For aspiring country music singers, all roads lead to the bright lights and big stages of Nashville. And for most, that’s where the difference between dreams and reality digs in and the harsh culture of professional music sends them back home.
Mike Ulvila is one of the lucky ones; after weathering the music industry’s battles for a decade, the Kalispell-born musician and his band, Savannah Jack, signed on a with a record label last September and are set to release their first single in May.
But what may seem like the finish line to some is just the start of another race for the musician. As his father Dan Ulvila says: “If you’re thinking this is a success story, it’s not there yet. But it’s closer than it ever was.”
Dan Ulvila said his son had a propensity for rhythm early in life. As a boy, the younger Ulvila would join his father onstage at church to play the drums.
The drum set was a combination of orphaned pieces from other sets. But when Mike was 6 or 7, his father told him if he learned the fast-paced drum line to the song “Wipeout,” he would get a complete set. Mike did. And Dan jokingly attributes some of the percussive feat to the fact that young arms can move much quicker than their parents’.
By the time he hit fifth grade, Dan said he and his wife understood that Mike was an audio, as opposed to visual, learner. His teachers noticed the difference, Dan said, and this skill has manifested itself in Mike’s ability to hear a song and immediately translate it to his instrument.
“It’s a different kind of mind-working,” Dan said. “He’s good, there’s no doubt about it.”
Mike joined his first band when he was 12. He, his younger brother and a couple of friends formed the group Whitewater and began playing at school dances. Eventually the group moved on to bigger stages at fairs in Montana, Wyoming, Washington and the Dakotas.
One of those friends is Dennis Johnson, who owns a party rental store in the valley and remembers Mike growing up in a musically supportive family with plenty of instruments around.
“I like to say most people are a jack of all, master of none,” Johnson said. “Mike was the master of all musicians.”
The band stayed together until Mike and Johnson graduated from Flathead High School in 1999. Dan remembers pulling up college applications on a slow Internet connection and placing them on the kitchen table, but Mike never filled them out.
“Deep down he wasn’t ready,” Dan said.
The year after he graduated, Mike won the local True Value Jimmy Dean Country Showdown, now known as the Colgate Country Showdown. The national competition searches for untapped country talent through local, state and regional competitions, capped off by a final performance for a chance at $100,000. This year, Kalispell’s Jonathan Jenkins swept the local competition for the second year in a row at the end of March.
For Mike, winning the showdown came around the same time he decided to pursue a music career in Nashville.
“I always tell people that you can’t have a backup plan, you just have to make your mindset as ‘I’m going to go down there and do music,’” Mike said.
So he and his father loaded the car and drove 32 hours down south. On the flight back, Dan said was a bit teary-eyed to leave his son, especially in such an uncertain situation.
Mike flew back to Billings to compete in the state round of the country showdown and swept the event. He moved on to the regional competition and won there as well.
The next challenge – the finals – would take place on one of the biggest stages in country music.
“It was awesome; that was the first time that I played on the Grand Ole Opry,” Mike said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking for a little 19-year-old.”
Mike didn’t win that day, but his infectious fiddle playing caught the attention of one of the judges, country star Eddy Raven. Raven approached Mike after the concert and said he needed a fiddle player for his tour. It became Mike’s first of many gigs backing up already established country stars.
“That was kind of getting my foot in the door,” he said.
After Raven, Mike would go on to play guitar, banjo and fiddle for Blake Shelton, Mark Wills and Darryl Worley. He traveled on a USO tour with Worley to Iraq, Kuwait, Korea and Japan and has played in every state in America except Alaska.
By the time he had paid his dues touring with bigger musicians, Mike said Nashville had become a pretty small town. Everyone knows everyone in the music business, and it was through a roommate that he met his future Savannah Jack bandmate, Don Gatlin. The two eventually joined with guitarist Jay Darby to finish their trio. That was six years ago.
‘Six Years for Overnight Success’
The band played over 60 shows last year with Kenny Rogers, some across the Atlantic. The McMurray Entertainment Group signed Savannah Jack last September, in what Mike jokingly calls “six years for overnight success.”
And that’s a big part of shattering the bright-lights-big-city illusion most neophyte musicians have of making it big, Mike said.
“When I first moved down there it was ‘oh man, if I could just get a gig playing with a national artist…’ Well I did that. Then it’s ‘if I could get a song cut by another artist,’ then I did that,” Mike said. “Your initial thought is ‘if I could get a record deal then everything would be hunky-dory.’”
The truth is, it never stops. Getting signed is just one step, albeit a big one that most bands never get to, in an infinite road to success. Mike said he looks up to stars such as Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney, who are constantly coming up with something new.
Getting to the next level is a perpetual drive in the music business, he said.
Johnson remembered Mike asking him to venture to Tennessee with him, but Whitewater’s former bassist had already started his new party rental business at that point.
“I knew he would make it,” Johnson said. “In any situation there’s never an overnight success. It takes years and years and years to bring it all together.”
Still, the excitement of a record deal is nothing to scoff at. Mike said he would be touring extensively in the coming months to promote his band’s single, “I Know,” set to be released on May 3. He noted that he is lucky to have such an understanding wife, Alli, and two great kids to keep him grounded.
For Dan, watching his son traverse the ups and downs of the music world was tough at times. He is reluctant to get too excited about a record deal because of the industry’s fickle nature. On the plus side, though, there’s financial and professional help from the label and Savannah Jack has solid performance chops, Dan said.
Mike, too, is cautious about celebrating his newfound success. While his band’s single will be released next month, he doubts it will hit radio stations until next January. But both Ulvilas said they have more to celebrate in May, when Mike’s younger brother and former bandmate Derek graduates from medical school and begins seven years of residency as a plastic surgeon in San Francisco.
“He took the easy route, I say,” Mike said, laughing.