New book takes deep dive into Montana roots music

Parrett BookThe title of Aaron Parrett’s new book, “Montana Americana Music: Boot Stomping in Big Sky Country,” published this summer by The History Press, was more than enough to draw me in.

What made it irresistible was to see that the foreword was written by Smith Henderson, the Montana native whose first novel, “Fourth of July Creek,” published in 2014, was so uncommonly good.

I wonder whether any other volume from The History Press—which has issued a great stream of local history books from all over the country in recent years—has been endorsed by a writer of Henderson’s stature.

Which means, I suppose, that it doesn’t need an endorsement from me. I would like to give it anyway, in the hope that a few others might enjoy it as much as I did.

There is so much here, beginning with an attempt to define just what Americana music is. A definition acceptable to all is probably impossible, but a roll call of names summoned in the introduction is something of a definition in itself: Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe and Bob Dylan.

“(W)hile Americana in the abstract covers an immense amount of territory,” Parrett writes, “I focus mainly on hillbilly, country, country-blues and old-time folk music, as well as its modern offspring, bluegrass.”

And though he does try to achieve some geographical diversity, this book spends a lot of time in Missoula, for good reason. I was lucky enough to have lived there in the golden age of Aber Day keggers and the Top Hat and Park Hotel bars, when bands like the Mission Mountain Wood Band, the Lost Highway Band, the Big Sky Mudflaps and Live Wire Choir were at their peak.

Parrett captures the excitement of those days, when Missoula was crawling with crackerjack musicians, and where countless jam sessions were sharpening the skills of pickers and singers who would branch out into explorations in half a dozen musical genres.

In addition to the big-picture stuff, oddball nuggets of gold are scattered throughout the text. I was previously unaware that gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote the liner notes for a 1964 album by the Big Sky Singers, a group that Thompson first heard performing at the Gun Room of the Finlen Hotel in Butte.

Nor did I know that it was Paul Stanton, the genius behind the Duckboy postcards, who told an accomplished no-name band in Missoula that they ought to call themselves the Big Sky Mudflaps. Would they still be performing all these years later if not for that perfect name?

Parrett also mentions a Montana musical moment I hadn’t thought of in years, when the late Tim Isher appeared on the “The Gong Show” in 1976, when he was just 17, and astounded all present with a rendition of “Dueling Banjos”—by himself on the banjo and Dobro.

What Parrett doesn’t mention is that during the same week, perhaps on the same day, a young woman from Missoula, a classical pianist I believe, was making her premiere on some major stage. The Missoulian did a big front-page spread on Isher and relegated the pianist to a few paragraphs deep inside the paper.

The high-brows were outraged. I think some of them even canceled their subscriptions. But I thought the paper had its priorities straight. We like our old-time music, OK?

Anyone familiar with the style of music covered by Parrett will probably read this book the way I did—in a constant state of apprehension. Would he ever mention so-and-so or so-and-so, and would he do them justice?

I was pleased to see his appreciative coverage of people like Russ Nasset, the durable Missoula honky-tonker; John Lowell, the great bluegrass guitarist and singer from Bozeman; Kostas, the amazing performer from Billings who went on to songwriting success in Nashville; and Martha Scanlan, the Appalachian-tinged folksinger who has been quietly creating small masterpieces on a Tongue River ranch.

I was disappointed to have reached almost the end of the book without seeing a single mention of Erik “Fingers” Ray. Then, on the second-to-last page, Parrett finally introduced him, calling him “pound for pound probably the most capable performing musician around.”

My respect for Parrett’s discernment expanded greatly, as so often happens when we find people who agree with us.

Even so, I looked in vain for two musicians I thought should have been here: Jared Stewart, the Crow Indian guitar wizard who performs this weekend at the Magic City Blues festival, and Mark Ross, the Wobbly folksinger and multi-instrumentalist who spent many years in Missoula and Butte and was as familiar with the Greenwich Village folk scene as anyone who has lived and performed in Montana.

Not that such quibbles matter. Parrett says in the afterword: “In anticipation of the critics who will inevitably (and rightly) fault me for all that I’ve left out, I can only say that my approach here is tentative and without question a reflection of my own taste more than anything else.”

Following his taste also means that some people are dealt with at inordinate length, most notably in the section on a young singer-songwriter from Helena named Cameron Boster. Though apparently quite talented and prolific, he rarely performs live, which should be a disqualifier for a book like this.

But Boster is thoughtful and eloquent, especially on the subject of roots music, and in the end it’s hard to fault Parrett for quoting him at length. The same goes for his decision to include chapters on Montana Indian musicians and a history of old-time fiddling in Montana.

Both chapters stretch the definition of Americana almost to the breaking point, but both are so interesting that, again, it hardly matters. Maybe if he had just called this book “Montana Roots Music,” there wouldn’t have been any such qualms or questions.

Anyway, I am feeling his pain. Here I am at the point where I should be wrapping up and I haven’t even mentioned the Snake River Outlaws, a hony-tonk band from Idaho that took Missoula by storm in the early 1950s, nor the Lil’ Smokies, the hot, contemporary bluegrass band out of Missoula to which Parrett devotes seven pages.

Nor have I told you about Parrett’s bona fides. Besides teaching literature and philosophy at the University of Great Falls, he is an accomplished old-time fiddler who has released several albums.

That varied background is apparent on every page. He writes with the depth and precision of a scholar and the passion of a real music lover. I can only hope he has a few more books about Montana music on his to-do list.

Details:Montana Americana Music: Boot Stomping in Big Sky Country,” by Aaron Parrett. The History Press, Charleston, S.C. Paperback, 192 pages. $21.99.

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