Strumming Heartstrings and Tickling Funny Bones

By Beacon Staff

A 5-foot-something man with blond hair and a big grin strums his guitar for a cheering crowd. He wears a Rastafarian-style hat fitted with dreadlocks.

“I’m too white to sing reggae,” John Dunnigan croons. “I’m too white to sing blues. I’m too white to sing anything but Barry Manilow tunes!”

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day at the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse in Ferndale and Dunnigan is making them laugh.

“I think [Dunnigan] just starts getting funnier and funnier to draw the crowd back in,” says fellow musician Scott Moore.

Moore, of the band The Bad Larry’s, has played on several of Dunnigan’s CDs and toured with him as part of the Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs. To Moore, Dunnigan is “the musician’s musician.”

Dunnigan has been a staple in the Flathead music scene for 30 years, making his name playing the steel guitar. “I showed up on time, combed my hair,” he says, “and because of that instrument, I just kept working and working and working.”

Hair care aside, personality just may be another key to Dunnigan’s jam-packed schedule. His jokes and affability draw the audience into his shows – sometimes literally. He’ll bring a fellow musician on stage to jam with him for one song, make jokes about himself after another, then tugs on a listener’s heartstrings with a slow ballad.

Local musician John Dunnigan rocks the crowd at the Great Northern Bar and Grill in Whitefish.

“When I see someone in the front row crying at one of my songs … Wow,” says Dunnigan.

He’s not one to sit still. His one-man act has him working seven gigs in five nights during the “slow” winter months. He plays pubs and parties throughout the Flathead, and private and public functions and festivals from Minneapolis to the West coast.

“Anywhere I can drive to,” says Dunnigan. He and his wife also have two boys. He coaches baseball, and is putting the finishing touches on his fifth CD, “Jack’s Guitar,” expected to be released in June.

As a full-time musician in the Flathead, Dunnigan is known as a helping hand and voice for other musicians just starting out.

“John Dunnigan kind of set the pace for supporting other musicians,” Moore says. “He’s never said an ill word about another musician. That is rare.”

Dunnigan’s a member of The Rocky Mountain Association of Fairs and was awarded the “Service Member of the Year” award in 2006. He had started up an impromptu “jam session” with other musicians playing at the fairs, and those jams in his hotel room grew into a separate, annual event bringing together diverse musical talents. The gathering now overflows several rooms as musicians from across the country, and in some cases the world, come together to perform.

A few days later in a Somers studio, Dunnigan listens to the two tracks he recorded that day for his latest album. He leans forward on his stool intently and keeps time.

“That would be a good one to end the CD with,” says Gary Snow, who played bass on the album.

“Yeah,” says Dunnigan, “maybe we should fade it at the end.” They’re at Snoring Hound Studios and the other collaborators are gathered around producer Dave Griffith, who also played guitar, piano and reed for the album.

On the title track, Dunnigan’s eldest son, Andy, joined in playing the slide guitar. John strums what was his Uncle Jack’s guitar as he sings the story of a relative he never met. Uncle Jack fought and died in World War II, but before leaving for the war, he bought “this big ‘ole Kalamazoo guitar,” and left it behind with John’s mom.

Music runs in the Dunnigan family and John’s dad also started out playing guitar. John has since added banjo and steel guitar to his repertoire as well as the occasional harmonica.

“I jumped right off into the guitar stuff when I was 10 years old,” says Dunnigan.

He says his influences range from Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash to John Denver, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimmy Buffett, and the Beatles. “The Beatles for sure,” Dunnigan says with a nod. “If it wasn’t for the Beatles, we wouldn’t be having this interview.”

“Jack’s Guitar” features 12 tracks, including 10 originals, and will be available at Dunnigan’s gigs. For more information on John Dunnigan, go to www.johndunnigan.com.