Deep cut

Most Montanans peg Huey Lewis as an out-of-touch carpetbagger here to hoard the Bitterroot for himself. When the pop star called us from a hospital bed asking to tell his side, who were we to say no?

Huey Lewis wants to set the record straight: He’s not a jerk. He’s not, as the common criticism goes, a rich, out-of-state, out-of-touch landowner here to ruin the Bitterroot. Specifically, he’s not bent on hoarding one of Montana’s most infamous waterways for himself.

He says all this from a hospital bed in San Francisco in early May. A few days before, doctors diagnosed Lewis with atreal fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm. It’s an ailment that’ll require surgery and ultimately delay his homecoming to Montana for a few days.

The heart condition, however, doesn’t prevent Lewis from passionately defending his land—and what he’s done with it. He’s particularly peeved about an article he’s just read in the Indy about the Mitchell Slough that, he feels, portrays him unfairly. He desperately wants someone to tell his side of the story.

“I’m just a name on a sign,” he says, referring to the infamous warning that marks his private property. “I represent the rich, out-of-state landowners, and I’m not even out-of-state.”

He continues on about how he’s a good neighbor and a conscientious steward of the land. I defend my story, and especially his part in it. Eventually, he starts to calm down.

“Look man,” he says. “I can tell that you weren’t out to screw me, but you humanized [the other people in the article]. You didn’t humanize me.”

Lewis has a point. For years, unfairly or not, he’s been vilified as enemy number one in the Mitchell Slough debate. He’s never stood up to tell his side of the story. I ask if he’s willing to talk when he gets back to Montana. He agrees.

A week later, Lewis waits on the front porch of his large, tasteful house near Victor. He’s feeling a little sluggish today. To recover from surgery, his doctor prescribed him medication that keeps his heartbeat below 80 beats per minute. He can’t drink alcohol or caffeine and is supposed to take it easy. The medical issues frustrate him, but he tries to shrug it off. In less than a week he’s heading back out on a month-long tour with the band that made him famous.

“You want anything?” he asks. “Beer? Coffee? Water? Gatorade?”

Lewis’ musical career as the front man of one of the most iconic ’80s rock bands stretches 30 years. Consequently, there’s not much more for him to accomplish musically. As that chapter of his life draws to a close, conservation has replaced music as his passion. In fact, if he had it his way, he’d hang out on his ranch all day, primping it, sussing it and rehabilitating it, to try to coax fish and wildlife back to the area.

But certain obstacles prevent Lewis from having his way on the land. First, a 2006 Montana Supreme Court decision, which he fought tooth and nail, hampered his ability to work on the Mitchell Slough without cutting through layers of bureaucratic red tape. Second, although Huey Lewis and the News have been playing music for three decades and have a catalogue of chart-topping hits, they haven’t retired. The band still plays approximately 80 dates a year, limiting Lewis’ time on the ranch. Lastly, Lewis knows that his status as an ’80s pop icon brands him with a public bull’s eye, an easy target for public access advocates and Montana natives who don’t like outsiders messing with their land. Since the Mitchell Slough flap, Lewis decided to keep a low profile. It’s something he’s struggled to maintain.

“This,” he says, motioning toward the Mitchell Slough, “is my favorite thing to do. Rehabilitate the land. I love it.”

“What about music?” I ask.

“I love music, too,” he says. “But I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I’ve only been doing this for 10 years.”

I need a new drug

The first time Lewis came to Montana, he didn’t come on tour with his band. He came to fly fish with his father. As a kid, the musician in Lewis loved the metronome tick of his arm between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock as he sought to finesse a lure into a stream. He was hooked.

When Huey Lewis and the News became international icons, and once Lewis had, as he says, “two nickels to rub together,” he returned to the Bitterroot to hunt and fish. He bought a pastoral plot just north of Bell Crossing in 1987 and settled in. But not long after the purchase, he thrust himself to the forefront of one of Montana’s more bitter land use controversies.

About the time Lewis bought his property, the Montana Legislature began grappling with stream access laws. The controversial issue “pits two of the values that Montanans hold very dear—one is private property rights and the other is access to wildlife and fish,” explains Dan Pletscher, director of the Wildlife Biology Program at the University of Montana.

