Marshall still communicates through his violin but to musical neophytes like me, the power of his performances are enhanced by the stories that preclude his songs. His stories seem to cling to the notes that follow and allow the listener to visualize the melody far more than just reading linear notes.
His original inspiration to play came from musicians on the reservation. "There was a group of old-time Lummi fiddlers," Marshall said. "They would meet down by the river and have jam sessions and sometimes my mom would take me to hear them. I just liked the way some of those old guys were playing."
When Roger Alexander, a music teacher who still teaches at Fairhaven Middle School, asked if anyone wanted to play violin, Marshall’s hand was the first to grab sky. Marshall persistently scratched away at his violin until he had the opportunity to learn from a master violinist, Arthur Thal, who trained him in the finer points of classical music and its disciplines.
Marshall became fanatical about violin and practiced for hours every day, but he may have burnt himself out in the frenzy. After graduating from high school in 1981, Marshall gave his violin a rest and decided to join the Army, where he eventually served eight years.
The peaceful smile that lights Marshall’s visage betrays none of the motivations that put him in the Army. The only thing he regrets about these years of active duty is that he didn’t go "Airborne" or become a Ranger. "I think if I were to do it over again, if anything, I would’ve been even more hard-core," Marshall said.
The Army is not a place typically known for its musical inspiration, but fate lined up in Marshall’s favor. His years as a Chaplain’s assistant at Fort Dix, New Jersey, offered him new opportunities to play violin.
"There was no sheet music for me to play there, only hymn books, so I just wrote my own music. I messed around, people liked the songs, so I just kept doing it," he said. The Army essentially allowed Marshall to refine his skills and discover the art of composition.
When Marshall left the Army, he found his way back to the Northwest and settled in Seattle. He worked a series of odd jobs but never abandoned his violin. He discovered he could make as much money playing sidewalks at night as he made flipping cakes at IHOP, so he began playing professionally by starting at the ground level. He got a performer’s permit for the Pike Place Market and played for donations from the three million people who squirm through there each year. "I would get some strange things in my case. Waffles, bras, you name it," Marshall said. However, the job paid his bills, and the high exposure of the area gave him access to other venues.
Marshall began getting offers to play Seattle’s club circuit and eventually he played them all as the opener for the sweaty, howling drunks of the grunge music scene. "Every time I did those shows I got up there and people would say ‘Oh, solo violin, that will never work’ but I got up there and played, putting my all into it, and that’s what people really want. I think that’s why people like grunge bands—because people are out there performing, presenting all of who they are—and you don’t really have to play rock-n-roll to do that, you can play violin, piano, anything."
Despite the fact that Marshall has opened for some of the most famous white noise idols, he prefers to remember the experiences of playing with talents like Rick Sabo, André Ferrianté and Skeleton and the Spirit. Marshall is happiest playing the smaller, more intimate gigs, concerts where his interaction with the crowd is tangible and where others can be inspired by his work.
"It’s not the crowds that mean something, it’s what comes out of the concert," he said. Still, it is testimony to his unique skills that crowds of slobbering drunks will let the steam settle in their mosh pits to listen to Marshall’s music and stories.
Those years in Seattle also gave Marshall a chance to pursue acting, one of the careers he was most attracted to during high school. Marshall’s drama teacher discouraged him from his ambitions in acting.
"He told me if I wanted to be a professional actor I had better learn to fall off a horse because he figured that would be the only role I could get as a Native American," Marshall said. The role he ended up with in his 25 episodes of "Northern Exposure" was largely Marshall playing himself—a coffee drinker who occasionally came out of the background shots to play violin.