More than 500 miles away from Portland and Seattle to the west, and more than 1,000 miles to Minneapolis to the east, the Flathead Valley has quietly been cultivating its own flourishing music scene. Its size is dwarfed by those three music meccas, but it could hold its own in a pound-for-pound battle of the bands, or at least open a few eyes.
The Flathead Valley is home to nationally recognized classical musicians, up-and-coming songwriters, performers with acclaimed albums, Broadway singers, sound engineers and producers, renowned music educators and no shortage of hardworking groups and solo acts of all ages and genres.
Erica von Kleist, an award-winning saxophonist, flautist, pianist, composer and educator with a formidable jazz resume, knows a hotbed of talent when she sees one. She studied music at the prestigious Juilliard School and under jazz superstar Wynton Marsalis, and has been a guest clinician at notable institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center. She’s also performed alongside music legends and released her own albums.
In other words, she has a pretty solid grasp on what constitutes good music.
“The level of talent that resides here is phenomenal,” von Kleist said. “I’m not saying that in terms of population, or that it’s phenomenal ‘for Montana.’ No, there is just great music here.”
“I see this place becoming a national cultural and arts destination,” she added.
Brent Jameson, front man of Jameson and the Sordid Seeds, has been performing in the valley for 16 years, interspersed with tours performing around the country. He started off at open mics and eventually developed into one of the region’s most recognizable musical acts, plying his trade predominantly in Whitefish, the heart of the valley’s live music scene. There was a completely different vibe in his early days.
“I can remember when it was John Dunnigan, our band and 20 Grand — that was pretty much it,” Jameson said, adding God Fearing Women into that mix.
Multiple forces are driving the growth. For one, the valley itself is gaining population and increasing its tourist base. Furthermore, the support comes from the places that matter: venues encouraging live music and paying for it, the community attending shows and hungering for more, and the musicians themselves, who seem to prefer camaraderie over cutthroat competition.
But it doesn’t happen without high-caliber musicians who care about nurturing the local scene rather than leaving the valley for cities. Jameson and fellow musicians Nick Spear and Halladay Quist all point to von Kleist as a catalyst, in terms of her tireless efforts as a local music advocate, educator, promoter and performer. At a photo shoot last week, the musicians lovingly called von Kleist “the boss.”
“Erica has been such an amazing addition to the artist community here,” Quist said. “She works so hard for us and to make this community thrive.”
Von Kleist has operated a booking agency for musicians called the Northwest Artist Syndicate, out of which grew the Montana Artist Collective (MAC) Band, which brings together musicians to form a first-class, for-hire wedding band capable of playing pretty much anything a party would want.
Von Kleist also founded Groovetrail, a nonprofit dedicated to giving the “gift of music” to residents who otherwise wouldn’t have access to live performances, including retirement communities and veterans’ homes. It doubles as a way to get local artists gigs and exposure.
“My overall goal is to not just create a bigger platform for musicians and bring music to valley, but I also want to change culturally the way people value live music,” von Kleist said. “With the support we have here, I really do think the Flathead Valley can be an example for how a community supports the arts — a national example.”
Spear, Jameson, Quist and von Kleist are among the better-known faces gracing stages and album covers around the valley, along with the likes of Mike Murray and old standbys like Dunnigan, Christian Johnson and others. But they represent only a sliver of an expanding stable of talent offering a diverse range of music: rock, punk, jazz, funk, reggae, blues, soul, bluegrass, classical, and more.
“It’s not vanilla,” Jameson said of the local scene. “There are lots of colors.”
Quist is the daughter of Rob Quist, the front man of one of the biggest bands to ever emerge from Montana, the Mission Mountain Wood Band of the 1970s and later the Montana Band. The younger Quist is following her father’s musical footsteps, and in fact frequently performs with him onstage, while dipping her fingers into a number of other projects, including a spoken-word rock album with Michael Stone.
Quist is holding a music video release party on April 22 at the Sip n’ Dip in Great Falls, where the video was filmed for, fittingly, “The Mermaid Song.” The occasion will also introduce a new EP. Quist recently spent time in Los Angeles, which she called a “wake-up call” that reminded her how much she appreciates Montana. She added that a lot of urban centers’ music markets are “flooded.”
“You can’t make it as a performing artist in a lot of those places,” she said.
Jameson has released three albums with the Sordid Seeds and has another on the way next year. Von Kleist has three albums to her name as a bandleader, and last year Spear released “West Dakota Snakes,” a showcase of his thoughtful, finely wrought songwriting, which Jameson calls his favorite local album of the past year. Earlier this year, Murray released “Difficult Days,” his fourth album.
Spear is also a stage actor and a writer for television, film and theater. He’s currently shopping around a play he wrote. Additionally, he’s the front man of the popular New Wave Time Trippers ‘80s cover band.
“We’re all scrambling and trying to make a living,” Spear said. “Everyone’s dream is to live here, make music and a make a living in Montana.”
To eke out a living, musicians must be “a breed unto their own in terms of self-motivation,” von Kleist said. They work the phones and email daily to book gigs, near and far, large and small, and then bounce from one performance to another, splitting their time between traveling, playing and seeking out more shows — and, of course, many hours of practicing and writing. Von Kleist regularly works 12 hours a day or longer, between networking and coordinating her various projects and gigs, teaching lessons and performing, including a regular Thursday appearance at the Firebrand.
Local musicians have access to an increasing number of paying venues, spreading the musical wealth around the valley. The Remington, under the new ownership of Dave Sheeran, has been repurposed into a music hotspot, while the restored LaSalle Grange Theatre began holding concerts on U.S. Highway 2 last year. Flathead Valley Community College is planning to build a performance hall that will serve as the home of Glacier Symphony and host other shows.
Those add to a list of venues that includes multiple performing arts theaters, the KM Theatre, Majestic Valley Arena, Raceway Park and bars that regularly hold live music, such as the Great Northern, Casey’s, Garden Bar, Tupelo, Craggy Range, Scotty’s and more.
Also, Anderson Broadcasting built an outdoor amphitheater near Polson last year. Quist says she’s excited by its potential to bring in bigger acts and provide a great venue for local and regional groups and festivals.
While Whitefish leads the way for live music, with bars and lounges regularly offering solo acts or bands, Bigfork picks up in the summer, as does Kalispell with festivals such as Thursday!Fest and the Picnic in the Park series.
“In New York, you do restaurant gigs for $30 or $40 if you’re lucky,” von Kleist said. “Here, the venues make an effort and pay. That’s part of what make this place so special.”
A couple hours south, Missoula is fostering a lively college-town music culture, with local bands filling bars every weekend and big-name acts increasingly scheduling stops there. The city has also produced some of its own nationally known acts. Missoulians of a certain age remember watching Colin Meloy, a Helena native, perform with his band Tarkio before forming The Decemberists.
More recently, The Lil Smokies, a Missoula group with Flathead ties, have taken their progressive brand of hybrid bluegrass-Americana to audiences across the country. Lead singer Andy Dunnigan is John Dunnigan’s son, and the group’s most recent album, “Changing Shades,” was recorded at SnowGhost Music’s studio in Whitefish.
Brett Allen, who runs SnowGhost, has also recorded and engineered albums for the likes of Kris Kristofferson, The Avett Brothers, Death Cab for Cutie and more. Meanwhile, producer and engineer Toby Scott, who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and other major music figures, also calls Whitefish home.
“The artist community we’ve created here is such a beautiful, wonderful community in the valley,” Quist said. “It’s amazing to be a part of it and watch it grow.”