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‘The Defining Story of This Band’

PBS releases Mission Mountain Wood Band documentary

Michael Ballard is too young to remember the Mission Mountain Wood Band’s heyday in the 1970s, when five buddies from the University of Montana became the biggest band to ever emerge from the state. Ballard wasn’t there when the group shared the stage with Merle Haggard and Jerry Garcia; when it played in sold-out stadiums alongside Jimmy Buffett, Bo Diddley, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Muddy Waters.

Ballard wasn’t there, but he wants to take you there.

After four years of interviewing, compiling and editing, Ballard is ready to unveil his MontanaPBS documentary “Never Long Gone: The Mission Mountain Wood Band Story.” The film premieres on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at the University Theatre in Missoula. It will then be shown on Nov. 5 at the Dome Theater in Libby at 7 p.m. and again on Nov. 6 at Glacier High School’s Wolfpack Theatre in Kalispell at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets cost $5.

On Nov. 15, the hour-long documentary will air statewide on MontanaPBS.

Ballard, a staff director and producer for MontanaPBS in Bozeman, said he picked up the project in 2005 after another filmmaker had started it but realized it was a bigger task than originally thought. So Ballard, unfamiliar with the band, popped in the CD “In Without Knocking” and listened while road tripping across the state. He was charmed, but not blown away.

But then Ballard attended a live show of the reunited and reinvigorated Mission Mountain Wood Band in Polson. The band gained much of its fame in the 1970s because of its live shows. Ballard found out why, even 30-some years later. The group plays a fusion of bluegrass, hippie jam, blues, country and rock.

“As soon as I listened to them play and the excitement and energy that went along with their show, I went, ‘Oh, I get it now,’” Ballard said. “That’s when, basically, we started producing this documentary, right then.”

He added: “I had no clue of their legend status.”

Ballard is fully aware of their legend status now. At one point in the 70s, the band was consistently playing sold-out shows in large stadiums from coast to coast, performing with some of the biggest names in the business. National television talk shows wanted the Montana boys and so did concert promoters. Back home in Big Sky country, the names Christian Johnson, Rob Quist, Greg Reichenberg, Steve Riddle and the Terry Robinson were iconic.

Then the bubble burst. The story of bands bickering and splitting up has been played countless times on VH1’s “Behind the Music” and the Mission Mountain Wood Band wasn’t able to escape that fate either. The band members went their own way, with Robinson gaining notoriety with the Montana Band.

In 1987, Robinson and the other Montana Band members died in a plane crash on Flathead Lake. Ballard said this was a turning point, a moment of enlightened perspective that helped bring the original band members back together. They quietly began playing shows again, regaining a foothold in the Montana live music scene.

Today, the four remaining members still perform together, often in the Flathead where Johnson, Quist and Riddle reside. Johnson, who lives in Kalispell, hopes the documentary clears the air on what happened with the transition from the Mission Mountain Wood Band to the Montana Band. In a way, the original crew got left behind and forgotten in the unfolding of history.

The Nov. 6 Kalispell showing will be Johnson’s first glimpse of the film. Riddle is the only member to have seen it.

“My biggest hope is that it clears up the story of the Mission Mountain Wood Band,” Johnson said. “The original guys aren’t dead. Seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been challenged that I can’t be an original member because (they think) all the original members died in a crash.”

The film was originally scheduled to air in February of 2007, but Ballard said he didn’t feel comfortable letting go of it yet. So he kept tweaking it and eventually brought onboard Shasta Grenier, who co-wrote and directed the critically acclaimed PBS documentary “Class C: The Only Game in Town.”

The final version of the film contains no narrator: The band members, friends, family and other voices in the program are left to tell the story, “which is not a style you hear a lot in documentaries,” Ballard said. The film contains archival footage thought to be lost, concert and television clips that the band members haven’t even seen. Ballard is pleased with the end result.

“I felt the story was important enough to the community of Montana that I didn’t want to just throw it together,” Ballard said. “I wanted it to be an iconic show, the defining story of this band.”

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