The law breaks down like this: If a body of water is a natural, perennially flowing stream, the public may use it no matter who owns the land around it. Further, the landowner may not alter the stream without a permit. On the other hand, if regulators deem the waterway a man-made ditch, all the regulation and all the public access goes away. For years, the local conservation district regarded Mitchell Slough as a natural, perennially flowing stream, but in 1999, it quietly changed course. A Stevensville man asked the conservation district whether he needed a permit to work on a portion of the Mitchell and the district supervisors told him no, essentially deeming the slough a ditch. 

Lewis says he knew nothing about the debate when he bought the land. He says the previous owners assured him that the waterway was private, and he spent his first few years fishing the slough regularly. As the years passed, however, Lewis says the waterway deteriorated and he began to tinker. He dropped logs and boulders into the slough, and scooped out the silt buildup behind them. He says the work created eddies where fish could spend the winter below the icepack. He then lined the riverbanks with boulders to prevent erosion and, before long, fish started to return. In some parts of the slough, Lewis says he knew exactly how many fish lived in each portion. He knew them by sight and says he knew their ages.

“It’s the most rewarding thing in the world,” he says. “Watching wildlife responding to it. Seeing them come back.”

On the heels of the conservation district’s ruling that the slough was a ditch, a group of residents, calling themselves the Bitterroot River Protective Association (BRPA), filed a lawsuit to have the decision reversed. Lewis was made out as the enemy, grouped with his two neighbors, investment mogul Charles Schwab and billionaire businessman Ken Siebel. The case went all the way to the Montana Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in favor of the BRPA. Public access advocates lauded the victory, but Lewis was devastated.

“It’s a novel, how the conservation values of the valley were hijacked by a handful of these guys,” Lewis says. “They painted us as these rich out-of-staters buying public property with public water on it and fencing the public away from that water. It’s a complete lie. Nobody—ever—in 60 years has parked there at Bell Crossing and gone down and fished and hunted and
had a nice day and left. It’s never, ever happened.”

He’s still bitter over the ruling.

“The Supreme Court did a completely political deal on this,” he says. “The conservation district studied this for three years. They’re eight people in the community who know their stuff. [The court] negated years of research on this deal by both the conservation district and the district court. The irony is, there are no winners in the deal. The real losers are the small farmers, the irrigators.”

Lewis goes on. For someone who’s spent 30 years releasing music for public consumption and critique, he appears especially thin-skinned about the Mitchell Slough decision. When I ask him about it he seems genuinely confused at the question.

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t care what people say about you,” he says.

The day after spending time with Lewis, I drove to a friend’s barbecue and met a handful of people lounging on the front yard. After someone introduced me as a reporter, one person asked what I was writing about.

“Huey Lewis,” I replied.

“Fuck Huey Lewis,” the guy said. “He doesn’t want people to fish in the Mitchell Slough.”

Workin’ for a livin’

Hugh Cregg was born in 1950 in New York City, but grew up in Marin County, Calif. His parents divorced when he was 13 and sent him to a prep school in New Jersey. He graduated in 1967 and, after scoring a perfect 800 on the math portion of his SAT, was accepted to Cornell University. Having skipped the second grade, Cregg graduated high school a year younger than his classmates; he was only 16.

In 1984, he told a story to David Letterman that he swears is true. With some time to kill after graduation, Cregg saved up a bit of cash and hitchhiked from San Francisco to New York, learning to play the harmonica—the harp, as he calls it—during the long wait between rides. Once in New York, he hoped to buy a ticket to Europe, but getting across the country ate away his savings. So, he told Letterman, he snuck onto a plane.

“And uh, you hitchhiked to New York from uh…?” Letterman asked.

“That’s right, I hitchhiked to New York from San Francisco and I actually stowed away on a plane,” he explained. “In those days, you take a boarding pass and write a seat number, destination on the outside, go into the boarding area early and sneak on. And of course, take the middle seat over the wing…I actually stowed away for free on a plane.”

It took him three days to score the free plane ride. In Madrid, Spain, Cregg played his harmonica on street corners until he scraped up enough money for a return ticket. He arrived at Cornell in time for the fall semester and enrolled in the engineering program, but school didn’t take. In 1969, during his junior year at Cornell, Cregg joined a band, dropped out of school and returned to San Francisco.

Cregg soon formed another band, Clover, which played the Bay Area and Los Angeles for four years until a promoter talked them into trying out their sound across the pond. With the move, Cregg, who didn’t have a green card, decided to adopt a name his first girlfriend had bestowed on him as a stage name. Huey Lewy, she had called him. He eventually changed it to Huey Lewis. When Clover opened for Twiggy early in the band’s European career, Cregg made his debut as Huey Lewis.

