RED LODGE — There was never much question that Jimmy Kujala’s life would revolve around music.
The native of Red Lodge played his first professional gig, at the Snag Bar, when he was 9. He and one of his sisters, Carolyn, started a band, The Lost Generation, a few years later. Kujala was only 15 or 16 when the band opened for Merle Haggard at the Shrine Auditorium in Billings in the late 1960s.
Now, at 62, he’s still involved in music, in a way that nobody could have imagined in those early days. He is the owner and operator of Music Ranch Radio, a web-based radio station that is dedicated, in Kujala’s words, “to making sure independent artists get heard.”
Kujala already had a recording studio when he launched the radio station in October 2014. What is now the DJ booth used to be the control room. He recently converted the adjacent studio, where the musicians played, to Jimmy’s Roadhouse, a performance space with a stage, tables, seating for 40 and state-of-the-art sound and lights. It’s another way of introducing people to independent musicians, and Kujala couldn’t be happier with how it’s all come together.
“I have played music all my life and I have never met so many musicians as I have in the past two and a half years,” he said.
Music Ranch Radio streams out into the ether all day every day, thanks to software that allows Kujala to program his playlist any way he wants, with breaks for advertisements, public service announcements, station identification and so on.
Kujala sits in as a live DJ from 9 to noon Monday through Friday, and occasionally—say if there’s a musician who has to do an interview outside those hours—all Kujala has to do is flip a switch and go live for as long as he wants.
Every Tuesday night from 7 to 9, Kujala teams up with Cory Leone Johnson for “All About the Country,” a show that plays country music and does live interviews with some of the best singers and songwriters in Nashville. Johnson is an Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter himself who lived in Nashville for many years before moving to the Red Lodge area a couple of years ago.
And then there are special events. When Merle Haggard died last year, Kujala said, he and Johnson played 107 Haggard songs in a row.
“We were heartbroken,” Kujala said. “I’ll tell you what, there was some beer consumption during that time.”
Kujala makes regular appeals for independent artists to send him their favorite songs or CDs. The response has been strong and steady. Pointing to a stack of CDs, all recent arrivals, Kujala said, “It’s kind of funny. Here we are in Red Lodge, Montana, and I got CDs from all over the U.S.”
In two and a half years, he said, he remembers receiving only one song that wasn’t quite good enough to air. He listens to all submissions, selects a song or songs he wants to play and adds them to his playlist, which currently contains about 1,400 songs.
The station is successful partly because musicians, in the internet age, have been forced to do their own promotion. It used to be that record labels would sign a band and help them with their careers, banking on their future success.
Now, Kujala said, record companies won’t even look at a musician unless he has a Facebook page with 10,000 “likes” or a YouTube video that’s been viewed a million times.
But if you’ve already got that kind of following, he said, “what the hell do you need a label for? And I think people are figuring that out. … So independent artists have really popped up, and they’re going strong.”
Once Kujala starts playing songs by a musician or a band, the musicians use social media to urge their friends and followers to listen to Music Ranch Radio. It’s all grass roots stuff, ripples on a pond, leading to slow but steady growth.
If Kujala plays music that wasn’t sent to him by an artist, he always downloads it from iTunes, to make sure the writer and the performer get the money they deserve. And though his emphasis is on new and independent musicians, he plays a wide variety of Top 40 songs, classics and Kujala’s favorites from a lifetime of listening.
He is firmly against sticking with a particular genre or format, which he says is one reason his listening audience keeps growing. It’s not unusual for him to play a Beyoncé song, followed by Jackson Browne, or to have Etta James follow Merle Haggard.
“I play whatever strikes me,” he said. “I get texts all the time saying, ‘Man, where in the hell did you find that?’”
And though he’s not subject to FCC regulations, he keeps the content and the language family-friendly, partly because he knows some of his listeners stream it into their businesses. The hospital in Powell, Wyo., pipes it into the waiting room, he said, and a business called Blue Ribbon Millwork in Woodstock, Ill., streams it into its showroom.
