By MARK VOSBURGH
Where is Missoula’s free, weekly bluegrass show? Hint: Look for the grain bin on Reserve Street.
It’s not exactly a secret. Not when an average of 30,000 cars a day (true number!) drive Reserve Street, past the yellow banner advertising free bluegrass music from 5:30pm – 8:00pm Tuesdays at Wheat Montana Bakery and Deli.
Missoula’s bluegrass community, 343 Facebook friends, and a loyal core of Black Mountain Boys fans, know that this is the place to get out, get a great sandwich, and hear some live bluegrass music.
It’s called the Moozoola Opry. With some digging, I discovered that Wheat Montana and the Opry share a history dating back to both of their beginnings.
Kathy Finnemann was just starting up her family-owned Wheat Montana Missoula store when she was approached by Raynae Redman. Raynae (founder of the Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association) had a bluegrass band (Cuzin Ray and the Bluegrass Boys). Could the band perform weekly at the new deli? Kathy said yes. Six years later, the weekly gig is going strong.
Introducing the Black Mountain Boys
While the venue and bluegrass theme have been a constant, band personnel have changed over the years. Larry Wade is the only remaining original band member. Larry is a retired Missoula teacher, coach, saddle bronc rider, and life-long music lover. He traces the comings and goings of band personnel with stories that could have come from a bluegrass song: Death, health problems, retirements, relocation, and talented young musicians moving on.
Larry currently shares the stage and vocal duties with Jeff Campfield (fiddle), Roy Gruss (bass), Pat Davis (guitar), Jim Chilcote (banjo), and myself (mandolin). Band members share a love of music. It is obvious they are thrilled having a weekly gig to perform.
Both Kathy and Larry describe the typical Moozoola Opry crowd as a mix of loyal regulars (mostly retired locals enjoying a night out) and folks drawn to bluegrass or just stopping for a sandwich. Depending on the season and what’s happening in town, crowds range from modest to standing room only. Kathy describes the event as being “like listening to music with family in the living room.”
Watching the band set up inside the circular grain bin, I’m struck by the familiarity between the band and the crowd. When the show kicks off, Larry gives a health update and dedicates a song to regulars who couldn’t attend due to health issues.
Intermingled in the crowd are young families with kids who are obviously getting a kick out of the show. A husband and wife in a booth hoots excitedly when the band plays Streets of Bakersfield. It turns out they are passing through Missoula on their way home to Bakersfield.
Like a bluegrass jam, the Black Mountain Boys band members take turns choosing songs. Fiddle tunes, bluegrass standards (think Bill Monroe), county classics (“Bucking Horse Moon”), and jam band anthems (“Wagon Wheel”) are typical fare. Shows are peppered with impromptu banter and corny Bluegrass jokes.
Q: What happens if you play a bluegrass song backwards?
A: You get your girl, your dog, and your truck back.
As both Bill Monroe and Bob Dylan sang “Summer’s almost gone and the winter’s comin’ on.” A warm bakery, some hot soup, and live music is a perfect way to spend a chilly Tuesday evening while supporting local Missoula business and live bluegrass music.
Mark Vosburgh is a fourth-generation Montanan who has lived in Missoula for 26 years. He’s worked as chemical engineer, backcountry ski guide, and wildfire scientist. He started playing mandolin and attending bluegrass jams a few years and has just started performing with local bands: The Black Mountain Boys, Alleycats Bluegrass Band, and The Flaming Wheelbarrows.