Despite the name change, Clover’s two albums tanked as British punk rock replaced poppy pub rock, and when the group returned to the United States in 1979, the band members went their separate ways. That year, Lewis began playing a club in Corte Madera, Calif., with a band that would eventually be known as the News. Four years later, they released Sports, which rose to number one on the Billboard 200. Aided by hit videos on MTV, four singles off the album topped the charts, as well. Before long, Huey Lewis and the News were competing with Michael Jackson as the most recognized musical act in America, despite their decidedly un-hip shtick. In fact, “Hip to be Square” was among the hits off their monster 1986 album, Fore! Nothing would be the same. At that point, Lewis realized, “We’re gonna be able to do this for the rest of our lives.”

That was nearly 30 years ago. For Lewis, “the rest of our lives” is looking a lot longer from the back than it does from the front. His health is clearly taking a hit. He  suffers dizzy spells, but then tells visitors—or reminds himself—“I’m not a sickly guy.”

Despite the health concerns, he continues to tour.

“I got a business to run,” he says. “I got 25 people depending on me to keep playing music. I’m just lucky that people will keep coming to see us as long as we continue to play.”

And, true to his commercial routes, Huey Lewis and the News are working on another album. Lewis says the band’s developed a new angle to set it apart from other releases, but he declines to offer specifics.

In fact, Lewis doesn’t talk much about music at all.

I know what I like

If you ever meet Lewis, don’t expect him to talk about his movie roles, like the cameo in Back to the Future or the leading spot alongside Gwyneth Paltrow in Duets.

Don’t expect him to talk about Chicago either, although he played Billy Flynn in a Broadway production of the musical a few years ago.

Most notably, don’t expect him to talk about the News. He hardly mentions the band unless pressed. His home doesn’t even look like one that belongs to a musician. There’s a piano and a guitar tucked away in one corner, neither of which he plays well, he says. The kitchenette, ringed by hanging saucepans, takes up the center of the room. When Lewis talks to visitors, he likes to lean against the counter or sit at his kitchen table.

On the wall, the only mark of his musical career is a small photograph of Lewis and former News saxophonist Ron Stallings in the back of an airplane. Both look tired, but Stallings looks downright ill. He has a jacket draped over his chest and, although he’s smiling, his eyes look pained. Stallings was diagnosed with multiple myeloma three years ago and died April 13.

The home sits off the main road, down a long, private driveway. Lewis enjoys the peace and quiet, but acknowledges that the location may have caused the disintegration of his marriage. He’d be on tour, or in California working on a new album, while his now ex-wife sat home in the Montana winter with the couple’s two children. The two remain friends, Lewis says, and she watched over him while he was in the hospital in San Francisco.

“We’re great as long as we don’t live together,” he says.

Lewis favors Carhart jeans, denim shirts and decaf coffee. When it’s chilly out, the coffee’s straight up. When the weather warms, he pours it over ice.

In his garage, a beat up Jeep Cherokee is parked next to an unassuming Chevy Tahoe. He stores his 4-wheeler in between the two and when he wants to show me his ranch, he tells me to “hop on like you’re my girlfriend.” 

What Lewis does like to talk about is the outdoors. Recently, workers at the Montana Department of Transportation were clearing trees on Highway 93 not far from Lewis’ ranch. He talked them into dropping the logs on his property, the idea being to submerge them in the river again, creating more fish habitat. But because of the Mitchell Slough decision, he’s decided to abandon the project.

What about jumping through the hoops? Why not get the necessary permits?

“It’s public land,” he says now. “Why would I do that?”

The power of love

Lewis’ harsh feelings toward Mitchell Slough belie his other efforts in the community. Since he moved to the Bitterroot, Lewis has found ways to give back to the areas he most cherishes—music and the environment.

In 2007, as the economy started to tank, the University Jazz Festival Fine Arts Committee struggled with fundraising for its annual Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival. Noting the glut of charity events in Missoula, the committee searched for a way to stand out.

“There’s a million [fundraisers] in Missoula, so what do you do?” says Bruce Micklus, owner of Rockin Rudy’s and a member of the committee. The group turned to local jazz pianist Jodi Marshall, who had taught Lewis’ kids piano lessons. She knew Lewis would lend a hand if he could.

