LIVE FROM THE WALLOWA VALLEY
By Bill Rautenstrauch
Observer Staff Writer
ENTERPRISE Willie Nelson was the guest who got away. John Rombach, host of Wallowa Valley Live, feels a pang of regret every time he thinks of it.
"When I heard Willie was playing Pendleton, I sent him an e-mail and asked him if he wanted to be on the show. He never answered," Rombach said.
"If he had agreed to do it, it would have made my whole career. I could have hung it up right then and there."
Maybe it's a good thing Nelson stayed away.
Having not hung it up, Rombach labors on in the KWVR Radio studio in Enterprise, putting on a show that has become a favorite for many evening listeners.
The twice-a-week program has had a successful, five-year run, and soon will get more air time.
What is remarkable is that it was created by someone with almost no broadcast experience.
Rombach, 30, was born and raised in Oregon's Willamette Valley. After graduation from Pleasant Hill High School, he enrolled as a history major at the University of Montana.
During college, he read Alvin Josephy's The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, a book set, in part, in the Wallowa Valley.
It was a revelation in more ways than one. Rombach learned the story of Chief Joseph, and also decided where he wanted to make a home.
"After I read it, I knew I wanted to live in Wallowa County," Rombach said.
There was a detour, though. After graduation, Rombach took his history degree to Southern California, where he taught school.
He stayed a few years, but his thoughts kept returning to Northeast Oregon.
"I was getting pretty tired of California. One day I was stopped at a light in Santa Cruz, and next to me there was a truck with a saddle and some hay bales in the back," he said.
"I thought, Yeah, it's been a long time since I've seen anything like that. I'm going to Joseph.' "
The move to the remote reaches of northeast Oregon was exciting, but it wasn't easy.
Like many newcomers to Wallowa County population about 7,000 Rombach worked at several different jobs to make ends meet.
"I had five or 10 W-2s the first year," Rombach said. "I was laid off from Fish and Wildlife when (KWVR station manager) Dave Nelson gave me a call."
Nelson put Rombach to work playing ads during broadcasts of local sporting events, and helping with local newscasts.
Rombach, who had never worked in radio before, found he enjoyed the job.
And one thing led to another.
"One day Trudy Lion, a friend of mine from Joseph, said, You need to start a radio show that plays something besides country music. That needs to happen, and you need to make it hap-pen,' " Rombach recalled.
Rombach ran the idea by Nelson and station owner Lee Perkins. They agreed to it readily, granting the fledgling host a free hand in the show's creation.
From the beginning, Rombach took huge advantage of that freedom.
On a station that's been country-western since its 1960 founding, he played jazz, folk, blues, reggae, new wave, punk, metal and old time rock and roll.
"This is the only place where you can hear a 20-minute Jimi Hendrix cut. It's something that's not usually done around here," Rombach said.
Early on, Rombach started an enduring tradition, inviting guests to bring their own favorite music to play on the air.
"Sometimes we just grab people passing through town and play the CDs in their glove box," he said.
Rombach also incorporated live performances by local artists into the show.
The Yella Dog Blues Band, featuring Al Bell, Bill Knox, Matt Bell and Tyson Samples, was one of the first to play.
It was a night Rombach will never forget.
"We did it out in the lobby. They all gathered around this old chrome, upright microphone and played. It was like back in the 1940s," he said.
Since then, many other acts have played Wallowa Valley Live, either at the station or from remote locations. Those who don't play live music bring recordings of their work to the studio.
Talk is a key ingredient in the show, and guests aren't always musicians. Rombach likes to say Wallowa Valley Live is a get-to-know-your-neighbor kind of program.
There was the time, for instance, when Rombach invited candidates running for the county board of commissioners to appear not for a debate, but for an evening of playing their favorite songs.
"I figured we'd get to know them through their music. They came in and we played CDs and shot the breeze and had a pretty laid-back time," Rombach said.
Elgin animal communicator Bonnie Norton has been a guest. So has Tim Perales, a Wallowa County resident who performed security work in war-torn Iraq.
The Perales segment was a coup, since it came live from Iraq over satellite phone.
"He was on a rooftop, and we could hear gunfire in the background," Rombach said.
For another show, Rombach invited Susan Roberts, long-time mayor of Enterprise, to bring her favorite music and take a turn as disc jockey.
"It was cool," Rombach said. She brought the Rolling Stones."
Wallowa Valley Live airs 7-9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. With the conclusion of the current winter high school sports season, it will expand.
Assuming enough sponsors can be found, the show will run Friday and Saturday nights also.
Kelly Shine, a KWVR employee who describes himself as a "disc jockey wanna-be" will become a regular. Alyssa Werst, an intern from Wallowa High School, will help out as well.
Local talk and music will continue as the show's staples.
"We've formed some pretty good partnerships in the community. Fishtrap is an especially good fit. We get a lot of their singers, songwriters and storytellers," Rombach said.
Fishtrap is a non-profit organization that works for the cultural betterment of the county. Among other things, it holds a twice-yearly writers' conference, and runs a writer-in-residence program.
Nelson said Wallowa Valley Live is an asset to the station.
"It's been an opportunity for us to provide the county with a variety of music, and a chance for local residents to share what they like," he said.
Edgy and "out there" though it sometimes is, Wallowa Valley Live has been well-received, said Rombach.
"When we first started, we got two or three calls from people who said they wanted their country-western music back.
"But we got a lot more calls from people who said, Wow, that was cool. I haven't heard that song since I was in college.' "