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Little barbershop of harmonies

35 years and counting with the Rocky Mountainaires



They’re chemistry professors, retired physicians, retired schoolteachers, asphalt workers and car mechanics. They come from all different age groups and “all walks of life,” says Donna Grinde, but what brings them together every Tuesday evening in the basement of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church is their shared love of barbershop music.

Grinde is the music director of the Rocky Mountainaires, a vocal group set to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its “charter night” this month with a pair of upcoming performances. Grinde grew up in a family of dance band musicians, and put nearly two decades of singing into the Sweet Adelines, a sister group to the Mountainaires, and, like the men’s group, a local chapter of a larger national organization. A retired legal secretary (she worked for the local law firm of Garlington and Lohn for 17 years), you’d never guess Grinde wasn’t a retired music teacher from the way she takes matters in hand at the weekly rehearsals.

“I do go in with a lesson plan,” she says, laughing. “I’m in charge of music. We do warm-ups with some old songs and then do some new ones. We like to keep our repertoire polished, and learn new material. We learned four new songs this year, and we carry some of the old ones over so that we don’t lose what we spent so much time learning.”

Grinde says that although being the female director of an all-male group makes her somewhat atypical, there are a few other female directors across the country, including four in the same regional district as the Rocky Mountainaires. She says she was offered the assignment in a phone call “out of the blue” in 1999 and accepted on the spot—directing was something she’d always wanted to do. And all that time in the Sweet Adelines, from which she’d just recently retired, was good training for the job.

“It was a natural transition,” says Grinde. “Barbershopping is barbershopping. We have a really good working relationship, the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus. We have our hobby in common. I spend a lot of time on it every week, but I have the time because I’m retired, and this is my hobby. I love it, so that’s what I do.

“I’ve had a really good run with them,” she adds. “There’s just a real positive attitude. We work real hard to foster that.”

Baritone Don Luntz is one of two charter Mountainaires still active with the group. As he explains it, the current men’s chorus snowballed around a core group of inveterate barbershoppers who got together just for the fun of it in the mid-’60s.

“This was before there was any group at all. There were a few other fellas from other cities and towns who had sung barbershop before. There were probably a dozen of us the first time we got together, then we kept getting more guys and more guys.”

Once the original quartet started snowballing (and changed names—it seems there was already a Timbertones in New Jersey, so the Missoula quartet opted to become the Pinetones), it seemed the logical next step to charter a larger group with the fabulously named Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (or “Spebsqua Incorporated!” as Luntz calls it). That’s the group currently D.B.A. the Rocky Mountainaires.

During its first few years the group practiced at the Presbyterian church, but then a basement fire forced them to find a new rehearsal space. They settled in at St. Paul’s and have been there ever since. Luntz also briefly served as director in the early ’70s—“Not because I wanted to,” he says, “but because they didn’t have anybody else.” He confirms that Donna Grinde’s reign of just four and a half years as music director has been a period of progress and prosperity.

“We’ve been in building mode for the past two or three years,” he says. “It’s getting to be really exciting again, with a new director and everything—she’s a lot of fun, and she really puts a lot of work into it. She helps us out quite a bit.”

The positive attitude that Grinde admires about the group arises—and occasionally, it seems, recedes—from within the ranks. Luntz says that new membership goes up when group energy is up, and down during the occasional—and, perhaps, inevitable, when one considers the commitment required to stick to the same Tuesday routine for 35 years—periods of waning interest and group inertia.

“It’s mostly us, I think, the chorus members, determining what’s going on,” says Luntz. “If we’re enthusiastic and sounding good, and looking like we’re enjoying ourselves, it’s easy to get people to come sing with us. And if we’re not doing that—well, there’s been times when we haven’t been that enthusiastic, and membership has fallen off.”

Luntz says there have been ups and downs over the years, but he prefers to remember the ups. The size of the larger chorus has made traveling somewhat impractical, but smaller spin-off quartets like the Pinetones used to travel all over the Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia and Alberta.

“We sang in Victor, Idaho, one Friday and Saturday night,” Luntz remembers, “drove all the way across Wyoming and sang in Rapid City at the Central States Fair on Sunday night. That was quite an experience. We were looking out on a beautiful full moon over the audience, and behind us there was a really brilliant show of the northern lights.”

The Rocky Mountainaires currently count about 25 members: three tenors, five baritones, seven basses and nine leads. At times, the chorus has swelled to nearly 60 members; other times, it’s shrunk to fewer than 20. The most recent additions have joined within the last year. Other members have been on board for two or three years, and there are some, says Grinde, in both the five- and 10-year ranges. Ages range from 25 to 75.

Ties between the Rocky Mountainaires and the Sweet Adelines (who, incidentally, won a regional competition in Boise last weekend) have always been close. But for those looking to join as a way to meet barbershoppers of the opposite sex—forget it, says Don Luntz. Sibling groups they may be, but Luntz says fraternization is frowned upon in order to maintain, well, group harmony.

“We kind of discourage that sort of thing,” he says. “[Disputes] can happen between married people, too, but it’s really not a very good situation to be fraternizing too much. Especially when we’re doing so many very enjoyable things together, going on trips at the same time and so forth, it’s generally not a good idea.”

Still, barbershopping has formed the basis for many good friendships over the years. Music Director Grinde says there’s a lot of social overlap in the Mountainaires, particular among those members who also quartet together.

“We have activities, too,” she says, “where we bring our families in on parties and things. We have a real tight group. Our families know each other because we gather two or three times a year specifically for that purpose—so our families can get acquainted. My husband and I are partners in a resort up at Swan, and for the last three years the chorus have gone up there with their families for a weekend getaway. It’s neat that they can all recreate together, too.

“We all care about each other,” Grinde continues. “We keep track of who’s having problems—health problems, or whatever kind of problem, and we jump in and help them as much as we can. There’s just a feeling of brotherly love there. Barbershoppers have big hearts, you know what I mean? When you sing that kind of music, you have to have a lot of heart and emotion and passion for what you’re doing. You’re not just singing, you’re performing. It comes from the soul.”

The Rocky Mountainaires perform Friday and Saturday nights, May 7 and 8, at the Elks Club. Tickets cost $25 and include a buffet dinner from 6:30–7:30 PM. Doors open at 5:45 PM. Tickets are available at Access Music, Electronic Sound & Percussion and Rockin Rudy’s. Call 721-4499 for info.

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