In the dining hall of the Missoula Housing Authority, one of Missoula’s most popular bands plays unplugged to a group of elderly fans. The scene is not as all-hell’s-breaking-loose rowdy as when Cash For Junkers play the Union Club on weekend nights—the dancing is in the form of foot tapping and bobbing of heads and shoulders. But playing for the old-timers is perfectly fitting for a band that plays American roots music with a sincere authenticity you wouldn’t expect from such rug-rats.
While some move in their chairs, others cast nostalgic stares through the band, their heartstrings being plucked in time with the fiddle, dobro, percussion, mandolin, and rhythm guitar. Tyler’s rich and yodely voice belts out a Hank Williams, a Tampa Red, a Harlon Howard, or one of their growing arsenal of originals that are steadily upstaging their cover tunes.
Maybe you’ve heard some of their originals recently and like me, assumed that they were covers of old classics. Songs like “Cheater’s Waltz,” “Foolish Waters,” “Murder Ballad,” and “Judgment Day” have that authentic sound because the band’s been learning the genre long enough and deeply enough to extrapolate into new terrain without abandoning the cowboy hat groove. Says Marco del Dobro “The more we play, the more we get to know the music, the more we lock into what we do.”
That authentic groove is powerful enough to induce nostalgia in even the post-post-baby-boomer generation who never had to stock the root cellar, chink between the cabin logs, or warm towels on oven doors to keep them from freezing. It’s similar to the feeling you get when you walk into one of those old Montana bars like the Lumberjack Saloon on Petty Creek or the Dirty Shame in Yaak, where thick wood, old smoke and forged iron make you feel like a character in a Norman Maclean story. Indeed, as rowdy as the college crowd gets on a Saturday night in Missoula, with their cookie-cutter swing dance moves that make you swear they all had the same dance teacher, when Cash For Junkers plays small town Montana bars is when the shit really hits the stomp.
They’ve played the Red Neck Olympics in Rudyard, where Brock de los drums is rumored to have entered the belching contest. They’ve played for beer in Jordan, home of the Montana Freemen. From the Hot Springs street riots to the Green Room barf-o-thon to the 80th birthday party of a woman in Choteau, Cash For Junkers has cashed in on the vibration of the Northern Rockies without selling out. Another aspect of their sound is Gospel. Indeed, “Night Train to Memphis” may be their most popular tune. Lately they have been playing in a Baptist church, and cutting live tracks for their second album, due out this spring. Rather than tweaking their songs to death in a studio, they are canning them at the peak of freshness, in keeping with the “keep it simple” motif. Despite being recorded in a church, the new release is rumored to be the first country music album ever to bear a parental advisory label. Hallelujah!
Fans may remember the heated rivalry between Cash For Junkers and Bob Wire and the Fencemenders that erupted two years ago, when the young rootsy upstarts usurped Bob Wire’s title of “Best Band of Missoula” in the Missoula Independent Best of Missoula readers’ poll. Mud was slung across the airwaves via the “Oh Baby Baby” Nate Schweber Radio Show every Friday; houses and cars were toilet papered, drunken boasts and threats were cast from barstools, and good Missoulians were terrorized into locking their doors until the smoke of Bitterroot trees and the exhaust of Harleys rolled into town and helped recalibrate their fears. Well, things have come full circle since those stormy days of institutional unrest, and Bob Wire and Cash For Junkers have reportedly kissed and made up. Says John del mandolin, “We poured together a Moose Drool and a Pabst Blue Ribbon and passed it around.” The two ex-rivals will be celebrating their newfound sibling-hood by sharing the stage at the Blue Heron on New Year’s Eve. Rumor has it they will hold hands and sing a bluegrass/metal version of “Kum-Ba-Ya.”