Washburn knows a thing or two about launching big dreams from small towns. Skiatook, Oklahoma, where he was raised, isn’t as far from Honoka‘a as it might seem. It too has a lone traffic signal, half a dozen churches and gas stations, and little else. In between milking cows and taking care of the horses on their family’s farm, Washburn and his older brother Kent mastered every musical instrument they could get their hands on. Before Washburn could even drive a car, he was touring with the Shadow Lake 8 Orchestra, a dance band that rocked the South.
By the time he graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1968, he was a seasoned performer with a serious case of wanderlust. He ventured west, all the way across the Pacific to obtain his master’s in music from the University of Hawai‘i. Over the next few years, he bounced around the country, teaching in Oklahoma and then in Hawai‘i, earning a doctorate in Boston and finally following his brother Kent to Los Angeles to compose songs for Motown. Hawai‘i had captured his heart, however, and he returned to build his life in the Islands.
For the past thirty-four years, Washburn has taught three classes a day to an average of thirty-five students a class. “You do the math,” he laughs. It’s an equation that works for him; on his days off he has enough energy left to tend to his five-acre farm, lead horseback tours down into nearby Waipi‘o Valley and play keyboards at the Blue Dragon in Kawaihae.
So many of his pupils have pursued musical careers that he can fill a sheet of paper with names off the top of his head. Many return to perform at the annual alumni concert, a benefit for the music program held at People’s Theatre. But Washburn’s class isn’t only for future stage-strutters. “This is a rural town,” he says. “Most students don’t have money for instruments. The vast majority don’t take it further than the door when they leave school. This is the only time many of these kids will ever get to be in a rock ’n’ roll band.”