Aran Buzzas seems like what you might expect of a honky-tonk musician: He wears a black, worn cowboy hat over his long hair and a plaid shirt with pearly buttons, plus a sturdy pair of boots. He plays covers that include "Cry, Cry, Cry" by Johnny Cash and "Swinging Doors" by Merle Haggard. And he's written and performed originals with titles such as "Another Man's Woman" and "Back For My Whiskey," which are part of his frequent live performances around Missoula. Still, you're not a true-blue country musician if you haven't had some hard luck stories to back up your hard luck songsand Buzzas does. It took a breakup for him to find his country voice, though in some ways it was the honky-tonk spirit that found him first.
"The key event was my divorce, and that happened around Christmas, 2006," he says. "In the midst of it, all three of the Hank Williamses came to me, kind of at the same time. I heard Hank III at work and I actually thought it was a joke because, besides Willie Nelson, I'd never heard good country music growing up. A couple of months later, I heard Hank Sr. and everything changed. From there I began listening to the other Hanks and then Waylon and Johnny Cash. It was when I got 24 of Hank Williams's Greatest Hits checked out from the library that it was just like, 'This is it.'"
Even before the three Hanks entered his life, Buzzas, who is 33, wasn't new to music. He'd started playing guitar while a sophomore at Hellgate High School, mostly learning classic rock covers from The Doors to Bob Dylan and, with a little more technical experience, Cream. His high school band, Groundswell, was shaped by the grunge wave and, especially, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. "That was our big influence," he says. "We played Blood Sugar Sex Magik and we were never good enough to pull it off, but we tried. We just did it because we loved it."
They performed at backyard parties, and their "senior splash," during which they played a cover of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" that was longer than the recorded, 17-minute Iron Butterfly version. They accompanied the school choir for "Bohemian Rhapsody," and they played the Western Montana Fair twice and Missoula's first First Night New Year's Eve. The more they played, the more serious Buzzas became about music. He started classes at the University of Montana as a music major and focused on playing folk tunes, following the classic coffeehouse singer-songwriter route.
He wrote his first country song, "Biggest Fool," a year after the divorce. It's a heavy, lonesome dirge. "I was feeling horrible and I was thinking, 'I'm going to feel like this forever, I'm never going to be right again,'" he says. "And so I wrote that song and it triggered me to start recording again. I went nuts with my four-tack. I put the bass lines on and electric guitar."
Buzzas's former bandmate from Groundswell, Nathan Stephens, helped him put out a CD in 2008 called Just Bein' Here. "It sounds homemade," he says, "but I'm really proud of it. It was a great way to deal with a rough winter."
"Back For My Whiskey," another country song he wrote during that time, sounds more jovial even though it, too, was inspired by the divorce. He doesn't go into detail about the situation on record, but if you listen to the song you get the gist. It's the story of a man going back to his house to get his whiskey from his ex-wife, with his best man to back him up. It begins with the line "Well, there's no such thing as happy endings because nothing ever ends," and features the chorus "She tried to rob me and take what's mine. / And now she's wasted so much of my time. / I didn't want to see her face. / I knew it would be risky, / but I still went back...for my whiskey."
"I wasn't even listening to country music when that event happened," says Buzzas. "When I was moving out of the house, everything got weird quickly, and it didn't need to. There's no avoiding pain in a situation like that, but sitting down to talk about it wasn't going to happen. 'She's not getting my whiskey' is what I was thinking at the time. When I left the house, I got into the truck with my best man and I was like, 'Man, this would make a really good song.'"
These days, Buzzas has been playing out quite a bitdespite a frustrating battle with tendinitisincluding recently opening for out-of-town country and roots acts such as Molly Gene One-Whoaman Band and The Cheatin' Hearts. Outlaw Radio Chicago, one of the cornerstone podcasts in the underground country roots movement, is about to release a compilation that, along with Shooter Jennings and other underground outlaw country artists such as Leroy Virgil, The Calamity Cubes, J.B. Beverley and Ten Foot Polecats, features Buzzas with his song "There's Always Something (In the Way)." He also has a new album in the works that features Missoula all-stars Travis Yost, Caroline Keys, Gibson Hartwell and Sam Nasett, among others.
Some songs will be darker than others, as is the way with country. But Buzzas has songs about traveling and pursuing dreams, and some funny oneslike "Cougar Bait."
"Also a true story," he says, laughing.
Aran Buzzas plays Saturday, Feb. 11, at The Roxy in Hamilton at 7 PM with Steel Toe Flos and PD Lear, $7, and later at The Palace in Missoula at 10 PM with The Ascetic Junkies and Casey Neill and the Norway Rats, $5.
This story was updated on Thursday, Feb. 9.