The vitality of Missoula's music scene seems to ebb and flow like ocean tides, and currently we seem to be enjoying a surge. A quick look at the "Musicians" section of Craigslist bears this out. There are ads listing bands of almost every stripe: metal, bluegrass, industrial trip-hop, all-female classic rock, blues, country, pop, post-rock, psych-folk, hard rock and hardcore Christian. There's even a New Orleans-style brass band looking for a trombone player.
But where's the rockabilly?
There might be a few slick-haired, tatted-up hillbillies holed up somewhere, waiting to burst onto the scene, but for now, the ragged flag of rockabilly is being carried by The Misfortune Tellers. Composed mostly of players too young to have been around for the last major resurgence of the genre in 1983, the band released their first album this summer. Le Lava Lamp is 10 original songs, recorded in the home studio of Paul Nelson, guitarist and self-proclaimed "old guy" of the band. His sideburns, which angle down to a point along his jaw like the white stripe on Starsky and Hutch's Ford Torino, are a clue to his musical allegiance.
"I've heard a lot of people describe Russ Nasset or Cash for Junkers as rockabilly," says Nelson, "but it's not their whole thing." There are, in fact, a handful of rootsy bands playing country or folk or honky tonk in the area that do incorporate elements of rockabilly in their sound. But as far as a hard-labeled rockabilly band, The Misfortune Tellers seem to be the sole purveyors.
"My dad was a hard country player and he taught me how to play the guitar," says Nelson. "There was a lot of rockabilly mixed in with hard country back in the day. I wanted to write songs with that danceable feel." He adds that the imagery that goes along with the genre is a big draw for him. "Pin-ups, burlesque, hot rods, all that."
Le Lava Lamp mixes traditional rockabilly licks with the influence the four players bring to the band. While rockabilly is the bedrock of their style, songs like "Ask Me If I Care" and "Trip to Zip" have more in common with the psychobilly thrash of Reverend Horton Heat than with the punked-up twang of the Cramps or neo-traditionalism of the Stray Cats. "I'm a huge Rev fan," Nelson says. "I like the cleanness of rockabilly, and I like the excitement of dirty guitar." His rig is Exhibit A in this shotgun wedding of sound—she plays a Gretsch hollowbody, which is iconic for its twangy growl, but runs it through a Marshall amp, known more for hard rock than for traditional rockabilly.
While he's still on board with the hard rockers Letters to Luci, after the release of their album Broken Glass and Pills, Nelson was ready for a change. He and drummer Mike Noel, with whom he'd played in earlier bands, started putting The Misfortune Tellers together a couple of years ago.
"I've been thinking about it for a while now," he says. "I'd been doing the rock thing, and I wanted to get into something where my heart was at. For me it was the point of doing what I wanted to do." After recruiting Jesse Johnson to handle vocal duties, Nelson approached Carson Tor Neagle, bassist for local band Beyonce. "We crossed paths a year and a half ago. I said, 'You want to play some upright bass in a rockabilly band?' He say, 'Hmm. Sounds interesting. Might be right up my alley.'"
Noel played drums on the album, but moved to California before the band had the chance to play live. Nelson asked Luci's Malcom Morgan to sit in on some rehearsals while they sought a permanent member, giving the dreadlocked drummer a copy of the CD. When Morgan showed up for the first rehearsal he'd learned Noel's parts "to the beat," says Nelson. "Malcom ate that up, the 180 variations on the train beat." Nelson immediately invited Morgan to join up.
With his lineup firmly in place, Nelson plans to play more live gigs, including this Friday's show at Stage 112. A second album is in the works, and Johnson has already written several songs. "He comes from a punk background so his stuff is a little darker, a little edgier, but we're able to keep the rockabilly feel to it," says Nelson. "It's been really cool for him to show up with something that's old-school punk and we're able to make it sound really rockabilly."
With the current rockabilly void in Missoula, is Nelson concerned that The Misfortune Tellers might be inhabiting a lonely island?
"We didn't check demographics or do a study or anything, like what [genre] would leave us standing alone for the longest time," he says. "I just wanted to do my own project. If there had been a hundred rockabilly bands in town I still would have done it."
The Misfortune Tellers play Stage 112 Fri., Aug. 28, at 10 PM along with The Skurfs and Night Blooming Jazzmen. No cover.