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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In the late 1990s, long after the house band was all but extinct, Bond wrote a song about lost love called "When Did You Learn the Blues."

I guess everything's a trade-off

Does it have to be that way

Why can't we just live and love

and forgive yesterday

Does it start in the cradle

Did they make you wear those shoes

When will love ever come to you

When did you learn the blues

He was writing a lot more original material and playing in four or five Missoula bands to make ends meet, but it wasn't easy. As a country musician with a distortion pedal, he had come into the scene ahead of his times. Soon, he was finding it harder to keep up.

"When I first got to Missoula I had pedals and no one else did," he says. "And now there's all this technology—guitar players have a small city under their feet of pedals and effects and all kinds of crazy stuff. I was a tech freak and I just didn't change and now technology's went by me."

click to enlarge The late Hoyt Axton, left, used to invite musicians like Bond, center, and Arlo Guthrie, right, to his Victor home to jam. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The late Hoyt Axton, left, used to invite musicians like Bond, center, and Arlo Guthrie, right, to his Victor home to jam.

As another way of making money, Bond picked up a job doing sound at the Top Hat. He remembers a show he did for a young out-of-town band. As he helped the musicians carry in their instruments he overheard one of them snarkily comment on the sound man's gray beard—and it got to him.

"Well, they hadn't even met me yet," he says. "They don't even know who I am. They don't know I've done concerts for 40,000 people. That's the hard part to me when I get around younger people. I respected older musicians in Dallas. And I'm kind of looking for some of that back."

The changing music scene allowed for Bond to connect with some younger musicians, like folk rocker Andrea Harsell, whom he played with for 12 years.

"He's such a great wealth of musical knowledge, he was always open to teaching me to be a better guitar player," Harsell says. "On stage, he just enhanced what I was doing. He was totally comfortable being in that role. He was this massive supporting role that I needed him to be. He's been the supporting role everyone has needed him to be."

Missoula musician Tom Catmull recalls sitting down with Bond sometime in the early 2000s, playing guitar at the Atlantic Hotel, where Bond has lived on and off for 15 years. Catmull has played his fair share of covers, but his distinct original sound has made him a staple at bars and coffee houses. And yet, spending that time with someone as good as Bond, Catmull says he realized the importance of those old-school house bands.

"When you're playing original music you're pretty much playing the style that you play," Catmull says. "But if you're a cover band you have to learn every other style and it can make you a really stellar player. And Louie is one of those guys. He has some serious country licks."

New generations of musicians opened Bond up to music he never thought he'd like—at the Top Hat, for instance, he found himself blown away by hip-hop acts whose freestyling ways impressed him as much as any good country solo. And yet, despite his desire to keep himself ahead of the game, and despite a steady lineup of gigs around town, he still hasn't been certain where he fits in and how all these years of playing add up in a place where cover bands aren't exactly the top of the food chain.

click to enlarge Bond has no intention of slowing down. He’s currently working on an album with Kimberlee Carlson and planning a move to Hot Springs where he’ll join The Dark Horse Band. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Bond has no intention of slowing down. He’s currently working on an album with Kimberlee Carlson and planning a move to Hot Springs where he’ll join The Dark Horse Band.

"Sometimes I use the term that I've lived myself into a corner, you know, like painted yourself into a corner," he adds. "I've lived a life that is really cool but sometimes I find myself in this little corner and everyone else is out there, and I can't get out of my corner because the whole room's changed."




When the Western Union Swing band ends its Saturday night set, Bond quietly slips his Gibson guitar into its case. Cash For Junkers starts playing and the crowd appears to double in size, the floor a party of lights and sweaty swing dancers. After 15 minutes, Bond emerges from the green room and takes a spot off to the side of the stage. He leans against the wall and points up at the band. "Now here's a band who can play swing but still sound like the old honky tonks in Nashville," he says.

Later, Bond will return, as he does most nights, to his small room at the Atlantic, which faces the room he stayed in at the Park Hotel when he first arrived in Missoula. "It's a vortex I never knew I'd end up in," he says.

As much as he appreciates the local scene, he's preparing for a move. In a few weeks he's heading to Hot Springs to play full-time with The Dark Horse Band, which is based in the small town. He's hoping to be able to make money working with one band instead of spreading himself thin among many. Perhaps the change will allow him to spend time on side projects of his own, though he says he's not looking to front anything anytime soon.

"I've had people say I should have a Louie Bond band," he says. "But I don't really like that because I've always been the journeyman musician. I've always wanted to be part of a successful band, but it wasn't so much for the fame and fortune. The fortune would be nice—but for the freedom to put the money back into your music, get better guitars.

"The fame is something I thought would just be there—and it always was for me on a local level," he continues. "You're good enough and you get recognized, that's good. But I never did feel like I wanted to be the star. I get in a band and whatever part there is that can make the band sound better, I try to find that part."

For more than 40 years, he's been pretty good at finding the part. And even still, he's far from done looking.

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