He sang and joked with the children. Wearing a big goofy checkered hat and sparkles on his face, Washboard Willy had the little ones mesmerized with his gentle humor and music.
You’d never guess he just about died once; never guess at the guilt he felt over the motorcycle accident that left his girlfriend in a wheelchair 10 years ago.
Watching Washboard Willy at the Spokane Interstate Fair on Sunday would make you laugh, maybe clap your hands. If you were a kid you’d likely be doing a jig in one of Washboard Willy’s musical trains - a line of children, each given a silly hat and a noisemaker to follow the musician around while he sings.
But it wasn’t always so.
Before there was Washboard Willy, there was “Landscape Larry,” joked Larry Hiskett, the contagiously friendly 48-year-old performer who will be on stage at 12, 2 and 4 p.m. each day of the fair this week.
Hiskett was a city parks planner in Colorado before he was a full-time performer. He sat at a desk, worked 9 to 5, stared at a computer.
Then one September, Hiskett’s big Gold Wing motorcycle skidded on some gravel and crashed. If it hadn’t been for his helmet, he would have died. He was laid up for two months. His girlfriend was confined to a wheelchair.
It was an accident, but Hiskett felt responsible, he said.
“I wanted to heal her. I wanted to trade places with her.”
But he couldn’t. He saw his survival as something special - a gift of time. He assessed his life, looked at his office computer, looked at the washboard he learned to make music with and chose the latter.
“I’ve been on an incredible journey ever since,” Hiskett said.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. At times he had little money and even fewer booked performances.
His father didn’t understand what he was doing. Until recently, he toured in a grim one-ton van.
“It was like driving a cave, I could go spelunking in my own vehicle,” said Hiskett, who now has a modest RV.
But he was having fun, doing something he loved, living a life he wouldn’t regret.
He committed himself to being a children’s performer after a mother told him her child sat still for an entire hour watching him. It was a first for the kid.
Then, while performing in Japan, Hiskett made another discovery that pointed him irreversibly toward children. Unable to speak Japanese, he used other ways to get their attention. He started seeding the lawn with small rhythm instruments before each performance and then encouraged the tykes to join in. It worked and made him realize the power of music, he said.
At the center of his performance is a stainless-steel and oak washboard. He built it after wearing through five other commercial boards. It weighs about 18 pounds and hangs on his chest during performances.
Living in Laguna Beach, Calif., Hiskett has no children of his own. “That’s one reason why I can do this. I take everyone’s kids for 20 minutes and then give them back,” he said with a giant laugh and grin.
But he feels a certain mission. Underneath the train whistle, kazoos and zipping sounds of Hiskett’s washboard is a message: “Do what you love. Find your passion and follow it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo