In the fall of 1989, freshmen Marty Chilla and John Shenon were sitting on a bench outside the UO dorms when Tanya Voxman (now Bunson), BA ’93, BA ’98, walked by carrying a violin case. “Hey, why don’t you open up that case and play?” Chilla remembers one of them hollering.
Voxman was on her way back from orchestra practice at the time, and had never considered playing anything but classical music, Chilla says. But they convinced her to jam with them, and the very next weekend the trio went down to the sidewalks of the Eugene Celebration to play their first gig.
Shenon and Chilla had been playing as the John and Marty Experience, but when they added Voxman to their group, they needed a new name. “Sugar Beets was the name that sounded the least ridiculous,” Chilla says. Shenon wrote the name on a cardboard sign, propped it up in an opened guitar case, and a band was born.
More than 25 years later, the Sugar Beets are a Eugene institution. The eight-piece band plays mostly original music. Their songs feature an eclectic mix of vocals, guitars, bass, drums, banjo, violin, mandolin, keyboards, and occasionally sitar and sarod, a stringed, lute-like instrument from India. And although their musical roots are in bluegrass, country, and folk, they also play Motown, pop, Hindi rock, and even disco.
“Pageantry has been a piece of the Sugar Beets thing since the beginning,” says vocalist Megan Bassett, BA ’92. The band started out doing themed shows, like Hat Fest, but that grew into appearances by belly dancers, a marching band, or their mascot, a green alligator in a red tutu, being carried in on a sedan chair.
In their first year, the band grew from the founding three to seven members. Scott Herron, a banjo player they met at the Eugene Celebration that first day, keyboardist and guitarist Scotty Perey, BMus ’94, bassist Matt Keenan, BS ’92, and Bassett, Keenan’s girlfriend (and eventually wife)—all UO students—rounded out the original seven. All but Herron are still involved with the band.
Guitar, mandolin, and sitar player Jeremy Wegner, MS ’90, saw the Sugar Beets perform at the Fishbowl and made his first appearance with the band in 1992 at their second anniversary show in the EMU Fir Room. Brianna Bassett, BA ’00, joined her sister, Megan, on vocals when she came to the UO in 1995. When Voxman got married and moved away, David Burham, a UO student in the ’80s and an accomplished violinist with the Eugene Symphony, took over on the fiddle.
In the early days, the Sugar Beets performed at coffee shops, in the EMU Fishbowl, and outdoors—on campus sidewalks and at festivals such as the Willamette Valley Folk Festival, put on by the UO Cultural Forum every spring. “It was a great time to be here in town,” Wegner says. “There was a real musical renaissance happening.”
By 2001, the band was touring throughout the West. “There was a period between 2000 and 2003 when we were playing up to 80 shows a year and trying to get bigger and bigger,” Chilla says. But they eventually burned out on that, plus Bassett and Keenan’s first child was born in 2002. “So that made touring a lot less possible,” Bassett says. “Living in a van was losing its appeal as well,” Chilla adds.
Eventually Brianna Bassett moved on. Now Halie Loren (Smith), BA ’07, an internationally known singer and songwriter, shares the lead vocal position. Brian West, BMus ’92, a former drummer with the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, joined in 2007.
Some band members have maintained strong connections to the UO. Wegner has worked as a genetics and molecular biology researcher at the university for 25 years. Keenan, a civil engineer who works for KPFF Consulting Engineers, has worked with the UO on construction projects that include the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex and PK Park. And West, the drummer, worked for many years as the musical director for Dance Africa, a UO dance company. Although he’s stepped down from that role, he’s still involved at the UO with recitals, lecture and demonstration classes, and youth music camps.
To celebrate their 25th anniversary last fall, the band played three shows, including one at Eugene’s McDonald Theatre. “It wasn’t a reunion show,” Chilla says. “It wasn’t a finale. We’re still writing music and playing songs.” They also put out a new album, Live and 25!, a compilation of their live performances over the last five years.
There’s something about performing with this band that’s unlike anything else, says Loren. “I have so many musical hats that I wear, but this is just pure unadulterated fun,” she says. “You can’t have a bad day and either perform in a Sugar Beets concert or listen to a Sugar Beets concert.”
But it’s more than just fun that has kept the Sugar Beets together all these years, West believes. “The band has probably hung together because of one word—family,” he says. “I think that it would be a difficult day if this band ever decided to call it quits. It would be like running away from home.”
—By LeeAnn Dakers
LeeAnn Dakers, BS ’96, is a freelance writer in Eugene.