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Lorie Line looks back on three decades in the music industry as she embarks on her holiday tour

Lorie Line began her musical career playing piano in Dayton's department stores 30 years ago. She now tours the Midwest and beyond with her own ensemble of performers. Courtesy of the artist

Editor's note: Dan Wascoe, a retired Star Tribune columnist, first interviewed Lorie Line in 1990 during her Dayton's department store days. For the past 11 years, he has performed as a pianist with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance.

When Lorie Line began playing solo piano in Dayton's department stores 30 years ago, she resolved "to learn new music all the time" for her hourlong shows — 28 hours a week at stores in downtown Minneapolis, Edina and Roseville.

Reason: "I wanted the employees to like me."

Since then she's learned many more lessons — musical, commercial, culinary, even horticultural — that helped her build a business and fulfill a dream, surviving tough times along the way. And her audiences seem to like her just fine. She's become part of many families' holiday traditions and earned a place in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.

This year she is wrapping up her 29th holiday tour through seven mostly Midwestern states accompanied by her husband, Tim (who doubles as Santa Claus), a five-member chamber orchestra, a vocal soloist, personal assistant, sound engineer, bus and truck drivers, crates of brightly sequined and fur-trimmed gowns, shoes to die for, dozens of cast costumes, elaborate sets and props, cases of merchandise (including handbells and CDs) and her own grand piano imprinted with her name in gold.

Before embarking on this year's 31-day, 28-venue tour — ending Dec. 23 — she and her musicians staged four more intimate concerts in her villa-like home in Orono, Minn., where her window-wrapped, elevated living-room stage overlooks Forest Lake.

Those at-home listeners — up to 50 at a time — hear Line's latest program before it hits the road, and each 75-minute performance is followed by dessert and coffee. She admits that "my home is my favorite venue and favorite stage."

Lorie Line prepares for her holiday tour. Daniel Wascoe

On the road, her troupe performs before thousands of fans, including many who make her show part of their holiday routine. She prepares post-performance dinners for her musicians because most shows last late into the evenings. (Her crew members take turns doing dishes.)

The journey concludes on New Year's Eve back home in Orono, where the musicians perform and Line cooks dinner for 50 guests, including some from distant states.

"I'm a fabulous cook," she says.

The rest of the year, the Lines tend their music-centered business: composing, selecting and arranging songs, designing costumes, filling CD orders, recording another CD and publishing music books of her piano arrangements. She also does many solo piano performances: 30 last year.

Along the way, she has produced two fundraising specials for PBS and says she has sold or distributed more than 6 million CDs, about half from a promotion of her holiday music on Chex cereal boxes.

If all this qualifies as stardom, it did not burst suddenly into a supernova. But its core has remained constant — what the star calls the Lorie Line sound.

"I have an incredible way of phrasing," she declared. "It's a lyrical way of breaking up the notes. It has a line to it" that is geared to performance rather than to accompanying voices or other instruments. "It's kind of a rolling, pretty sound — somewhat simple but well thought out. Nobody can do it quite like me. It's unique and never boring. My gift is writing and arranging."

She has learned that her artistic tastes and styling appeals primarily to women 25 to 35.

Lorie Line and her husband, Tim, handle all aspects of touring. Courtesy of the artist

She attributes those gifts to God, whom she calls "the Master," reflecting a strong spiritual undercurrent to her shows. The last two have been titled King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Line begins each year researching and trying out music for the next CD and tour.

"I play songs out of books. If they're pretty or I can make them pretty, things I think I can do well," they might end up in her repertoire. "But if they're awkward or klutzy, I pass."

Last August she began charting arrangements for each song and each musician in her chamber orchestra: cello (Randall Davidson), oboe (Megan Dvorak), percussion (Caitlin Lucic), trumpet (Mitch van Laar), bass (Ethan Yeshiva) and vocalist Moriah Huerta. By late October, after recording each part in her home studio, she sent the recordings and sheet music to her players.

They had 10 days to review and begin memorizing the material before beginning rehearsals on Nov. 5. Ten more sessions followed, each lasting three hours. After each one, Line continued practicing three tunes with the cellist and bass … they play as a trio during the show.

While husband Tim is a vital part of the business team and cast, Lorie is the head Line at rehearsals and performances.

At rehearsals, she focuses on fine points of the ensemble's performance, sometimes repeating a passage half a dozen times to master the nuances. She listens to but does not always accept suggestions from her colleagues. She rules on issues of staccato and legato, tempo (regal and royal or fast and furious), finishing flourishes, and even choreography; which foot the musicians should begin with during a procession and precisely when an instrumentalist should stand and sit during a solo. During one such session, oboist Dvorak joked she felt like a "whack-a-mole."

