As it turns out, Missoula is in Montana after all. Despite the nay-saying bumper stickers and insistence from your uncle in Butte, the Garden City grows and composts cowboys and cowgirls the same as any ranch in Belt. You just have to know where to look.
"We've been here a couple times so hopefully we're starting to look familiar," Jacque Jolene calls to her audience from a stage adorned with wagon wheels. It's only 10 p.m. on a Friday night and the dimly lit Sunrise Saloon is as packed as any downtown bar at last call. Just off Highway 93, the Sunrise is only two miles from Missoula's urban center, but inside is as far from city life as possible.
Jolene's group, the Copper Mountain Band, hits its first note with the energy of a Budweiser cracked after an hour in a paint-shaker. They kick out country classics like "Six Days on the Road" and a few originals before rolling out a cover of The Eagles' "Take it Easy." The band's dabbling in different genres doesn't seem strange, since the twang and hammer-ons keep their sound in the country realm.
With each song the floor surges and empties like a middle school dance. Some dancers return to their tables overflowing with Miller Lites and whiskey sours while others find a new dance partner. Daughters dance with their dads. Some people only dance with the partners they showed up with. Some just want to dance with anyonewho cares? These are the neighbors you never see downtownthe guy with a dirty '93 Chevy parked outside his house.
Like a living jukebox, the Copper Mountain Band sets the mood of the room, playing whatever the hell they feel like, but leaving space for requests. Jolene struts the stage with the same energy as the crowd. She breaks out a no-body guitara funky instrument with just the neck and a skeleton frameand fills the tall-ceilinged room with her voice, no problem.
"Someday I'll be living in a big ol' city," she sings.
Unlike so many indie bands and DJs who play tributes with a wink, the band from Troy plays it straight. It's all heart and no irony.
And Jolene, even when she's not singing, keeps the audience riveted.
Jolene married Nate Norman when they moved back to Montana. After living for six months in Nashville trying to make it, they realized it wasn't their time yet. She was 19 and only knew a few chords on the guitar. It was time to focus on family, they decided. But then P.J. Morrison called.
In 2006, Morrison, a bull rider and guitarist, invited the couple into his band, 8 Seconds Flat. Norman's cousin Israel "Izzi" David joined soon after. The cousins, who grew up on a homestead on Copper Mountain in Troy, quickly realized they were a good fit. Morrison, the elder of the band, eventually stepped aside to pursue other things, and a young drummer, Casey Mann, came on board. They've been the Copper Mountain Band since.
"My dream was always to be in this bar band," Jolene says.
Six years later they've been to France and backtwiceand toured every Western state playing bars, clubs, rodeos and fairgrounds. Moving from a gear trailer fashioned out of a dilapidated shed to their new motorhome parallels the band's growth from covers to originals, and the way they're striving for that dream of "making it."
"We didn't realize how successful we'd be," Jolene says. "It turned us into something more."
The Sunrise and other bar gigs are the band's bread and butter. Aside from a stake in a Libby-based coffee chain, Jolene, like the rest of the band, makes her living as a musician. Without a label to respond to, the independence feels pretty sweet, she says.
But if television shows like "American Idol" prove anything, it's that there's a staggering overabundance of people who want to bear themselves on a big stagepeople who want to be stars, whatever the cost. And it doesn't just happen on Fox Wednesday nights at 8/7 central. It happens in small bars in small towns every night. Some artists in the right place make it despite their merit, and some artists with merit miss it for lack of proximity.
You'd think it would be easier for a country band to make it in Montana where the music is popular. To an extent, it comes down to the golden rule of real estate: location, location, location.
"Too many independent artists think they're too good for Nashville or L.A.," David says. "Well, just like the government is in D.C., that's where the big companies are, that's where there's the concentration of power."
Like so many bands, Copper Mountain wants to play bigger stages. And so, there comes a time to take it east to Nashville. Jolene says the band talks every day about going back. It's not a matter of when but how.
"I don't care if I have to work at Home Depot and play seven nights a week for free, I want to do this," David says. "But only as the band. Just like anybody else, how do you move 3,000 miles away from your family in a bad economy, especially when you already have gigs lined up? How do you really make that happen?"
In the meantime, they've found their niche. While they wait for the stars to align, it's business as usual. And business is good.
The Copper Mountain Band takes the stage on yet another Saturday at 9:30 p.m. and thanks the crowd at the Sunrise Saloon for at least the hundredth time. The cousins, David and Norman, both in black cowboy hats, pick up their instruments. They mess with the pedals and Norman, in a plaid shirt, tunes his bass. Jolene gives some hand-fluffed volume to her blonde hair.
Despite their desire to go to Nashville, it's this kind of audience and this modest barnot the star-studded music halls and diamond-level studiosthat makes them feel at home.
"People in New York and Nashville aren't really going to relate, but we really don't care," Jolene says later that night. "They should like this because this is real cowboy shit in Montana. That's really what we do."
The Copper Mountain Band plays the Sunrise Saloon, 1101 Strand, Fri., Feb. 8, and Sat., Feb. 9, at 8 PM nightly. Free.