The backbone of the music scene in our region is the mid-size venues: the dive bars and theaters with space for 150 to 500 people that incubate local talent, and occasionally land big bands passing through.
BY YOGESH SIMPSON
There’s a lot of grousing these days about the pace of growth in the Greater Yellowstone, and its associated hassles. Whether it’s traffic, housing prices, crowded trailheads or long chairlift lines, there’s plenty to bitch about. But for music lovers, there may be a silver lining.
With album sales at an all time low and streaming services offering artists paltry payouts, bands are increasingly turning to touring to make a living. As James McMurtry said in the last issue of Mountain Outlaw, “It used to be we’d tour to promote records. Now we make records to promote tours.” The result is more acts on the road, and since the game for promoters in our (relatively) unpopulated corner of the country has been to snag national acts en route to major metropolitan areas, this means more demand for music venues. Developers are responding.
Last summer, the 4,000-capacity Kettlehouse Amphitheater near Missoula, Montana, made its debut with an impressive lineup of national acts including Ween and Lyle Lovett, and the Gallatin Valley will soon have a comparable venue. Bozeman’s Bridger Brewing recently secured 250 acres at the junction of Interstate 90 and Highway 287 near Three Forks. The plan calls for a 3,000- to 5,000-person amphitheater, in addition to a production facility and tasting room to open in 2019.
But amphitheaters are fair weather affairs and the backbone of the music scene in our region is the mid-size venues: the dive bars and theaters with space for 150 to 500 people that incubate local talent, and occasionally land big bands passing through. There’s recent growth in this sector, too.
The Attic is a fantastic new addition to the Livingston scene; Bozeman will soon see the resurrection of a long-shuttered historic downtown theater with an option for unseated shows (read: dancing!); and in the Tetons, the Pink Garter and Knotty Pine have been gradually upgrading their facilities for years. Here is a taste of venues, and two up-and-coming bands, that are shaping the music scene in our corner of the West.
PINK GARTER THEATRE | Jackson, Wyoming
The Pink Garter Theatre has emerged over the last few years as the premier venue for live music in Jackson. Once a traditional 350-seat theater, it can now accommodate up to 450 in the unseated and tiered space. Combined with its dimly lit bar and restaurant, The Rose, the scene is distinctly stylish. The programing ranges from weekly Thursday night salsa dancing and local DJ acts, to arena-filling bands on their way to or from Salt Lake City.
RIALTO THEATRE | Bozeman, Montana
After years of languishing behind a boarded-up facade, and the promises of several failed developers, Bozeman’s Rialto Theater opens its doors once again in January. Completely renovated by Thinktank Design Group, the theater will feature state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment designed for all manner of music, drama and film. Between the ground floor and the mezzanine, the venue will have space for 400 people and include a beer and wine bar on the top floor, called the Burn Box. The top floor will also house an event and gallery space. Highlights from the opening month include indie rockers Car Seat Headrest on January 26, and beatboxing comedian Reggie Watts on January 27.
Q&A with The Band of Drifters
Ian Thomas is a self-proclaimed permanent drifter who’s been passing through Montana for the last nine years, but now calls Livingston, Montana, home. Fortunately, he’s found a band to bring his gritty, crooning country music to life. With thoughtful songwriting, loping rhythms and pedal steel, the Drifters execute this often- attempted style with rare panache. Mountain Outlaw connected with Thomas in September as he was finishing a tour in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Mountain Outlaw: You got your musical start in Tennessee, but now consider Montana home. How did you end up in Livingston?
Ian Thomas: I was touring through, in 2007, just doing a solo tour on my way out to the West Coast. A booking agent hooked me up with Danny Freund and we played a gig at the Murray Bar and then [Bozeman’s] Filling Station. For a while I was half-and-half. Then over the years I kept staying in Montana longer and longer.
MO: How does it work, with a band here and a band in Tennessee?
IT: There’s about 25 drifters in my band of drifters these days. I like it because it keeps the sound fresh for me and keeps the music changing and alive. It allows me the freedom to move around the country like I need to do. I’m the only real permanent drifter.
MO: What are the main differences you find in performing in Montana versus the Southeast?
IT: I would say they’re more similar than different. They’re both dancing regions—it’s a very different experience than playing for crowds that are sitting down. They also have mountains in common, but they’re very different kinds of mountains. But I’m more suited to this place, and I fucking love it.
MO: Is it challenging finding venues to play in Montana compared to the more populous Southeast?
IT: You know, this is a very musical region of the country. It’s easy to find places to play with the bars in Livingston and [Paradise Valley’s] Pine Creek and Follow Yer’ Nose and the Old Saloon. Montana really seems to be picking up musically.
MO: What’s your plan for handling the Montana winter and still making music?