Harking back to her Dayton's decision to stay musically fresh, Line said that despite 29 tours, she never repeats a tune exactly, although she might add a few tweaks: "I'm on my fourth arrangement of 'O, Holy Night.'"

Born in Phoenix, Ariz., Line began piano lessons at 5. Although her grandmother played stride-style piano to accompany silent movies, Line met her only twice. No one else in her family, including her two adult children, plays an instrument professionally, but Line learned to play by ear and earned a degree in piano performance at the University of Nevada, Reno.

After meeting Tim on an airplane, they courted for four months before marrying in 1986. After he landed a job with Josten's and they moved to Minnesota, she did office work for a construction company.

Her piano job at Dayton's from 1988 to 1993 led her to record a holiday album, Sharing the Season. After that, she said, "There was no going back." It wasn't long before she began plotting her first holiday tour.

Her list of tour cities varies.

"We drop and add different cities every year," she said. "Some cities get added back in perhaps every two or three years. It is all about routing, affordability, turnout and how we feel."

This year's additions were Waconia and New Ulm, Minn., Eau Claire, Wis., and Volga, S.D.

The largest performance venue this year is the Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks, N.D. (2,800 seats). Others include Denver, Sioux Falls, S.D., Des Moines and Lincoln, Neb., plus auditoriums and theaters in the Twin Cities area. Line has dropped Blue Earth, Minn., where "we can't get [attendance] past 500 seats."

Three members of her chamber orchestra have stayed with the tour for several years, but this year Line added percussionist Lucic and trumpeter Van Laar, whom she recruited after hearing him perform on a cruise ship. Tim Line remains as a veteran Santa, bellmeister and master of ceremonies.

Each holiday show is a sensory melange of elaborate robes and gowns, lighted trees, crosses, banners, candelabra, bell-ringing by the audience and the ever-popular "12 Days of Christmas" with kids in animal costumes that Line and company bring for them. Connecting them all are holiday songs that Line meticulously arranges, note by note.

Like most touring entertainers, the Lines can tell stories of mishaps.

Lorie recalls an episode in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where she hung her dress on an overhead sprinkler backstage before the show. That triggered an unscheduled deluge that soaked her dress and hairdo, requiring an emergency makeover from a beautician in the audience.

Lorie Line Courtesy of the artist

This year, during a performance in Burnsville, kids from the audience were helped as usual into costume by Line's crew to perform "12 Days of Christmas." But as her assistant Michele Van Beek wrote later in an online review: "Those naughty elves must have snuck in and sprinkled glue all over the stage before the show causing the Lords of Leaping to get stuck. Santa will have to have a talk with them!"

The annual tour generates about 50 percent of the Lines' revenue, while sales of her piano arrangements bring in 20 percent, CD sales 10 percent, and fees from digital downloads and streaming services most of the rest, Tim said.

Line said she expanded into music publishing after fans told her, "I want to play like you." She has issued more than 50 books of sheet music and released 44 CD albums.

As her music enterprises expanded, the Lines' revenues peaked at more than $4 million in about 2000. They decided to build their Orono villa in 1996.

But their lives changed with the Great Recession that began in 2007 and with rapid changes in the music business.

Stores such as Musicland closed, cutting into CD sales. Music consumers shifted toward digital listening and purchasing. Tour ticket sales declined. With revenues cut by about 50 percent, the Lines sold an office building and "sold everything we did not need on eBay," Lorie said. "We did not go out to dinner for a year."

But they never lost their treasured house on the lake, despite inaccurate reports that it had been sold through foreclosure.

"We did try to sell for $3.9 million," she said, but her heart wasn't in it. "I wanted to stay here."

Looking back, the period from 2008 to 2012 was "the lowest time in my whole life," she said. "We had to reinvent ourselves. We simplified."

The tour's chamber orchestra shrunk from 12 musicians to five. The costume budget hemorrhaged from $150,000 to $20,000.

She began recording music at home instead of using outside studios. They consolidated offsite warehousing space into their garage and rented out the first house they owned. They also began doing their own gardening: "I learned to drive a tractor," she said.

They also learned to use computers to sell their tour tickets, CDs and music books and to do their accounting. They switched from buying newspaper advertising to placing ads on Facebook.

"I never took a business class," Line said, "but we began figuring out ways to put [our products] out there."

At 60, Line says she's never been happier, despite the annual high-pressure crescendo of bringing all the pieces together. Drawing on her spirituality, she said she's learned to take nothing for granted.

"I don't ever see myself retiring," she said. "Nothing else would be as pleasing to me."

But she would like to continue rebuilding their revenue stream to continue the lifestyle she enjoyed in flush times.

That prospect seems in reach, she said, because after 30 years in the business and 29 years of touring, "I know how things sell."

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