At the Clark Fork River Market in Missoula, you can find Dan Dubuque, chin down, completely immersed in the task at hand: plucking the strings of his lap slide guitar to make the notes quiver and bend, and thumping the instrument's hollow body with resonating beats. He can't read music, but he can hear a song and play it almost immediately. He plays originals and often he covers the classic rock and metal he grew up with on the Flathead Reservation: AC/DC, Tool, Metallica. Other times he plays pop or folk music he's discovered from reading music articles–at the moment he's into the Gorillaz song "Plastic Beach" and hip-hop bands like The Roots.
For the last three years, Dubuque has been making a living entirely off of his music. He lives out of his 2009 Honda Civic and makes copies of his CD demos with press packs at the Missoula Job Service. He spends his days marketing himself—calling up bars, farmers' markets and concert venues to book a show wherever he can, so that he doesn't have to resort to a part time job. And it's not easy.
"I've been traveling around in my car almost three years now after my girlfriend dumped me and kicked me out," he says. "I actually deserved it. I'm very flawed and I can't do simple things. But music, I've always had that."
Dubuque's mother is Bolivian and his father is a white Montanan who grew up in Billings. The family spent Dubuque's early years in Washington, D.C., where he ran around with a wild crowd. His dad decided to move the whole family back to Montana when Dubuque was 11.
"My dad was sick of me getting into trouble so we came out here, to Polson," he says. "So I grew up with all the rez boys–I could pass as one of them—and the rednecks on Flathead Lake, listening to grunge and fishing with nightcrawlers."
Dubuque learned to play guitar and dobro by listening to the heavy, sludgy rhythms of Soundgarden and Pantera. When he started playing in public or at parties, nobody wanted to hear anything original. Instead, everyone requested the classic rock and metal they heard on the radio.
"You had to know how to play that or you'd get ripped on hard as soon as you tried to get on stage," he says.
That was okay with Dubuque, because it was music he loved, too. But then he heard Ben Harper play slide guitar on the popular song "Pleasure and Pain," and he was floored by the sound. He almost immediately bought a Weissenborn lap slide guitar from a Canadian instrument maker to try to emulate the same sweet sounds Harper made. At the same time, he incorporated the shredding quality he had learned with playing classic rock. And he never cared about the lyrics no matter what they were.
"I don't listen to lyrics. I don't feel them," Dubuque says. "Bob Dylan, too, I don't feel what he's saying at all. I sure love his music, like 'Don't Think Twice.' I hear the notes—what makes the song—and, boom, I can play it. I bet I can play it better."
The times he has worked other jobs—as a firefighter, a porn delivery driver, a grocer—he's felt completely incapable. Even when he was playing music he dealt with a lot of rejection, most often from locals in Polson who, he claims, were jealous that he was able to make money off his music. He was also rejected from cowboy bars in small towns that either didn't like the unconventional sound of his music, or didn't like him because of his dark skin.
Dubuque oscillates between loving and despising his situation. He feels lucky, he says, that he can make a living off of music. He feels bad complaining when he knows that his mother, who was forced to work farmland in Bolivia, lived under horrible conditions that don't even compare. But at the same time, he's alienated from the rest of the world—partly because his obsession with music interferes with his relationships, partly because of racial issues and partly because he's shy.
"The problem is, as much as I like to play, it's just a drug," he says. "I'm using it to escape. I like to keep people distant. I don't mean to scare them away but it just happens and I hate myself for it. I'm not a badass as far as getting girls. But that's why I can play too. I get better because I'm sometimes miserable."
Dubuque is starting to make a name for himself. This summer he has almost five shows a week booked across the state, from Missoula to Hot Springs to Bozeman to Billings, and places in between, as well as Jackson Hole, Wyo. His recent win at an open mic contest at the Buffalo Jump Casino in Gallatin Gateway got him several hours of recording at a studio in Bozeman. And this week, for the second year in a row, he plays with 50 other bands for the Love Your Mother Earth Festival at Rock Creek. A few weeks ago, even in the rain, he made $450 at the Clark Fork River Market in just two hours. And he hopes that soon he'll be able to winter in Venice Beach, where he has friends, and where he can play on the promenade of Santa Monica for twice the amount he makes at the market. But for now, he's trying to keep his emotions in check.
"I'm pretty sensitive at times. But I feel like my music keeps getting better," he says. "And when I can tell people are digging it, that they're happy, I'm happy too."
Dan Dubuque plays the Love Your Mother Earth Festival at Rock Creek Lodge Friday, June 11, through Sunday, June 13. Go to www.loveyourmotherfestival.com for schedule info. $50.