“Huey was always very nice to me,” Marshall says, “and he’s quite the philanthropic fellow.”

At Marshall’s request, Lewis headlined an event at the Missoula Children’s Theater. In front of a sold-out crowd, Lewis performed with the University Jazz Band, running through some of his hits, as well as classics by the likes of Frank Sinatra. Marshall says the event raised more than $40,000 for the jazz department.

“The kids loved it,” Micklus remembers. “He loved it. It was a terrific party. And for the jazz department, when things had been tough, it was really a shot in the arm. It gave us the ability to continue to do things for the next couple of years.”

Looking back, Micklus remembers being surprised that a celebrity of Lewis’ stature would volunteer his services for such an event.

“I guess you’re always a little taken aback when people who are quote-unquote ‘a star’ offer to donate their services like that,” he says. “Now that I’ve had that experience, I guess that he was really happy to be able to do something like that.”

The event went well enough that the committee is discussing a second concert with Lewis. Marshall doesn’t anticipate a problem setting it up.

“He was very honored to do it,” Marshall says. “I think he just needed somebody to ask him. I knew Huey and his wife Sydney, and they’re lovely people.”

Without being prompted, Marshall then adds, “He’s also very ecology minded.”

Dan Pletscher of the UM Wildlife Biology Program met Lewis for exactly that reason. According to Pletscher, the success of duck nests in the Bitterroot is extremely low. The best way to improve a nest’s prospects, he says, is to build it over a body of water, so Pletscher and his students started asking Bitterroot landowners to let them build humanmade duck nests on their property. Lewis heard about the program and asked to be included.

“The vegetation [on Lewis’ property] is relatively lightly grazed so it’s in pretty good shape,” Pletscher says. “I’ve seen great horned owls on his place, a pair with a young. I saw a crane nest. Lots of geese, lots of ducks, lots of deer.”

Pletscher pauses.

“He’s certainly had a fair amount of controversy over the access thing,” he adds, “which is unfortunate.”

Lewis has others who come to his defense on the Mitchell Slough debate. Donald Maus, former head of the Teller Wildlife Refuge, echoes Lewis’ complaint that the whole issue was political.

“None of the people who push this issue, they’re not sportsmen, they don’t give a shit about the resource, they give a shit about out-of-state people and people with dough,” Maus says.

When he speaks about Lewis, Maus offers nothing but praise.

“He’s no dummy, man. He’s genius level. He’s very thoughtful and he really cares about the resource,” he says. “This whole issue has been beating the shit out of him. It hasn’t been good for his health.”

Stuck with you

Lewis describes himself as “a lefty.” He voted for Obama. And when he bought his property, he brushed off the libertarian concerns he heard from other Bitterrooters that the government was “gonna try to take your land!”

“I thought, ‘That’s bullshit,’” he says. “But that’s exactly what’s happened. The environment is going to be to the left what religion is to the right.”

Lewis drives his 4-wheeler along the slough just north of Bell Crossing when he spots a rig parked on the bridge over the waterway.

“See,” he says. “There’s a guy fishing right now. He probably just heard it was open, or maybe he read it in the newspaper.” He shoots me a look. “I just hope he’s a fly fisherman.”

Sometimes Lewis is an apt listener. Other times, talking with him feels like trying to interrupt a ripping guitar solo. It’s best just to hang on for the ride, let him get it all out. Fly-fishing is one of the topics he gets excited about.

“I’m a dry fly snob,” he says. “Let’s go find that fisherman. I just want him to understand how fragile the resource is.”

Lewis searches for a while, lauding the elegance of fly-fishing over the barbarity of worms the entire time.

“People come down here and they use fuckin’ worms and treble hooks, man,” he says. “It rips [the fish’s] guts out. Some of these brown trout here are 20 years old. I just assume that [the fishermen] who show up here aren’t assholes, they just don’t know. They just don’t understand what they’re doing to the land. They just don’t understand.”

Lewis says the same lack of understanding pegged him as an evil outsider during the Mitchell Slough debate. He’s tired of it, and eager to clear his name.

“It’s not fun when you read about yourself in the newspaper being this pig,” Lewis says. “And I’ve read it for 20 years. It’s not pleasant.”

He’s not sure he can ever repair his public image in western Montana, but trusts that those who know him appreciate how much he cares for the land.

“I think I’m a great neighbor,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever tried to be is a great neighbor.”

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