When David Boone steps onstage under the hot lights, cheers erupt. Boone, who is 31 and handsome, with sparkling green eyes, a trimmed beard and brown locks that fall loosely past his ears, looks like a rock star, although he isn't, not just yet.
Boone lays into his guitar like he's wrestling it down and belts out "It's better to love than to lose it all," leaning fiercely, abruptly, into the mic, writhing to his driving rhythm. His voice is warm and graveled—bold enough to capture a room and distressed enough to illuminate slivers of urgency and heartbreak.
The song resounds in Missoula's cozy Monk's Bar. There are seven musicians backing him up, including two drummers, but Boone owns this night, which is a celebration for his new music project, Dawns.
At one long wooden table sit DJs from The Trail 103.3 FM, the rock radio station, which is a sponsor of this show and has put Boone's new batch of songs in regular rotation.
Tonight is also the premier of one of Boone's new music videos, which is projected onto the wall of Monk's. It's locally made and surprisingly well crafted, showing a young couple wandering along the wintry banks of Rattlesnake Creek, riding the Caras Park carousel and eating ice cream by the railroad tracks. The guy blindfolds the girl and leads her through an old house into a dark backyard, where she's surprised by a group of friends standing around a campfire. It's her birthday. A little boy brings her a candlelit cake. As she blows the candles out, the video ends.
The song, "Tail Lights," has an Americana pop sound, with a swelling chorus that feels like the aural translation of an endorphin high. Boone recorded it in September 2011 in London with a major producer. It's a big step up for Boone, from coffeehouse singer-songwriter to collaborating with a large cast of musicians and making high-production albums with music videos to match.
Boone, a songwriting machine, has been playing folk and rock around Missoula for over a decade. He creates the same kind of keen, raw songs that draw people to Bruce Springsteen. Like Springsteen, Boone's a showman who somehow shows little sign of ego.
Yet Boone has struggled with manic depression for most of his adult life. Aptly, perhaps, he tends to write in two different veins: stark folk songs about gritty realities and bright, dramatic pop songs that even have string arrangements.
Now, with interest from a hotshot producer and a surge in local radio play, he seems to be on the brink of stardom, of fulfilling his dreams and the dreams of thousands and thousands of others who chase that one big break, never knowing when it will come, or if, or where. But Boone will know where it began.
When William Boone was a young man, he rode his horse into a small Northern California town and saw Mary Healy for the first time, sitting under an apple tree. In time, the couple settled near Seeley Lake, in Dogtown. They lived in a small three-bedroom house on an acre of land, which William bought from his brother-in-law for $1. Mary raised cocker spaniels and Persian cats for sale. William worked at the sawmill. Their children—David Boone and his two brothers and two sisters—played in their yard and were pulled on inner tubes down snowy back roads by William on his snowmobile. It was beautiful. David was happy. He knows they were poor but he doesn't remember feeling it. When he describes that time"Grinding our own deer meat on the kitchen table ... going fishing, running down the road"it's like he's sifting through rubble for proof of it.
The Boones went to church every Sunday and sang hymns. Mary didn't want David to listen to rock music but William would sneak out to his truck with his son and they'd listen to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. David was about 7 when he got his first guitar. A week later, William accidentally crushed it as he and the boy were wrestling. It took another five years before David got another, at Christmas. His parents said he'd been bad all year and wasn't getting anything. But when he went to help his sister get her present from behind a curtain, there was an electric guitar and amp waiting for him.
And then the darkness: His parents divorced. Mary moved to Washington state. His sisters went to live with family friends. His older brother went to live with their grandmother. His father moved into a small cabin near their old Dogtown house, where Boone and his younger brother slept in a backyard camper.
Boone immersed himself in music, listening to Top 40 and playing along to Men At Work, Billy Joel and Fine Young Cannibals. He traveled to Missoula to buy his first albums: Tarkio, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Nirvana's In Utero and the Counting Crows's August and Everything After.
His 7th and 8th grade teacher, Clifford Nelson, became his role model and support. Nelson was an extraordinary teacher, Boone says. "He probably could have lived in a nice home, doing well for himself, but he put everything into his classes and teaching, in putting on plays and taking kids to Glacier or Yellowstone on field trips every year."
Nelson introduced Boone to folk music, artists such as Bob Dylan and Don McClean. When Boone started his first band, Faucet, in high school, Nelson helped them record an album. He also got them their first paid gig, at Seeley-Swan High School's homecoming.