WHITEFISH – After 30 years of playing solo across the Flathead Valley, John Dunnigan doesn’t need much of an introduction, especially on a Thursday night at the Great Northern Bar and Grill, itself a local institution since 1919.
In fact, even before Dunnigan reaches the stage, people are lining the dance floor waiting for him to sit down, strap on his guitar and start the show. Dunnigan, 59, has lived in the Flathead since 1976 and has played solo since the mid-1980s. In that time, he’s gained a dedicated following and distinguished himself as a staple in the local music scene.
Dunnigan’s career started the same night many other musicians’ careers began: Feb. 9, 1964, the night 73 million people tuned in to see The Beatles give their first live U.S. television performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Fifty years later, Dunnigan still remembers sitting on the floor at his parents’ home in California watching with his father, who’s also a musician.
“It changed the freaking world right then and there,” Dunnigan recalled. “I remember getting on the school bus and saying to my friends ‘Did you see that?’”
It didn’t take long for John to buy a guitar and start playing himself. In the late 1960s and 1970s, he played where he could and eventually joined up with a band called the Feather River Music Company. The band toured the West – “We thought we were on our way to stardom,” Dunnigan joked – and made a stop in the Flathead.
Like so many people here, Dunnigan fell in love with the area, eventually putting down roots in Bigfork and later Whitefish. He started working at the Buffalo Café, then located in Bigfork, and completed other odd jobs during the day so he could play music by night. Because he could play the pedal steel guitar, it wasn’t hard for him to find gigs with local country bands from Whitefish to Pablo. In the early 1980s he also played at the Blue Moon Nite Club in Columbia Falls, working four or five nights a week. It was at that time he met a musician who said he was making $100 a night playing by himself. It was considerably more than what Dunnigan was taking in and by 1985 he had begun his solo career that continues to this day.
For years, Dunnigan has played at the Great Northern every Thursday night he’s in town and he has a similar schedule on Saturdays at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake. He said he loves playing both venues because he can truly be himself and play just about anything he wants.
“I’ll do almost anything, I’ll sing ZZ Top songs in Chinese if you want,” he said. “But when you’ve played as long as I have, you learn to play to the crowd.”
Dunnigan’s biggest influences include folk singers like Paul Simon, James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot, which he said is apparent in the five original albums he’s produced. He also likes to write humorous songs, including one set to the tune of Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” about the words you should not say to your wife.
During the summer, Dunnigan hits the road and plays county fairs throughout the region. It’s there that Dunnigan has met and played with some big names in music, including Charlie Daniels, Rick Springfield and REO Speedwagon.
“I get to hang out with these guys,” he said. “I mean we’re not best friends and they probably wouldn’t even recognize me, but I get to hang out with them and see what their MO is.”
While he may play to bigger crowds on the road, Flathead’s venues will always be home. On a recent Thursday night at the Great Northern, Dunnigan was playing tunes and throwing back his favorite drink, Patron tequila. After three decades, Dunnigan is as energetic as a performer 30 years his junior and can still keep people swinging late into the night. The fact that he’s been playing this long even amazes him.
“It blows my mind and I don’t take it for granted,” he said. “I’ll play for as long as I can.”
For more information visit www.johndunnigan.com.
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