The Lifer 

Louie "the Lead" Bond never pursued the limelight, but he's built a four-decade career as arguably Missoula's best guitarist.

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"We went down and knocked at the bus door," Bond says. "And there he was sitting in the booth on the bus. He said, 'What's up?' And our drummer said, 'We got a band down here and we know some of your songs if you want to jam.'" Axton invited them in and they played together for several nights.

One night, Bond recalls, Axton requested that they do "The Pusher."

"God damn the Pusher Man? Steppenwolf? Why do you want to do that?"

"He said, 'Well, I wrote it.'"

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"We didn't know that," Bond says. "He was quite a prolific writer. He wrote 'The No, No Song,' a Ringo Starr hit, and of course he did the Three Dog Night songs 'Joy to the World' and 'Never Been to Spain.'"

Axton was slated to play the Log Haul that month—a protest by Darby loggers against environmental groups—and the Country Boogie Boys ended up backing him.

"It was kind of funny because there were so many log trucks coming in that when we got down to Florence they had a police escort to take our band down to Darby," Bond says. "We were on the shoulder of the road sometimes and all over the place—and some of the people protesting the logging threw nails on the road." He pauses. "Politically, I'm on both sides of the fence when it comes to things like that. I don't want to see clear-cutting ... You have to have a mindset that goes beyond generations, that looks into the future."

Bond kept in touch with Axton. They did a radio commercial for Lane Furniture that featured a rendition of "Sixteen Tons;" Bond played guitar and he and another musician did the background vocals as Axton did a voiceover in his low, easy way.

"He could sing really high—higher than you would think," Bond says, "but he also did a Johnny Cash cover of 'I Walk the Line' and he drops down below the low E on a guitar, and just as smooth as silk. He vibrates. He had more range than any singer I've ever known."

Not long after the voiceover work, Axton had a stroke that left him in a wheelchair. Deborah, Hoyt's wife, asked Bond to come help Axton with his music. Bond moved into the guest house on the Axton's ranch in Victor. He would play with Axton at benefits and private parties and helped him with songs.

click to enlarge Bond has lived in a funky artist residence at the Atlantic Hotel on and off for the past 15 years. His window looks out at the old Park Hotel where he played his first gig in the early 1970s. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Bond has lived in a funky artist residence at the Atlantic Hotel on and off for the past 15 years. His window looks out at the old Park Hotel where he played his first gig in the early 1970s.

"Hoyt respected Louie and his musical talent," Deborah says. "Louie had patience. Hoyt had some songs that he had started before his stroke and Louie and Hoyt would sit in the room for hours and Louie would help put the music to the songs. He did a fabulous job."

It was just a handful of songs. One was called "The IRS Killed Dottie West," about the country-western singer who lost her car to the IRS and then was killed when she hitched a ride from a drunk driver. Another was called "Some Women." The songs were put on demo tapes and Kostas Lazarides, the Montana-based songwriter who has written for Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless and George Strait, shopped them in Nashville—but nothing came of it.

After Axton died in 1999, Deborah found some of his half-finished songs. She gave a copy of one of them, titled "The Way it Should Have Been," to Bond. It's a riff off the first part of an old Leadbelly song called "Western Plains." Axton wrote it in a way that each chapter talks about a past life. In one, Axton is a cowboy fighting Jesse James, in another he's a trapper who, it seems, gets killed by his kidnapped Indian wife. Bond had seen the song before and he'd always asked Axton if he was going to write a verse about his own life and death. At the time, Axton said no, because he was still alive.

Bond decided to write the final verse for his friend.

Once I was a poet, coloring people's lives

with song

when the body quit me, I knew it wasn't long

those who really loved me knew it wasn't my age

And when the body fell, their hearts helped me fly away

Bond played it for Deborah in a law office as they were getting Axton's estate in order, and he remembers the room filling with passersby—lawyers and staff—curious about the rare occasion of a man with his guitar in their place of work. "There was silence in the room afterward," Bond says. "It was emotional. Deborah said, 'Hoyt would like that verse in the song.' And so they wrote it down and I was a posthumous co-writer."

"He gave me a big boost," Bond says of Axton. "I'm proud to say that I worked with Hoyt Axton. I'm glad I got to help him in that respect."

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