IT: I’m kinda wrapping up my year and headed back to Montana now. Then, not traveling much. It’ll be a good mix of playing out locally and woodshedding. I’d like to get a studio project done with this band. I’m hoping to have a record that has all the drifters on it, or at least the core ones.
MO: The kazoo is prominently featured in your logo, what’s the affinity there?
IT: I love the kazoo because I first started playing music on the street, and that was how I met people and learned to play. I spent years playing on the streets unamplified and the kazoo is loud, so that was really helpful.
KNOTTY PINE SUPPER CLUB | Victor, Idaho
On the other side of Teton Pass in Victor, Idaho, the Knotty Pine Supper Club has been a low-key music hub for 50 years. For most of that time it was the definition of “intimate”: a tiny 165-capacity bar where you stood face-to-face with the band. About 10 years ago, owner Brice Nelson built a proper stage and dance floor, expanding capacity to fit up to 300 people. The acts are eclectic, from local string bands to an annual appearance by funk stalwarts Galactic. “We’ll do about anything and we’ve done everything,” Nelson says. “We try to keep it pretty loose.”
THE ATTIC | Livingston, Montana
In 2011, when fine art printer Geoff Harvey bought the Whiskey Creek Saloon in Livingston, the purchase included the attic above the bar, which hadn’t been touched in decades. “It looked like something out of a horror movie,” Harvey said. With the help of a few friends, Harvey transformed the space into a beautiful 150-capacity music venue. The gorgeous wooden dance floor is perfect for cutting a rug, but can be filled with chairs for an intimate listening experience. From the exposed rafters and off-angle walls, to the secondary sound system with built-in delay, The Attic was designed with acoustics in mind.
Q&A with The Lil’ Smokies
The Lil’ Smokies are one of the biggest success stories to come out of the Montana music scene in recent years. They went from being a wedding band and darlings of the Missoula bar scene, to winning the Northwest String Summit band competition in 2013 and then the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition in 2015. Since then, they’ve played the main stage at all the major festivals in the folk/bluegrass circuit. Andy Dunnigan (dobro) and Matt Cornette (banjo) of The Lil’ Smokies sat down with Mountain Outlaw to talk about their success—with bandmates Scott Parker, Matt Reiger, and Jake Simpson—and the challenges of genre classifications.
Mountain Outlaw: You guys have made the difficult leap from local to national act—what was the key to making that transition?
Matt: I think it’s persistence. We played a lot of gigs for very little money, for a long time. But we were very ambitious for a local band. Then, winning String Summit gave us confidence that we could do something on a national level. And then Telluride was the one that made us realize that we should be doing this full time.
Andy: If we hadn’t had those [honors] it would’ve been a lot harder to put the mileage in that we just did the last two years.
MO: How has your style and approach to playing and songwriting changed since the days of playing the parking lot of the Old Post Pub in Missoula?
Andy: In the beginning we were basically a cover band, it was more of a hobby. Then, when I started writing songs, people responded differently. There was more of a connection, which makes you want to write more. When it became a job, it was more of priority on art and the craft, and playing with more professionalism.
Matt: I think learning how to build yourself up in a small market taught us quite a bit about being entertainers. Moving from the small bar to the medium bar to selling out [Missoula’s] Top Hat, that took three or four years. Then we had to learn how to play here in Bozeman and get people to show up. That was a great way to see how it works nationally too.
Andy: And it’s taught us some humility on the road, going from being a big fish in a small pond in Missoula, then you go the East Coast where you’re virtually unknown, and playing to 14 people.
MO: Have you been able to maintain your connection to your Montana fan base with all this travel to other places?
Andy: We get to travel around toting that Montana flag and I think there’s a lot of appeal to being the “Montana boys.” I like that. There aren’t that many bands coming out of Montana right now, so it does feel good to be the sonic diplomats that we are right now.
MO: You guys get lumped in with a lot of the jamgrass bands out there, but the label doesn’t quite fit. How do you see yourselves in the galaxy of bluegrass, jamgrass, fill-in-the-blank-grass?
Andy: Trying to classify the music is kind of like taming a wild animal. I don’t want to be labeled jamgrass. I like being in a venue and seeing young people, hippies, old folks, business people, frat guys. My favorite remark is when someone comes up to us and says, “I don’t like bluegrass, but I love you guys.” And that’s awesome. We’re not sitting around listening to old Flatt & Scruggs albums. We’re basically trying to be a rock band with bluegrass instruments.
Yogesh Simpson is a freelance writer, photographer and graphic designer based in Bozeman, Montana. He earned a master’s in photojournalism from the University of Montana in Missoula, and has been the photo editor at the Missoula Independent, as well as the managing editor of the Molokai Dispatch in Hawaii. Singer and guitarist of Holler N’ Pine, his preferred mountain pursuits include biking, skiing and paragliding.