On the night of Sept. 26, during the first presidential debate, progressive-leaning patrons dominated the Top Hat Lounge, groaning at the spectacle of Donald Trump on the venue's large drop-down screen. Just down the street, at the Wilma, Missoula's Caroline Keys and the LaneSplitters played the opening slot for Dwight Yoakam in front of what appeared to be a much different crowd. At least a couple of guns and a few knives had been confiscated at the front door by Wilma staff and, inside, cowboy hats and country drawls were prominent among the audience. How the crowd split politically is difficult to say, but Yoakam is known for his wide appeal, claimed by both flag-waving, pop-country-loving Republicans and New Yorker-reading alt-country leftists alike. Caroline Keys and the LaneSplitters appeared to fit right in as people nodded and clapped along to the band's swinging tunes and Keys' warm Southern drawl.
"It felt like the audience was on our side," Keys says. "Which is a nice thing to feel in your own town."
The first time I met Keys was in 1999 at a University of Montana magazine writing course. Students were asked to bring in examples of favorite magazines, and we both brought copies of the alt-country publication No Depression, which stood out among our classmates' stacks of outdoor recreation magazines. A the time, she was a musician with no music community. A few years later, in 2001, she subbed in on guitar for a couple of gigs with local country-bluegrass band Broken Valley Roadshow.
"We played the senior pro rodeo in Hamilton and I drove back in tears," Keys says. "It was so fun to be in a band. And I was thinking, 'Too bad that was my only chance.'"
It wasn't, of course, and Keys went on to become a prominent permanent member of BVR. She founded her own band, Stellarondo, a few years later. Stellarondo started as a solo project when Keys took the RPM Challenge, a songwriting exercise where musicians write a full album during the month of February and share it online. It became a full-fledged band and eventually worked with author Rick Bass for a musical storytelling project. They toured and ended up playing Nashville's Ryman Theater.
Over the years, Keys has built a solid reputation in the scene, becoming the kind of musician other bands vie for no matter their genre, from concert-hall country to dive-y dirty rock outfits. Currently she's in The Best Westerns, an alt-country band that aims for an old-school Nashville sound, and The Shiveries, a country-tinged rock band whose frontwoman, Cindy Marshall, comes from a metal and punk background. Keys says she's most at home as a backup singer and an all-purpose right-hand woman, but with the LaneSplitters, she's front and center among a crew of well-established musicians: bassist Jeff Turman, guitarist Nate Biehl, pedal steel player Gibson Hartwell and drummer Matt Tipton.
The band spent part of June recording its new album at the Type Foundry Recording Studio in Portland. They slept in the studio, Keys says. (For a pillow, she used a guitar case owned by REM's Peter Buck.) The band shares songwriting and singing credits, though they decided to keep Keys' name out front.
"It's kind of cringe-y, but also feels like that's where I'm at," she says.
The band booked its album release show this week, but the album won't be ready for a few more weeks. They were overly optimistic about how long it would take to finish when they booked the show, Keys says, but she isn't one to be impatient. Even the way she funded the album speaks to her endurance.
"Ever since last August I've put every penny I've ever made into a sandwich bag in my underwear drawer and that money has all gone to mixing and mastering," she says. "I hate that I'm talking about money, but it's part of how it's all unfolding. And it's really important to me. My parents instilled in me how satisfying it is to earn something. So it feels good. It feels like it's been a lesson in patience."
Keys says she's taken a lot of personal risks in the last several years, especially when she stepped away from collaborative projects and took the wheel on her own. It's an uncomfortable role, she says, for a Southern girl who grew up as a preacher's daughter ("Even a liberal preacher's daughter," she notes). At the beginning of her music career, she felt pressure—mostly from herself—to please others, but now she's paying more attention to her own vision.
"Making sure everyone else is comfortable has a grace to it, but it can come at a price," she says. Since the election, and the national conversation about president-elect Donald Trump's negative views on women, Keys says she feels more emboldened as a female artist.
"For a minute I was feeling scared, like, 'Am I going to be able to be an artist in this climate?' And then realizing, 'Oh wait. This is exactly when you do it.' I've been sharpening my skills in the womb of Missoula for the past eight years and now it's time to come out and wield them. I look forward to seeing what that brings."
Caroline Keys and the LaneSplitters play the Top Hat Fri., Nov. 18, at 10 PM, with opener Hermina Jean. $5.