Roger Shack’s choice of covers spans a period of several decades, and alongside the country standards are a couple of oddball and crossover hits: Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville,” for one, and Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.” These tunes are immediately familiar and enjoyable for anyone. But most of Shack’s catalogue presupposes a certain cultural memory of country before it got all miscegenated and weird. It’s the kind of country you listen to when you’re old enough to remember.
“I’m an old country boy,” Shack says, punctuating his answers with a cough as mucky and low as Hank Williams’ Cadillac getting pulled crosswise out of a tar pit. “I set on my mother’s knee when I was seven years old and she taught me ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ I started playing professionally when I was 15 and I’ve been doing this for 55 years now. Played in almost every city of the Union and three foreign countries. Japan, Korea and, well, it ain’t really foreign—that’s Canada.”
Shack’s replies are always easy. Whether he’s talking about his time in Korea (“Played around and shot a little,” he says amiably, “and that’s about all I’m gonna say about that,”), his five marriages, or an aortal aneurism that almost laid him low (“I damn near died here about, oh, what, almost two years ago”), Shack’s attitude seems to be one of “well, if it didn’t kill me there’s no sense worrying about it.”
“I’ve drank all my life, I’ve smoked all my life, I’ve been pretty active,” he shrugs. “Except for a broken arm and heart failure, I’m still around.”
And married five times? That’s almost as many as Elizabeth Taylor.
“Oh, well, I wasn’t married to her,” he says. “I thought about chasing Marilyn Monroe, but old Joe DiMaggio had too big a bat.”
Shack has been playing the VFW Lounge off and on since 1987, where his avuncular presence onstage and off has been one of the better-kept secrets among young people who would rather keep it that way. He is, of course, old enough to be their grandfather. But if you drop by the VFW, you definitely want to introduce yourself to Wayne Shatto, his brother Dale and their friends Marian Lykken and Mary Reynolds, who can be found front and center every Friday night, occasionally getting up to dance but mostly just watching their friend play. Like Shack, they’re country kids from way back when.
“We’re just old country boys,” says Wayne Shatto. “We grew up listening to the Grand Old Opry.”
Shack delights in badgering Marian, a transplanted North Dakotan, by substituting Peace Garden State references at key points in the lyrics, which are written out in patient longhand on sheets of yellowing looseleaf paper. Between sets, Shack ambles out and sits with his friends. He’s a bundle of one liners about drinking and smoking. When he gets up to take the stage again, one of his friends whispers, “I don’t know what we’d do if something happened to Roger.”
You can see Roger Shack every Friday and Saturday night at the Missoula VFW at 9 p.m. Admission is free.