Tom Cat at play 

Keeping it real and local with the Tom Catmull Band

Making a living as a musician in Missoula is not easy, although the argument that the stagnant Montana economy is to blame is—pardon my French—a load of crap. Somehow, Missoulians have enough dough to fill the University Theater whenever Allison Krauss or David Grisman come to town, and don’t even get me started about hair-metal reunion bands, Ani DiFranco, or indulgent trips to the east side of the Divide to see the latest in mediocre college rock.

Meanwhile, back in the Garden City some of Montana’s finest musicians find themselves in a curious dilemma. They can follow the tracks to greener musical pastures laid by former Missoula musicians like the Skoi!dats, Fireballs of Freedom, Clodhopper and Colin Meloy of Tarkio. Or they can plant their roots in the Missoula soil, play gigs around town to a handful of faithful fans and scrape by thanks to their day jobs.

Despite a great voice and a growing following, guitarist and singer/songwriter Tom Catmull has yet to abandon his day job waiting tables at the Red Bird. Not that he’s complaining. Catmull recognizes that at this point in his musical career, he could choose a path towards full-time musician status if he really wanted to.

“They always say that if you want to make a living playing music, you have to get on the road and take it everywhere, sleep in your truck and play everywhere,” says Catmull. “I guess from here you’d take it to Seattle and to Portland. At this point, I’m unwilling.”

One reason Catmull has chosen to keep to playing gigs close to home is that he recently entered the world of fatherhood. His wife, Becky Zatzke, gave birth to their first child, Jack, just over two months ago, and Tom can’t conceive of being away from his family for an extended period of time. The Catmull family is also celebrating another birth of sorts recently. The Tom Catmull Band just released the CD, Slippery Hill, which they’ll share with the public during a CD release party at the Ritz this Friday. Slippery Hill showcases Catmull on vocals and mostly acoustic guitar, Larry Hirshberg on bass, Richie Reinholdt on guitar, and Bruce Threlkeld on drums. It’s Catmull’s third CD, following 1998’s solo effort, East of Opportunity, and 2000’s The Sound of A Car, which features Hirshberg on bass, Mark Dixon on percussion, and a host of other guest musicians.

“This is certainly the best configuration the band has had,” says Hirshberg, who played with Catmull in the Tom Catmull Trio, the Tom Catmull Combo, the Tom Catmull Band, and a short-lived rock band called Bender. “We have the rock band configuration so that we can play in bars, and we certainly have good players that allow us to do that, Richie and Bruce in particular.”

Reinholdt and Threlkeld have played with Catmull for just over a year. Both have performed with a variety of bands and are accomplished singer/songwriters in their own right. They also qualify as the full-time professional musicians in the band, supplementing their gig income by teaching music by day. Reinholdt penned the title track from Slippery Hill, and Threlkeld wrote and sung lead vocal on the album’s “Texas Moon.”

Five of the 10 songs on Slippery Hill were written by Hirshberg, who sings lead vocal on “Unsteady” and also plays a bit of guitar on the CD. Hirshberg began his career as a guitarist/singer/songwriter, and first played bass in public in the Tom Catmull Trio, which featured his ex-wife Grace McNamee on fiddle. McNamee was also a member of Bender and now fiddles for Cash for Junkers and Dick Button and the Triple Lutz Cowboys. She and Hirshberg played together for years as a duo called Th’ Spectacles.

“Larry is a prolific songwriter,” says Catmull. “I don’t write quite as fast as he does. I knew I wanted to record a couple of his songs as soon as I heard them.”

“The guy’s my best friend in town,” says Hirshberg of his relationship with Tom Catmull. “We’ve known each other pretty much since he got to town.” The two met in 1995, and the fact that they became acquainted while in the employ of the service industry might explain their current reluctance to quit their day jobs. Some of that sordid history is explained on the Tom Catmull Band’s Web site, www.tomcatmullband.com.

“Tom moved to Missoula,” it reads. “Got his now legendary job as Shake Boy at the Uptown Diner, where Larry had been in his ‘Fat is Flavor’ period for the last six months. Soon Tom was a regular jammer at Larry’s house, where Th’ Spectacles liked to sit around, drink wine and play that acoustic stuff. From those ‘historic’ sessions all this here music springs.”

Catmull continues to play the occasional solo gig, and has been called upon to open for large touring acts such as Greg Brown, Kelly Joe Phelps, and Asleep at the Wheel. The Tom Catmull Band also opened for Robbie Fulks during a 2001 show at the Blue Heron.

“The Greg Brown show was probably my best gig ever,” says Catmull. “There’s like 1,100 people there and it’s dead quiet. It was terrifying! If I could follow a big-name person on a tour for a couple of weeks that would be great. That’s one of those solo acoustic shows that works. It’s definitely different than playing at a bar.”

For the time being, however, Catmull seems content to clock in at his day job, spend some quiet time at home with his family, and write and record music. And, of course, sing with the voice that is the foundation of one of the best bar bands in Missoula.

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