It’s almost a relief to learn that Tom Catmull doesn’t have it all figured out. The rootsy stalwart of the local music scene has done what many have deemed impossible and others have simply failed at: playing week-in and week-out for 11 years in Montana’s smoky and, nowadays, not-so-smoky bars over raucously imbibing throngs with a full five-piece band, or at just the right volume in the corner of a dinner crowd with just a six-string. You may get the feeling he’s stumbled upon some secret formula, since Catmull’s on the short list of Missoula musicians who’ve been able to pull off this routine so consistently and for so long, and, most impressively, with none of the cynicism or wear one would expect from the job. But he doesn’t have it all down quite yet.
“Most musicians have a finite life,” Catmull says the morning after successive nights playing a Whitefish bar and a private function in Bozeman, and a few hours before heading to another private event at Holland Lake. “It’s really scary to think about that because when you’re playing in a bar or anywhere, you feel like you’re kind of spilling it a little bit, getting rid of some of whatever it is that keeps you going, and you have to be careful about getting it back. I’ve seen a lot of musicians who spill it all out and never fill back up. And I’m still working to find that balance.”
That search is evident on his latest album, a richly arranged and dexterously written eponymous effort with his current lineup, Tom Catmull and the Clerics. Here his formula for spilling and filling isn’t so much debunked as it is dissected, and the result reflects a musician at ease—an upbeat, down-home, front-porch ease—more than did his three previous releases.
“I listen to it and I feel like it’s closer to what I want than anything else I’ve ever done,” he says, referring to his 1998 solo outing East of Opportunity, 2000’s The Sound of a Car (with the backing of a host of local musicians) and 2002’s Slippery Hill with the Tom Catmull Band. “Before, like with my last album, I wanted to blow the roof off of everywhere. I wanted to record something that would get me gigs at every bar in town. I had a chip on my shoulder as ‘the folk guy.’ I just couldn’t get away from myself. It was an altogether more aggressive attack with that band. Now I feel like we’ve redirected that focus and made something that’s closer to the rootsy, song-oriented feel I really wanted.”
It’s taken Catmull some time to figure out what he wanted. When he moved to Missoula from Houston in 1995, he was a singer-songwriter type who quickly landed shows playing covers. He remembers his good friend and former bandmate Larry Hirshberg telling him, “You’re good with this whole singer-songwriter thing, but now you need to, you know, actually go write your own songs.” So he did, and Catmull slowly grew an audience in Missoula and throughout the state. Today, his band plays regularly in town at Sean Kelly’s, the Union Club and the Old Post Pub, as well as at private events, for as many as four shows a week.
The album contains a few firsthand accounts of Catmull’s climb to local fixturedom. “Steady Gig” is a literal lament on the business of booking shows, and the opening “Live and Die,” a longtime staple of his live show, was written during a particularly frustrating time early in Catmull’s career when he was trying to convince a Chico bar owner to book the band. The lyrics may speak to Catmull’s backstory, but it’s the musical arrangements on the new album that are most telling of his current approach.
In addition to the up-tempo tracks indicative of his bar shows, there are also some delicately layered tunes that showcase the talents of the Clerics and Catmull’s maiden attempt at production. The band—drummer Travis Yost, pedal steel and electric guitarist Gibson Hartwell, bassist John Sporman, fiddler Grace Decker and mandolinist Mason Tuttle—shines on the remake of Tom Waits’ “Poncho’s Lament” and the simmering original “Never Say Never.” In another example, Catmull strips down “Sail on Gone,” turning the big sound of the show-favorite pop-rock tune into a gorgeous acoustic solo. And then there’s “Hole in Her Head,” which features Sporman on upright bass and Yost on brushes.
“That song’s really sticking with me just because it’s a sound we never do and have never done before,” says Catmull.
In total, Tom Catmull and the Clerics speaks to a maturity and assurance in Catmull’s music that he’s cherishing. Bands can be fleeting, he says, and this recording marks a time when he feels he’s been able to tie everything together.
“I’ll make missteps till I’m dead, I’m sure. But I’ve been playing enough around here to know how to avoid a lot of the pitfalls,” he says. “And I know that right now I really enjoy where we’re at. It feels like we’ve found that balance I was talking about, and I’m going to enjoy that because you never know how long it will last.”
Tom Catmull and the Clerics play a CD-release show Friday, Sept. 8, at the Elk’s Club at 8 PM. Russ Nasset and Broken Valley Roadshow open. $8/$7 in advance/$2 off for Missoula Folklore Society members.