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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"There were great players around here but I was good enough to hold my own," Bond says. "I was the guy hitting the distortion pedal and rocking a bit, and people kind of liked that."

Missoula has earned many nicknames over the years, but back in the mid-1970s and early 1980s it was known by country-loving truckers as "Little Nashville." Bars typically had house bands—musicians who played in-residence—and those house bands often got a chance to back out-of-town headliners. At the Amvets bar on River Road, Bond and musicians like singer Jan Dell and drummer Carol Minjares backed up stars from Bakersfield, Calif., including David Frizzell, Buck Owens, Buddy Alan, Wanda Jackson and Tony Booth.

Another venue, The Cabin in East Missoula, hosted local music seven nights a week, with 350 people showing up regularly. It was a scene. The house bands were carried by a pool of musicians who, like Bond, lived in Missoula but often traveled to share the stage with bigger acts on nationwide tours. Fiddle player Ellie Nuno was part of the rotating cast of musicians who took up the challenge to keep the local crowds happy.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"There was a heavy social scene back then of folks who went out regularly to dance," Nuno says. "Couples and singles who were at the club four to five nights a week were there to dance and they rarely left the floor if the band was tight. And we were! That means we left little or no downtime between songs so the dancers didn't have time to leave the floor."

For the musicians, the long stretch of hours night after night meant they had endless hours of practice together.

"Radio country and dance hall music is a team sport," Nuno says. "We were after that pure and classic country sound on our respective instruments and vocal styles. Every good 'lifer' player has carefully and endlessly experimented and crafted his or her sound, and Louie Bond is a master guitar man in the radio-country style of playing, yet his style and delivery is truly his own this many years down the road."

Usually being the house band meant playing the role of bridesmaid to the bride, but it didn't always work out that way. Not long after he moved to Missoula, Bond left, along with drummer Minjares, to play lead guitar in a house band for a stint in Dallas at the Longhorn Ballroom, formerly known as Bob Wills' Ranch House. One night, in 1979, Buck Owens confronted Bond backstage. Bond had just finished an opening set with his band. Owens, a country music star, co-host of "Hee Haw" and headliner for the night, was about to go on—except, instead, he was standing in the green room yelling at Bond.

According to Bond, Owens was mad because the house band played a little too well, ending its dynamic set with a cover of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." "Buck started railing on me," Bond says. "He said, 'I can't believe you did this to me. I gotta go out and follow that? You should know better.'" Bond smiles. He's a little bit proud, a little bit embarrassed. "I don't want to say anything bad about him," he says. "He was a really a good guy and he has a great band. And I can understand in a way—it might have been a professional faux pas on our part. But we didn't understand it. We thought, 'Holy cow. No one is going to outshine Buck Owens no matter how good your band is—people came to see Buck Owens."

The Longhorn Ballroom house band opened for the country star again the following night. Bond says he felt bad about Owens getting upset the night before, and he considered different ways to handle the situation. In the end, the band decided to just do what it always did—play to the crowd the best it could. "We didn't really end up changing anything," Bond says with a big laugh. "It kind of pushed us a little harder because the attitude was, well, Buck needs to buck up."

click to enlarge Bond moved to Missoula in 1974, during the heyday of house bands, and he got a chance to back up popular country artists coming through town like Wanda Jackson, David Frizzell and Buddy Alan. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Bond moved to Missoula in 1974, during the heyday of house bands, and he got a chance to back up popular country artists coming through town like Wanda Jackson, David Frizzell and Buddy Alan.

In the late 1980s, after returning from a stint in Nashville, Bond returned to Missoula and joined the Country Boogie Boys fronted by Dave Knight. Bond recalls the music scene was already changing. In 1985, The Cabin burned down, wiping out one of the town's most lively venues for country music. That same year, the state legislature passed the Video Poker Machine Act, which allowed five poker machines per liquor license and unlimited keno machines. Bond says many musicians thought the new revenue would make it easier for bars to hire bands and pay them well, but the measure backfired.

"There were no house gigs and there was a reason for that. People came in and threw money in gambling machines and the take from one machine would have paid for a band," Bond says. "But they didn't need to, right? It was all theirs. It's hard to give that up as a bar owner."

There was also a new generation of musicians coming into the mix, with new ideas on what would capture an audience's attention.

"I remember Dave [Knight] saying, 'Wow! We're the old guard now,'" says Bond. "And that was 20 years ago."

The first time Bond met Hoyt Axton was around the time of the Great Northwest Log Haul in Darby in 1988. The Country Boogie Boys found out that the Nashville country star was filming a movie in the Bitterroot called Disorganized Crime and they decided to track him down at the KOA where his tour bus was parked.

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