People at Blue Ribbon have told Kujala they are big fans of the station’s humor. Kujala likes to keep things light and humorous when he’s deejaying, but the real funny man is Al Cooper, a novelist, songwriter and fishing guide who also lives in the Red Lodge area.
Kujala said Cooper is a great musician and a mimic who can imitate just about anybody’s voice. He uses that talent in producing some of the station’s ads and “stingers,” which are sort of like station identifiers only much funnier and more irreverent than the ones you hear on regular radio stations.
Since launching Music Ranch Radio, Kujala said, he’s logged 30,000 listeners in 125 countries. He’s had numerous interviews with musicians, which are archived on his site, and he’s had two shows in Jimmy’s Roadhouse since it opened earlier this month.
The station is supported by advertisers and sponsors, but Kujala, who retired last May after running the Beartooth Kawasaki dealership for 22 years, doesn’t spend much time trying to make the station a big money-maker.
“We don’t go out and beat the bushes real hard, because like I said, it’s all about the music.”
That last clause could serve as a motto for his life. Kujala was so into music that by his junior year at Red Lodge High, he was performing more nights a week than he was attending school by day.
With two weeks left in the school year, his counselor told him he ought to take the rest of the year off and think seriously about his priorities over the summer. It wasn’t quite an expulsion, Kujala said, but he took the counselor’s advice, and when summer was over he didn’t go back to school.
He went down to Nashville for a while, not long after quitting high school. His brother, Bobby, was already there and had played in Johnny Paycheck’s band and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Kujala found work, but when it came down to having to play on the road if he was going to continue, he left Nashville.
He ended up touring anyway, in later years, based out of Denver, and on the side he went into sales with Continental Oil. He went back to Montana eventually, and in Billings he had a long-running band called Colonel Fry and the Radar Rangers. When the Eagles Nest first opened on Fourth Avenue North, they were the house band. They played there six nights a week for two years.
There were other bands and gigs and tours, but the chronology gets a bit cloudy sometimes. And sometimes, when Kujala seems to be just on the point of remembering a date or an important event, he gets sidetracked talking about the musical connections of this or that drummer, guitarist or singer he played with.
One of his most fruitful associations was playing bass with Billy Waldo and the Flying Grizzlies, which he did for many years. That band, based in Red Lodge, was one of the best bands, and one of the most reliably entertaining, in the Billings area for a long time.
Meanwhile, Kujala found something that could really pay the bills while maintaining his musical career. That was the Kawasaki dealership, which he started after giving car sales a try for five years or so. He ran the dealership out of a big shop on his property five miles northwest of Red Lodge on Highway 78, where he still lives and produces Music Ranch Radio.
He ended up with a lot of commercial accounts, including a large one with the Stillwater Mining Co. He had been running the dealership for almost 20 years when, in the fall of 2014, a friend of his—Mark Miller, formerly “the voice of the Harlem Globetrotters,” back working in Red Lodge—suggested that Kujala start his own web-based station.
Kujala had so much of the necessary equipment already that he started the station—it didn’t even have a name yet—literally within 24 hours of hearing the suggestion.
“I’ve always been one of those guys who says, ‘Hell, let’s pull the pin, throw the grenade and go out and collect the shrapnel later.’”
He added more software and equipment and fine-tuned the operation as he went along. The first name for the station was the M Hanging K Music Ranch Radio, named for his father’s brand. But that seemed a bit long, so he shortened it to Music Ranch Radio.
He still plays music occasionally, mostly with Big Jim and the Twins, which features a couple of guys from the old Billy Waldo outfit. He also gets a kick out of following the fortunes of his son, Levi Kujala, the drummer for The Clintons, which has been around for 18 years and is, in a way, this era’s Billy Waldo and the Flying Grizzlies.
Kujala decided, after running the Kawasaki dealership for 22 years, to retire, at least from that line of work. His goal is to have live DJs on the station 12 hours a day, have maybe two concerts a month at Jimmy’s Roadhouse and to keep interviewing, recording and promoting independent musicians.
As he told his wife, Lauri, when he was thinking of retiring, “I came into this goddamned world playing music and I’m gonna go out of it playing music.”