Enter Kalispell’s Snappy Sport Senter any Tuesday afternoon between noon and 1 p.m. and you’ll find the Rocky Mountain Rhythm Kings playing Dixieland and ragtime numbers to an appreciative audience in plastic deck chairs, almost all of whom are between the ages of 50 and 100. It might seem odd to find live old-timey music inside a sporting goods store that sells guns, fishing rods and just about anything made of leather, but the Rhythm Kings are a Tuesday lunchtime tradition for many of the Flathead’s older citizens, and it’s no secret why that is.
“It’s the music we grew up with,” says Jerry Eby from underneath his fisherman’s cap. Now it’s the music they grow older to.
Last Tuesday, that music included Dixie and ragtime classics such as “After You’ve Gone,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” and a sing-along-inducing “When You’re Smiling,” all adorned with the jangling keys, swooping trombone, sharp trumpet, plodding bass and tight banjo strum that defined an earlier era of American music.
The Rocky Mountain Rhythm Kings consist of 10 members, though different combinations of players make each week a bit different. In total, however, the Rhythm Kings are: Karla West, piano; Wendell Tharpe, trombone; Paul Watson, cornet; Don Snow, bass; Bill Rossiter, banjo/guitar; John Goodrich, clarinet/saxophone; Terry Siess, banjo; Jim Andler, drums; Linda Ensign, vocals; and Al Lindborg, accordion. Tuba player and co-founder Paul Lawrence has retired due to illness.
Why do they play? Certainly not for money. The Rhythm Kings accept free-will donations, but most of the proceeds go toward student scholarships for Camp Heebie Jeebies, a student jazz camp held in Seeley Lake each June.
More than money, says Watson, motivation comes from “just seeing people’s smiling faces.” And the Rhythm Kings, originally a duo of West and Lawrence founded at Flathead Valley Community College in 1987, do have their regulars.
“It’s been a part of our lives,” says Barbara Fuller. She and her husband, Ed, have been coming out to see the Rhythm Kings for seven toe-tapping years.
There’s no end to the good times in sight, either—at least not if you ask bassist Don Snow, who missed the prior week’s gig only because he was having a pacemaker installed in Missoula.
“As Duke Ellington said, ‘Music is a jealous mistress,’” Snow says. “Once you hook up, it’s pretty hard to drop out.”
The Rocky Mountain Rhythm Kings play every Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. at the Snappy Sport Senter in Kalispell.