Electronic, bluegrass, punk, metal, noise, ukulele, twee it's all happening in the Missoula music scene. So why not a spot of what some might call alt-country? Aka actual country music, not modern country radio's broad, bedridden interpretation of the genre. Hey Nashville, how about some tunes devoid of the painful twang of clichés? Didn't think so. Fortunately, right here in Missoula, The Best Westerns are creating honest, evocative country and western music that is perhaps a bit more western than it is country.
Modern country music spends so much time embracing Southern mythology and American authenticity that a casual listener might assume that a star like Jason Aldean only takes time out to record when he's not shoulder-deep in a cow giving birth. The Best Westerns are aware of the power of that mythology. They aspire to own glistening Nudie suits. But they also aspire to create smart compositions, to hone their sound. Lap steel "gitarist" Dave Martens sums up the group's spirit, "You don't have to be a cowboy to play country music."
Although most anything goes fashion-wise at the VFWwhere the band's taken up residency for the last monthcowboy hats with boots still draw attention. You can wear one or the other with nary a glance, but the combo still makes those who equate country music with Denny Rehberg a poke nervous. However, The Best Westerns aren't here to pee in your Wheaties® or give you a hard time about the pink scarf your mom knitted for you. Anything but. According to drummer Riley Flynn the band is "pro-gay wolf," after all. Not a surprise once you see them perform, each rocking a hat like they do it every day (they don't), and like they've done it their entire lives, (they haven't). Bassist Ryan Scott, owner of the biggest hat in the band, says "the nostalgia and rebelliousness" of their dress and sound helps the band and the audience "buy into the western cowboy thing." In other words, if it looks and sounds like a country duck it probably is a country duck.
Their performance turns out to be as fun as it is affecting. Martens, who also plays drums for The Magpies, isn't afraid to jump up and join the crowd while flailing away on the tambourine, especially when he forgets the chords to a song. The rest of the band digs in and plays hard with easy confidence, bantering with one another and the crowd when necessary, but it's guitarist/singer Izaak Opatz's voice that is the focus of their sound. Somewhere in the baritone range, he is reminiscent of non-country singer Mark Lanegan in richness and nuance. The band plays and the audience is rapt and it appears that they have achieved Opatz's goal of "getting people to change their mind about country music."
No doubt these fellas can play country music, but it's happenstance that they do. "It's the last thing I thought we'd be playing," says lead guitarist Dan Codiga. Opatz concurs with Codiga, who he has played with since their days in Whitefish. "I don't listen to it but I play it," he says. "I've become a fan of country music since we started this band."
For most westerners and/or office assistants, country music is in the air, as inescapable as Miller Lite at a demolition derby, so it isn't an alien format to the group. After mid-tempo rocking and doing the singer-songwriter thing "we sped up the tempo and made it country," Martens says. They quickly learned to appreciate the nuances of country music's sound, and began to manipulate it.
"We might not be country, but we are re-appropriating the country sound," Opatz says, "which has an expected sound, so it's easier to surprise people with unexpected emotion, turns of phrase or figurative language."
Yeah, I heard Toby Keith says that to all the girls.
The Best Westerns perform at the final night of their VFW residency on Thu., Feb. 23, at 9 PM, with VTO and Stepponwolfshit. 245 W. Main St. Free.