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A day after the dance, Nelson was murdered in his trailer. The crime has never been solved.
"It was this chaotic, bizarre movie—a nightmare," Boone says.
The next semester, at 16, he dropped out of school. He moved with a friend to Mexico, where they rented a cinderblock apartment and kept a pet scorpion. When Boone returned to Montana nine months later, he started playing music again. He also began to unravel and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was hospitalized several times and ended up in the Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs for a few months.
With the help of family and friends, with medication and time, he began to get better. He played in a band called Open to Closure and played coffeeshops and recorded solo albums with songs about everything from religion to relationships. He started using songs to revisit his life in Seeley. "I know in theory that I had the most beautiful childhood," he says. "And I'm always trying to find my way back to that."
Hard enough to bend
When Boone finally returned to Seeley in his early 20s, after a five-year absence, he took pictures of every street he'd been down, of his childhood home and the land where Nelson's trailer once stood. He printed and enlarged them and hung them on the walls of an old barn, where he set about making music. "I'm going to take pictures of all the places I've experienced emotional heartache growing up," he said at the time, "and while I sing, I'm going to let them wreck me again."
The result was his fourth album, in 2006, Hard Enough to Bend, a gritty, painfully honest gem. It wasn't just great for a local album; it's some of the best work by any singer-songwriter in the past decade. On the opening track, "4th of July," Boone recounts his dad seeing his mom under that apple tree. The tenderness of the stories is cut deep by a minor-key weightiness. Stark contrasts give the album texture and cohesion: The small-town pleasures of Seeley Lake are coupled with the sorrow of broken families. People who harden themselves to love find that hard veneers are the most fragile of all. Everyone has heard these themes before. What personalizes Hard Enough to Bend are the details. Lyrical turns like "I grew up on the outskirts of heaven" followed by "You'd be surprised but I ain't never going back" show a Springsteen-like awareness of what home means. When he finishes "Norfolk Bay," Boone doesn't just fade out; you can hear him stand up and walk out of the studio, still playing his guitar, a recording detail that mimics the album's frankness.
Love, at last
Stephanie Boone met her future husband for the first time in 2003, at Missoula's Break Espresso, where he and Tom Catmull were performing their solo works. David asked if she could move her table to make room for them to play. She obliged without thinking much of it. Then, during Catmull's song "Black Coffee," with the line "Black coffee in the morning sure tastes fine with you," she had a sudden premonition.
"I've only had two in my life," she recalls, laughing. "And this one was me and Dave walking down a wedding aisle ... So I was like, 'Ohhh-kay. So, I guess I have to ask this dude out.'"
They went out, they drank tea and she told him about the premonition. They were engaged three months later. After their wedding, they hit the road on a tour of coffeehouses for a year and a half, where their only rules were to spend no more than $7 a day and never stay in hotels.
"It was hard, but looking back, it was great," Stephanie says. "I like when you're living that kind of life with no attachments except hoping that your car works and takes you to the next place. We really got to know each other. After that year, I thought, 'If we can do that, we can do anything.'"
Stephanie, a personal trainer and co-founder of The Girls Way, a nonprofit that supports young girls through exercise and educational activities, is similar to David in some ways. They joke that because they're both dreamers, they are, together, doomed. Still, Stephanie provides structure. If she were his manager, she's told him, she'd make him do yoga once a week. She always has to be aware of his mental health, she says, "and so does he. And that's forever. But I think it helps to have a partner who's in tune to you."
There's a palpable sweetness to this relationship, a you-and-I-against-the-world vibe. When David says, "We play shows three or four nights a week," the "we" means Stephanie and him, even though she doesn't play music. When Stephanie tries to recall the name of her favorite song of his—that country tune he wrote during a five-minute soundcheck at the Great Falls fair—she says, "I guess we haven't named it yet."
There are hard times in their relationship, too. Arguments. Failures. Dropped responsibilities. But there's little evidence of ruin. She knows that his songs can arrive without warning and at inconvenient times. "And it's always when we have to go somewhere," she says, laughing. "Like, if we're about to go out to dinner, he'll be writing a song. And then he just has to write it. That's how it works. I know that I'm married to Boone, so I will always be late, forever."
Here's to losing control
David recalls a line from Orson Welles's The Third Man: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
That's how he's always felt about music: Art requires suffering.
After the stripped-down, isolated Hard Enough to Bend, Boone wrote its near-opposite, Tales of Gold, an album filled with musicians and optimism. For its release, he booked the Wilma Theatre and pulled in a large crowd.
"I really wanted to go all-out on arrangements and spare nothing and take my time and work with everyone I'd ever imagined working with," he says. "It was on the other end of the pendulum—not dark, but very hopeful."
Naturally, he followed that with State of the Union, an aggressive, angry rock album.
Yet, light or dark, as a musician and an artist, Boone feared he was treading water. It wasn't that he wanted to be famous; it was that he couldn't stop writing songs, and he was envisioning huge musical and visual projects that require time and money, people and equipment.
In 2010, he was in the midst of building a house for himself and Stephanie. The housing bubble had burst, so getting loans to finish the job was difficult. He was approaching 30, which, he says, "strangely came with an inordinate amount of pressure that I was putting on myself. I was always building this home to build a life to build a family to have something solid to be rooted to. But I was at this pressure-cooker moment, creatively. I was really wishing that my music by that point had created the opportunity for me to make the music I wanted to make, to do the type of performances I wanted to do ... My walls were coming in."
He kept wondering, At what point do you give up on your dreams?