on guitar and keyboard.

Lately you may have seen Lota in yet another group with her longtime friend Sandy Vaughn and Karen Harris calling themselves the Sagebrush Gypsies. She is also a popular guest with just about every musician or band in the area. If you’re lucky you may have sat on a hay bale around the campfire with her and whoever happens along at Barter Fair, of which she has been a part of for many years.

Lota’s musical journey began when she was quite young. She was born in Iowa outside of Cedar Rapids. Growing up, she recalls how her mother used to sing around the house. At just 6 years old, Lota took to the stage, singing the "Tennessee Waltz."

Unfortunate events led to her and her five brothers being placed in a children’s home where she remained for eight years.

From a young age, Lota loved and appreciated every kind of music. Fortunately, she had a kind music teacher who was able to give her tickets to see every major classical symphony orchestra in the world that came through Cedar Rapids. Also, the Head Mistress at the home often took her to the country clubs where she was exposed to fine dining and many different kinds of people.

Lota started playing violin and singing Ricky Nelson songs. She got a ukulele at 14 and a guitar many years after that. A man called Fred had needed two bucks for a gallon of Red Mountain Goofy so he sold Lota her first guitar, that he had found at the dump, for $2. He later showed her five chords on it.

She loved torch songs. Her early influences included Julie London, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Hoyt Axton, John Prine. She heard Linda Ronstadt, Barbara Streisand and Reba McEntire when they were just starting out and knew they would be giant stars. One of her first collaborators was a man named Turkey Joe Stites in Molalla, Ore. They played together for 12 years and that was the origin of the Raveling Toad Show in 1974.

She’s played with many different types of musicians over the years and all over the west, from New Mexico, Arizona (she played under the London Bridge in Lake Havasu) to California, Oregon and finally Okanogan Valley. She went back and forth (sometimes hitchhiking with her kids) working all kinds of jobs from planting trees and working in walnuts, oranges and tomatoes to disc jockeying a country radio show. She also was an ASA (American Softball Association) umpire and worked in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington. Her weirdest job was selling tickets to a (real) flea circus!

Lota first came here to Okanogan in 1977 and became involved with Barter Fair. She loves to cook, and for many years has had a tent next to the stage catering food for the stage crew and the musicians, before getting on stage herself. She loves watching all the volunteers work so hard to create the fair. And she loves the roving musicians at night.

Of all the places Lota has lived, she considers Okanogan county her hometown. Her first place here had just a hot plate, a bed where the kids all slept sideways, and a shower down the hall.

Her son Michael, Kirk, and Casey Martin (the Company Band) started playing together in her garage.

When asked about his history with Lota, Kirk says “I met Lota in the summer of 1986 after a fateful moment when I encountered her son Michael Duarte, Casey Martin and Tony Porterfield in her garage in Riverside, WA. At least two of the more successful bands in this valley came out of that meeting and the garage that she let us jam and store our gear in for years. She offered her knowledge, advice and support the whole way and I can say I wouldn’t be the musician I am now without that experience. Later, Lota and I started jamming together in a band called Highway 97 that enjoyed a successful run for several years, and presently in The Road Dawgs and The Raveling Toad Show. "

When asked why he (Kirk) likes to play with Lota he stated: “As an entertainer one needs to figure out a way to put out the same energy for that club with only 6 people as you would for a packed festival of 6000 because those 6 are worth it just as much as the 6000. It’s not easy but what I found worked for me was if I played every night like it’s my last then that energy is there and mission accomplished. Lota puts out that same energy every show regardless of the venue or crowd size making everyone in the crowd feel like he or she is there for them vs the other way around. She is the embodiment of heart and soul and I can’t imagine why any musician would want to surround themselves with any less.”

“My favorite song to perform with Lota is 'Louise' by Paul Siebel. The melody and her delivery of the lyrics somehow seem to transport me back in time to a small old frontier town where we’re playing in a saloon and I’m just waiting for the coins in my cup to reach an acceptable level for Louise upstairs. I have fond memories of staying in the cabins at Patterson Lake and Lota preparing breakfast for the band the morning after playing packed shows at Sun Mountain Lodge. Honestly my favorite story is the ongoing tale of her life and musical career which I am lucky and honored to be a part of.”

Since playing in bands with his mother, Michael (who plays bass, guitar, mandolin and banjo) says, “It’s been quite the journey.” Lota says Michael is her big inspiration: his harmonies, how he flows and absorbs everything, how no matter what happens in his life (he lost everything he owned in his house fire in 2020) he is still so giving.

Bob Hougham, a popular trumpet player locally (his own band is pH Factor) says: "I’m always amazed at the archive of songs in Lota’s mind. Every time I sit in with her she comes up with a new/old song.

When I first started seeing her at the Sunday night jams at the Okanogan Eagles and she found out I played trumpet, she would ask if I had my trumpet with me. I would say I didn’t think my trumpet would fit with her music (I played jazz) but she would say ‘your trumpet would fit with all these songs’ so I now always bring my trumpet. I’m amazed at how she can make you feel at ease and welcomed. She makes anyone comfortable to sit in and fit in and be a part of the experience. I’ve never seen her in a negative attitude, she always keeps the music positive and fun. When she performs she can relate to anyone and everyone.”

She says she loves seeing the joy in peoples’ eyes when she moves them through her music.

Lota has four children Michael, Christina, Lisa, and Anita. She is so proud of all her children and the people they have become. They have lived some hard times but they have had many kind gestures from strangers along the way, and Lota says it has made them strong and resilient and also very kind and giving.

She is also close to her sisters Bea and Christina, and brothers Carlos, Nick, Jesus and Frank. Another brother Mack died in 1958.

She says she lives for Music, Family, and Friends. And she’s “happy to be on the right side of the dirt.” Lota just turned 80 in August and the community celebrated her with at least three parties. She loves the camaraderie of the musicians here.

When asked what is her philosophy of life, Lota says “you create your own reality. And the only real thing is love. Ask yourself Who Am I?, What am I doing? How do we behave with ourselves? The hardest thing is to learn to love yourself. And always be kind.”

As for Lota’s wish list, she said “For my children to be happy and for everyone to find what they really need in themselves. And for people to come together in friendly happiness; play music, tell stories, share all that you can, when you can. And be grateful!” ♦



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