An aging technology and an aging set of musicians both showed plenty of life at a store opening in Billings on Saturday.
Smiling Dog Records, at South 27th Street and Minnesota Avenue, combined its grand opening with a record release party for “Long Time Comin’: Lost Sounds from the Treasure State,” a double album of Montana music from 1958 to 1969 compiled by Dave Martens of Havre.
About a dozen musicians who have left their imprint on Montana music history turned out for the event as a crowd of 40 or so people browsed the vinyl records at the store.
Owner Mike Ludlam said the records on sale came from his own basement, and he still has a garage full of many more.
“I either had to sign up for an episode of ‘Hoarder’ or open a store,” he said.
In addition to a couple of rows of long-playing record albums, the store also carries a stack of 45-rpm singles (Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Olivia Newton-John’s “The Promise”) and some aging 78-rpm records (Nat “King” Cole’s “My First and Last Love,” Fred Lowery’s “Indian Love Call”). The walls are lined with posters, some of them predictable (Bob Dylan, Bing Crosby, the Beatles), some unique to Montana (Beauregard Mansion; a picture of a recording by Ludlam’s mother, Barbara Ellis; a poster of Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl appearing at the Midland Empire State Fair in Billings).
Filling in the spaces were a few music books, some unrecorded cassettes, a couch for weary shoppers and assorted record players and turntables, ranging from ancient to futuristic looking.
A table of free stuff included a 1960 photo of Chan Romero and the Renegades, a 1967 photo of the Imposters, and a script for the Vulcans from radio station KOOK in Billings.
Kostas Lazarides, who has written more than 800 songs, including hits for Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless and the Dixie Chicks, said that when he first heard about the gathering of musicians, he thought, “This bird ain’t going to fly. I didn’t think there were that many people still around—and there’s not.”
But there were enough to fill an afternoon with memories; names of such bygone bands as the Frantics, John Hancock and the Patriots and the Fugitives; and jokes about fading memories, and occasional drugged haziness, from those days.
“You’ve got so much rock ’n’ roll history standing in this room,” said Kim Sherman of Bridger, who came over for the celebration. Others agreed.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Brian Knaff, who played with the Chosen Few in Missoula and Initial Shock in San Francisco before forming the Good Music Agency in 1972.
He now runs TBN Entertainment in Las Vegas and has worked closely with the Entertainment Management program at the University of Montana, which was set up with help from Yellowstone County commissioners and former MetraPark Manager Bill Chiesa.
Montanans, in a group he called the “Montana Mafia,” now represent such acts as Shania Twain, Alan Jackson and The Band Perry, he said.
“There’s something in the water up here,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but creativity flows much better than in other places.”
Dave Weyer, formerly of Beauregard Mansion, who worked for Leo Fender of Fender guitar fame in California, said that Montanans’ conservatism may have been a factor in their long and successful careers. Many had the good sense to avoid becoming too involved with drugs and some made it back to Montana, he said.
But musicians who spoke at Saturday’s event were focused less on philosophy than on remembering good times.
Knaff said that, growing up in Glasgow, he never heard a rock band play until he saw the Renegades out of Butte.
“They just blew me away,” he said. Before long, he was in a band earning $62.50 per show and, after one memorable Butte dance, leaving with a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars.
On its way to pursue a career in Los Angeles, the band stopped off in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and decided to stay. The band toured with Ike and Tina Turner and was scheduled to go on tour with the Rolling Stones before Mick Jagger got busted and the tour was canceled, he said.
Larry Lytle said he started with a band called the Penetrators before playing with the Night Raiders out of Missoula.
“We knew 13 songs for the first gig we ever did,” he said. “It was hard to make it last 2½ hours.”
Ed McLuskie, now a professor of communications at Boise State, said he played with the Fugitives and with Chan Romero, whose “Hippy Hippy Shake” was covered by the Beatles, before turning to an academic career.
“I’m a minor player in this history,” he said.
Danny Morris said he was introduced to rock ’n’ roll by seeing Peter and the Wolves in the early ’60s. He was involved with such groups as Poison Ivy, Mother’s Oats, Electric Garden Party and Progress Hornsby.
“I’ve been in the music scene in Billings for a long time,” he said.
Kostas, a native of Greece, moved with his family to Montana in 1957 and to Billings in 1958. He got his first guitar a year or so later, and his small hands struggled to negotiate guitar strings that seemed as thick as piano wires. In three years, he learned only about 2½ chords, he said.
“But there’s only three chords in rock ’n’ roll anyway,” he said, “so if you know 2½, you’re on your way.”
In those days, he said, all of the bands knew the same songs: “Louie, Louie,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Gloria” and a few others. When Kostas said he couldn’t really remember why he got into music, someone in the crowd hollered, “Girls!”
Ron Horton, a longtime Billings musician, agreed. He said he met Kostas when both were playing guitar at Pioneer Park in the late ’60s. He noticed that Kostas drew more girls than he did, so he went over to watch. They became friends and neighbors, and they played together in the Mouse Trap at the Skyline Club, losing some equipment there when the popular nightclub burned in 1971.
Horton and Weyer also paid tribute to guitarist John Uribe, who grew up in Laurel and played with B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and others. He died in 2011.
“He was the best,” Weyer said.
Also missing was Kim Sherman, who played with It and the Things and The Frantics and who died before the “Long Time Comin’” project was completed. But his brother, Kit Sherman, helped gather some of his memorabilia for the project. One challenge, Sherman said at Saturday’s gathering, was finding quality recordings remaining from the early days.
“Everybody back then played the hell out of their records,” he said.
Martens, who put together the “Long Time Comin’” collection and who emceed Saturday’s events, said sales were going well, and he was down to the last box of 500 unsold records.
It all added up to a busy day for Ludlam, whose idea of opening a vinyl record store might have seemed just a few years ago as promising as opening a buggy whip shop.
But sales of vinyl records have boomed in recent years. Vinyl sales in 2014 reached their highest level since 1989, according to CNBC, and some record manufacturers say they could sell even more if their plants could keep up with demand.
Indeed, sales in 2015 were up 52 percent over last year, topping revenues to Spotify, according to Money online. Many of those sales are to young people looking for something more tangible than digital tunes on the web and something more visually appealing that cramped CD covers.
Ludlam said that his own son has a record player and that young people are increasingly drawn to records of artists from the 1970s and earlier whose work may not be readily available on CD.
He was busily pricing his inventory even as customers were coming in and out, carrying off stacks of old records, making way for new entries from his vast collection and exposing classic music to a whole new generation of listeners.