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Bluegrass and a Cup of Joe on Main Street

By Beacon Staff

Press play to see the audio slide show of the Thursday night jam session. For more slide shows and video visit our Main Multimedia Page.

Every Thursday night at Colter Coffee, you can hear a century-old conversation that rarely requires words. Except for the singing, of course.

This conversation needs only guitars, banjos and fiddles – maybe a mandolin or two and an acoustic bass. Anybody who’s been part of a traditional picking circle – a term derived from the act of picking on an instrument’s strings – understands this dynamic. Much of the interaction is unspoken and it’s all unplugged.

The players all take cues from each other with eye contact, head nods and ample understanding of both music structure and picking circle etiquette. When one takes the lead, the rest keep the rhythm. Backup vocals are always welcome.

This is the system in which these half dozen or so self-proclaimed “pickers” tell their stories at Colter Coffee. Everybody chips in. And because much of the music is rooted in improvisation, with varying degrees of experience wielding the instruments, mistakes are made. But everybody’s fine with that, including the audience.

“It’s a beautiful, old tradition,” Alex Hogle said of the picking circle. “Playing the good old stuff and rocking it.”

Colter Coffee Roasting has quietly become a cozy bastion for acoustic music since opening its Main Street location in downtown Kalispell two years ago. The company also maintains a roasting and packaging plant near Snappy Sports Senter.

The coffee shop’s picking circle, guided by traditional old-time and bluegrass music, started up in November and is now held every Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. The public is welcome to attend. Hogle helped organize the event, as much as a picking session can be organized – he put up a flyer and they came.

“A lot of it is just common folks who happen upon this and see the flyer,” Hogle said. “I like to have a circle in a community, especially right here in the center of town.”

On Fridays beginning at 7 p.m., the coffee shop holds concerts for local talent, often showcasing young singer-songwriters like Betty and the Boy. Blue Onion, a blues and jazz-infused band, is also a mainstay, as are names like Porter Creek and Allison Stayer. Colter also holds special shows during First Friday Art Walks.

There are few greater unifying forces than coffee and music. When combined, rare scenarios arise in which high schoolers end up spending their entire evenings watching 50-year-olds pluck on banjos. Colter Coffee owner Lindsay MacDonald and manager Heather Anderson take pride in offering a hotspot where both young and old can gather for music outside of a bar setting.

Located near Flathead High School, Colter has a strong contingent of teenage regulars who arrive right after school or come for the music later.

“A lot of parents have thanked us for having a place close by where they don’t have to worry about them,” Anderson said.

Picking circles – often written as “pickin’ circles” – have long been a part of traditional American music. Today, they’re still widespread, serving as meeting grounds for acoustic music enthusiasts who range from beginners to seasoned flatpickers. Missoula is known for such circles, but they’re also scattered across Northwest Montana.

On Memorial Day, Libby will host a large acoustic gathering that is expected to draw more than 150 musicians from across the nation and Canada. The Colter pickers will be there.

The Colter Coffee crew of musicians has been together in some form for years. Vicki Bodfish, who plays with Porter Creek, said she remembers holding a circle at Avalanche Creek as early as 1999. Later they moved on to the Red Lion. Today, they’re happy with their new home at Colter Coffee.

Jim Crandall, who plays with Bodfish in Porter Creek, said even if the venues have changed, the driving force behind the picking circles hasn’t.

“It’s the love of the music,” Crandall said.

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