On a recent Saturday night, the dance floor at the Top Hat is swinging. Young and middle-aged couples bend into pretzels and twirl out—sometimes dangerously wide—as a post-dinner audience, still nibbling on tapas, looks on. It's a contemporary crowd, what with the newly renovated bar occupied by patrons in Nike Airs sipping on Red Bull vodkas and microbrews. But there's also an old-school vibe to the show.
On stage, under blue and red spotlights, the Western Union Swing Band captures the mood and fashion of a classic country dance hall. Front and center stands Louie "the Lead" Bond, the sharp-dressed lead guitarist in a silver vest and Stetson, strumming a big-bodied Gibson. He doesn't ham it up for the crowd, but when he plays a fiery solo to Bob Wills' "Right or Wrong," he nails the notes with the easy precision of a man who could do this kind of fretwork in his sleep. With the exception of a few young musicians who remark on Bond's skills ("He's the best guitarist in town, bar none," one is heard to say) the crowd is mostly too lost in its own revelry to take much notice. Bond doesn't seem to mind. He just plays.
The musician keeps a similarly low profile away from the stage. On weekdays, Bond often settles into a booth at the Uptown Diner, starting his morning with a breakfast of eggs and bacon. At 65, he still makes his living playing music, which means he's up until at least 2 a.m. almost every night. As he sips his coffee, he is deceptively mellow, with twinkling eyes and a kind smile. He's polite and gracious—talk with him about his music, he'll tell you about every musician in town whom he admires. All of that humility disguises the fact that Bond is a sucker-punch guitar player, a secret weapon for any band with whom he plays. Over the years he's been in several dozen bar bands—from Texas to Nashville to Missoula—backing up or opening for big acts like Bobby Bare, Sawyer Brown and Buck Owens. Unlike so many musicians who live fast and die young—or at least fade from the industry—Bond is a lifer who has cultivated a steady career at a long, slow burn. Whether it's a slammed night at the Top Hat or a near-empty Tuesday at the Eagles Club, Bond plugs in his Gibson and dives into the big catalog of songs he keeps inside his head—with no other reward but the chance to make a living playing music night after night.
Bond does a gorgeous version of George Strait's "Amarillo By Morning." If you close your eyes and listen to his silky voice with its slight gravel, and the breezy riff of his guitar, you could swear you were listening to some country legend like George Jones or Willie Nelson. He lets the notes resonate just right:
Everything that I've got is just what I've got on.
I ain't got a dime, but what I got is mine.
I ain't rich, but Lord I'm free.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo's where I'll be.
Bond, who started playing professionally when he was just 17, has amassed an impressive repertoire of country standards and Top 40 rock songs. Starting in his 20s, he spent time wandering across the country playing gigs wherever he could find them. On a road trip through Montana in January 1974, he ended up playing a six-night gig at the old Flamingo Room in Missoula's Park Hotel. He had come with a drummer from Dallas and they'd picked up a bass player in Miles City. One night, on a break, Bond struck up a conversation with a young James Welch, who was just finishing up his book Winter in the Blood. Bond says he was enamored with everyone he met and especially with the wild bunch of musicians, writers and late-night partiers that frequented the hotel.
"I didn't know anything about the music scene," he says. "But I looked out the window of the Park Hotel and I saw that train and the mountain with the 'M' and I said, 'I want to live here.'"
He didn't have a job. He had no place to live. He didn't really know anyone. He showed back up in Missoula anyway, with all his possessions and a hope that he could make it work.
Bond wasn't sure what to expect of a town buried in the mountains of Montana, so far from the bright lights of Dallas and Nashville. But on one of his first nights settling in Missoula, he entered a bar and saw Ray Riggs playing on the stage.
"Ray had played with Barbara Mandrell," Bond says. "I walk in and I hear this guitar player and I go, 'Well, I guess I'll be back in Texas here in a couple of weeks. If they're all that good around here I don't know if I'm going to find a job.'"
As luck would have it, a band called A Pint of Country needed another guitarist and asked Bond to sit in. They hired him within a few days. A keyboardist then set him up in a cheap apartment in Milltown where Bond discovered Harold's Club, which was interested in hosting live music. He booked A Pint of Country for the weekends and also for some off-nights, for which the band called itself A Fifth of Country. It was a serendipitous setup, but due in large part to Bond's quick establishment in the local music scene. He could play old country, but he also had a soft spot for rock and roll, having spent his teenage years playing along to Paul Revere & the Raiders and the Beatles on the radio.