Big Sky country's a far cry from Nashville
Missoula's country and western scene tunes up the genre
By EDNOR THERRIAULT
Photos by JEFF POWERS
Here's a little sociology project.
Drive 10 miles out of Missoula on Highway 93 to the Evaro Bar on a Friday night. Hoist yourself onto a barstool and ask Sheila the bartender for a cold Coors.
As she cracks open the can, ask the person on the next stool, "What is country music?" Do this 10 times and you'll get 10 different answers. They'll also be right. Country music is whatever you want it to be.
Three chords and spill your guts is as succinct a definition of country as you can get. Of course, it applies to just about all roots music.
Problem is, most people equate this style of music with trailer parks and cowboy hats. The songs tend to be about how "my woman ran off with my best friend and I really miss him" or that "I ran off with my man's best friend, and I think maybe it wasn't such a great idea."
In short, country music has a rep for being created by dim bulbs and marketed to the same. But aficionados of real country can see past the tired effluent being excreted from Nashville directly to your car radio. They enjoy live shit-kickin' music of all types in and around Missoula.
Country is alive and well, and it comes in all shapes. Like rock music, country has fragmented into so many subgenera that there is something out there for almost everyone. You don't have to wear a cowboy hat. Hell, you don't even have to like Coors.
Several country bands work a loose, yet steady, circuit of local watering holes, and they're playing everything from honky-tonk classics from 50 years ago to cutting edge originals that redefine the genre on a nightly basis.
Stuck in the middle
A good starting point for a tour of local country might be the VFW on Main Street. Roger Shack has been holding court there since Bob Dole had a paper route. With mutton chop sideburns big enough to provide shelter for a family of wrens, Shack sits on an orange Naugahyde barstool, hemmed in by an intricate, arcane system of rhythm machines and signal processors he assembled himself.
Shack's one-man show is a popular act with old-timers who still dance cheek to cheek and like to gently jitterbug around the VFW's parquet floor. Strumming his Fender acoustic, Shack's arms and legs flail constantly about like a monkey in a Gemini capsule, hitting foot pedals and flipping switches and turning knobs, while he sings classics by Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and a host of great crooners from country's heyday.
"Smokin' and drinkin' and playin' music on the job and getting paid for it," Shack exclaims. "Man, you can't beat that!"
From the VFW, it's a short mosey to the Elks Lodge ("Public welcome, but spies from the Knights Of Columbus will be shot") where Julie Bug and the Northern Exposure Band can frequently be found.
Julie Bug leads her capable crew through a variety of tunes, but their set is heavy with current radio hits, many of which seem to feature the word "Bubba" in the title. They also throw a few curve balls to keep the crowd paying attention. During a recent show at the Lumberjack Saloon outside Lolo, where you can dance under the watchful gaze of several dead animals, the band displayed their versatility to an appreciative audience, and at least one comatose patron.
Without the steel guitar providing that loopy riff, the band's rendition of the old Stealer's Wheel hit "Stuck in the Middle" sounded a little thin. But they pulled it off, and guitarist John SennŽ's vocals were right on the money. "We consider ourselves a great wedding band," says Julie Bug. "We have something to please everybody."
SennŽ, a local country denizen who has played with several bands, agrees. "A wide variety of songs is not only interesting for the audience, but it keeps it interesting for us, too," he says.
Another of SennŽ's bands, the Sidewinders, shares this attitude, but also has an edge. The trio plays about as often as Conrad Burns recycles a can ("Once every four months or so," says SennŽ.) and has a tougher, more aggressive sound.
"We're just three white guys tryin' to sound like eight black guys," SennŽ said, by way of introduction, at a recent show at the Liberty Lanes Alibi Room. Then the band kicked off a set that featured songs by the Mavericks, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and John Anderson.
While the bass player sang, SennŽ strummed his Telecaster and gazed out of one of the large windows at a shapely blonde bending over the door of her convertible. The band got his full attention, though, when the drummer counted them into "Squeeze Me In," a pre-Guitar Town choogler by Steve Earle.
The 'Winders obviously loved playing this one, and SennŽ strangled a fine rockabilly lead out of his Tele. The tune segued into "Long Tall Texan" for a couple measures, then faded out as the drummer announced, "Hey, whoever's got the blue Chevy with the matching topper, your lights are on." Such are the trappings of playing music in a bowling alley.
The aforementioned Evaro Bar features country music (but absolutely no bowling) every Friday and Saturday, and virtually every local act has appeared on their doormat-sized stage at some point. Bonnie and the Bad Bunch spent a two-nighter there recently, and packed the dance floor with their renditions of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Walkin' After Midnight." A pleasant surprise was "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down," an old Faron Young reprobate anthem that hasn't yet had the crap played out of it.
Another surprise was Bonnie's take on Three Dog Night's "I Never Been to Spain." Not too many bands play that one live, and maybe there's a reason for that. A request for "She Won't Get Under Me 'Til I Get Over You" went unheeded.
If you survive the thrilling ride from Evaro back to Missoula, you may as well press your luck and head west to Frenchtown. The Frenchtown Club and the Alcan Bar, a block apart, usually feature mainstream country. Scene stalwarts Smokin' Gun had the Alcan sweating and whooping it up a few weekends ago. Local guitar slinger Dave Stang wowed the crowd (the crowd that wasn't shit-faced, that is) with some surgically clean leads that dovetailed nicely with Cindy Hodges' chirping fiddle.
Bill Ochsner, better known as Wild Bill, is another local country institution. He and his Bitterroot Cattle Company can often be found playing weekends at the Eagles Club ("Public is welcome, except for ungulates") on South Avenue. The Eagles features a bar at each end of the building, with the bandstand in between. The west bar is the older folks who drink whiskey and smoke a lot of cigarettes; the east bar is the rowdy youngsters who chew snuff and drink gallons of cheap beer.
A recent evening found a mixed bunch sitting in the band room like a Hatfield-and-McCoy picnic. The crowd watched the punky, bottle-blonde drummer pound the drums like they owed him money as Bill sang into his headset. Surrounded by keyboards and synthesizers, I wondered briefly when they were going to break into a Kraftwerk song. The tunes ranged from "Amarillo by Morning" to "Old Time Rock and Roll" (they actually played this song twice). During breaks, Bill joked with the customers and waitresses, trying to sign up more people for his birthday club.
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