Jan Dell and the Ranch Hands bring the country back to Missoula 

Jan Dell started her singing career at the Cabin Lounge in 1971 with Donnie Lane and the Wanderers. She showed up one Saturday night at the East Missoula bar with her sister and cousin, who knew Dell's talent for singing and secretly asked the house band if she could sit in. When Donnie Lane called Dell up to the stage, she was shocked but excited.

"That was the first time I'd ever sung in front of an audience," says Dell, who now lives in Helena. "Anne Murray's 'Snowbird' had just come out, and I loved Connie Smith's song 'Once A Day,' so I kind of found a key for the band to play those two songs and it worked out really well."

More than well. Dell became a hit in bars all across western Montana, and especially in Missoula. It was an unexpected turn for her, a mother of three living on a ranch in Frenchtown with her husband, and it happened at a time when Missoula was blowing up as a country music town. Between Lolo and downtown and East Missoula there were several bars with house bands performing nightly to regular crowds of hundreds. Musicians including Louie Bond, Ellie Nuno, Carol Minjares, Chuck Norris and Ray Riggs played in those bands, and often traveled to share stages with bigger acts in bigger cities.

In turn, those bigger acts came through Missoula, especially Bakersfield, Calif., stars such as Buck Owens, Wanda Jackson, Tony Booth and David Frizzell. They would perform at Amvets on River Road, and the house bands would open for them, or back them up. According to guitarist Bond, musicians on the country-music circuit often referred to Missoula as "Little Nashville," and Jan Dell, he says, was at the center of the scene, singing for a handful of bands through the years, including Country Satisfaction and Jan Dell and the Ranch Hands.

"She was probably the best singer in the house bands around Missoula for at least two decades—may still be," Bond says.

As a tribute to Dell, now 70, and Missoula's country music past, Bond, Nuno, Minjares, Norris and other musicians have organized a Jan Dell and the Ranch Hands reunion show for Sunday, July 2. They'll cover their favorite tunes from back in the day, songs they loved to play and the hits Missoula audiences demanded, including Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," Tanya Tucker's "Delta Dawn," Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Lynn Anderson's "Rose Garden."

Dell, who hasn't done much singing since the late 1980s, was known as a singer of cover tunes, but she did record some originals in Nashville at the beginning of her career. Not long after she started singing at the Cabin, a group of musicians came through town, heard Dell sing, and invited her to Nashville to cut a record. They recorded six songs and released four of them, including Dell's original "Beatin' Round the Bush" and a single called "I Never Thought I'd Ever Love the Rain" written by an aspiring Nashville songwriter who collected trash by day.

"It was very exciting for me," she says. "I just knew I was going to be a star."

click to enlarge Jan Dell and the Ranch Hands were part of Missoula’s vibrant country scene in the 1970s. - PHOTO COURTESY JAN DELL
  • photo courtesy Jan Dell
  • Jan Dell and the Ranch Hands were part of Missoula’s vibrant country scene in the 1970s.

The group toured for a few weeks, but things turned sour when, according to Dell, the bandleader took off with the group's money, stranding them in a small town in Canada with no place to stay and no way to fulfill the remainder of their gigs. She barely knew the band members, and she missed family and friends back in Montana. When she got back over the border, she flew home and settled back in Missoula.

After her return, Dell developed vocal-cord nodules, which nearly derailed her singing altogether, but after she recovered she became a star in the local firmament for another decade and a half. She made a return trip to Nashville, this time with the Ranch Hands, and cut another record there. It was a much more pleasant experience that time around, she says. She got to meet a lot of her idols, too, including Connie Smith, Hank Thompson, Roy Acuff and Brenda Lee.

The band toured with the album, returning to Missoula only to find its country scene dwindling. Before, making money as a cover band had come easy, but by the late 1980s it was nearly impossible to get by on gigs. Audiences were looking for disco, Dell says, and the live country bands couldn't compete. Eventually the Cabin burned down, and other country bars were shuttered.

Dell worked as a supermarket deli clerk for a while and later drove 98-ton rigs for mining companies in Montana and Arizona, though she never stopped singing entirely.

"I had a microphone on the truck radio," she says. "In the middle of the night the supervisor would say, 'Janet, sing to us, we're falling asleep!' I'd pull over and sing the crew a song to try and keep them awake. 'Sixteen Tons.' 'Big Bad John.' I sang 'They Call the Wind Mariah' one night when it was really windy. And I tell everyone that I got to sing on the radio even though I quit singing."

Now retired, Dell's name still has currency among musicians like Nuno and Bond, who continue to play around the state. Many of the musicians Dell sang with are still considered among the most talented in the state, especially among musicians, for their ability to back just about anybody and cover entire discographies of chart-topping greats.

"The whole reason that we're getting together for this Jan Dell Ranch Band reunion is because the few of us that are left from that era all thought it would be fun to play those songs that we played way back then," Dell says. "And these musicians were the best, and so I guess I was the lucky one. No matter how you sing a song, it's these guys that are going to make you sound good. And that's what they always did."

Jan Dell and the Ranch Hands play the Sunrise Saloon Sun., July 2, at 3 PM. Free.

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