In 1981, the Big Sky Mudflaps played live on "The Today Show." They arrived at 4 a.m., did a few sound checks and then stood around waiting for host Tom Brokaw to introduce them to the nation. A few minutes before they went live, at around 8:30, Mudflaps' guitarist David Horgan recalls Brokaw mounting the stage and staring at the teleprompter in annoyance. "He goes, 'I don't like any of this. I'm just going to wing it.'"
The clock ticked down—five, four, three, two, one. As the studio lights focused on Brokaw, he looked past the screen and spoke to the audience. "He told them how we were the Big Sky Mudflaps," Horgan says. "And he told them that we'd just flown into New York all the way from Montana. Then he said—and this was the phrase he used—he said that we had 'taken New York by storm.'"
"Well," he says. "That was definitely not in the script. And it wasn't exactly true. But he had this connection to Montana—he has a ranch out here—and I think, for him, we were something different, and that's why he said it."
It might not have been true that the Big Sky Mudflaps took New York by storm, but they were making a bit of a splash. Their 1979 album, Armchair Cabaret, had gained them some critical acclaim. After that they started appearing at clubs and college campuses across the country, as well as at major jazz and folk festivals, like Newport. They had a second appearance on "The Today Show" in 1982, and for several years they were regular guests on National Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion." Billboard magazine called their second release, 1983's Sensible Shoes, a "notable album" for the year. During their tours from coast to coast, they were written up in The New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times and Esquire, among others.
That was the Big Sky Mudflaps' Golden Age, if you measure success in terms of national attention. In the end, they never really made it big, and eventually they had families, stopped doing big national tours and settled into Montana as a regional band. But unlike so many acts before and after, they never dropped off the map. After 40 years together, the Big Sky Mudflaps have continued to be a staple in Missoula's music scene. They've had a few line-up changes and a one-month hiatus, but other than that they've been in it for the long haul, playing bars and outdoor parties, weddings, Out to Lunch in Caras Park and block parties.
Gary Giddens wrote in a May 1981 issue of The Village Voice a review titled "Big Noise from Missoula." It reads: "The Big Sky Mudflaps, a honky tonk band from Montana that rocked, rolled, and swung for two nights at Cody's last week, lacks one quality found in most of the young white bands that revived post-depression pazz and jop during the past decade: pretentiousness." Giddens goes on to describe how the Mudflaps don't try to wear "authentic" clothing or imitate the mannerisms of black musicians and don't attempt "fussbudget transcriptions of arrangement that have already been done to a faretheewell."
Critics like Giddens and writers from other East Coast publications seemed drawn to the Mudflaps first and foremost because the band included Judy Roderick, a well-regarded blues-folk musician of the 1960s who had moved to Hamilton and joined the band. But once critics saw the Mudflaps play, they seemed eager to dissect the entire band's mystique—or lack thereof. Ariel Swartley's article in The Boston Phoenix described the band's "pre-synthesized" setup, but noted they did not come off like a period piece or play anything campy.
"It's as though they'd set those pleated pants flapping rhythms and caramel-flavored horns free from history."
- photos courtesy of Big Sky Mudflaps
- The Big Sky Mudflaps gained some national attention in the 1980s, including when they played “The Today Show” hosted by Tom Brokaw. A staple of the Missoula music scene, the jazz-swing band celebrates its 40th anniversary.
The fact that they weren't cool—or trying to be—is what caught the most attention. But for a band not used to the nightlife of New York, the experience could be bewildering. The crowd at Cody's far out-dressed the band in fancy cowboy boots and fringe. And the Mudflaps were not the country band the audience had expected. At another venue, the sound man decided to bottom out the bass to give them a heavier sound. "That was scary," Horgan says. That same night the power went out, which prompted one critic to wonder how a swing band from Montana could cause that kind of impact.
They played even stranger venues: yacht races on the East Coast and casinos in Tahoe. They played Club Lingerie in LA. "It was pink décor—a creepy place," Horgan says. "We set up and went out to have dinner and when we came back there was a doorman there. We were in our shorts and T-shirts and he wouldn't let us in the door. And we go, 'But we're the band.' He finally let us in and the manager says, 'You're going to change, right?' And it was like, 'Yeah, we're going to change. We're going to put on our Hawaiian shirts.'
"It didn't matter," Horgan adds. "These fortunate things that happened—one thing led to another. And that was really our era of working and being known outside of this region."
The Big Sky Mudflaps are kind of a goofy bunch. In the 1990s, they sometimes did a show on Montana Public Radio called "Armchair Cabaret," named after their first album, where they pretended to be other made-up bands playing songs or doing skits. In the vein of Garrison Keillor, they'd make up fake organizations like The Rocky Mountain Redneck Foundation, which was "preserving and protecting prime redneck habitat."
"If you ask how you possibly keep a band together that long, part of the answer is having a sense of humor about yourselves and what you're doing," Horgan says. "Maybe that's not the whole answer, but it's part of the answer."
Their good nature was put to the test in 2013 when pianist and founding member Steve Powell died of cancer. The band took a month off. For the memorial service, they filled the Bedford Building in Hamilton past capacity and invited any musician who had ever played with them to come. They ended up with 16 people on stage. For their 40th anniversary this year, they are inviting former members to return to Montana for shows, including at this week's Out to Lunch at Caras Park and their gala concert at the Top Hat next month.
The Mudflaps currently includes Horgan (guitar/vocals), Beth Lo (bass/vocals), Rich Brinkman (drums/vocals), Chuck Florence (saxophone), Maureen Powell (vocals) and Jim Rogers and Bob Packwood (splitting keyboards). They still like to talk about those "golden years," Horgan says, but it's not the only era that mattered for them. They are still disarming and unpretentious. Their decision to stay close to Montana in the mid-1990s may have prevented them from getting any bigger. But it's possible that decision also preserved them this long as a band that isn't necessarily trying to impress anyone.
"The Mudflaps are a family, and the spirit has always been to play stuff that we want to play in a pretty broad variety of styles," Horgan says. "And here we are, 40 years later, still doing it."
The Big Sky Mudflaps play Out to Lunch at Caras Park Thu., Aug. 26, from 11 AM to 2 PM. They play an anniversary show at the Top Hat Sat., Sept. 19, at 10 PM. Both shows are free.