When most people think of country music, they picture Nashville, not Missoula. But for native Montanan and country musician Sam Riddle, “there’s nothing more country than Montana.”
Missoula-born Riddle is proof of that assertion. His music is rollicking country rock, filled with the twang of guitars and lyrics about baling hay and rodeos. At performances, Riddle wears a cowboy hat and boots, and is often shirtless.
When asked whether you can be a country musician when you’re not from the South, he let out a long sigh.
“That right there is something that I always heard,” he said. “Which I think is a little bit crazy.”
While some might see country as a Southern genre, what Riddle loves is its “diversity.”
“It is a mixture,” he said. “It’s truly an American thing.”
Although Riddle has an unconventional background for country, he feels that the genre is the “perfect fit.”
The seeds of Riddle’s career in country are rooted in his family’s history in Montana. His father, Steve Riddle, is a founding member of Missoula’s Mission Mountain Wood Band (M2WB), which toured the country in the 1970s. M2WB played a mix of bluegrass, rock and country. Riddle grew up surrounded by his father’s music and learned to play the piano at the age of 2.
Despite his talent for music, as a teenager Riddle wanted to find a path different than his father’s. He began playing basketball at Hellgate High School in Missoula. After graduating, he played for the Montana Grizzlies. He left the Grizzlies after three seasons but planned to continue playing. He thought basketball would be his career.
One night, while visiting a friend in Omaha, Riddle was dared to play the piano at a casino. He did, and his performance left the owner so impressed he offered him a job. He took it. Although he sometimes missed basketball, Riddle found music fulfilled him for the same reason sports had.
“I played basketball to entertain people,” he said. He could do that through music, too.
He kept performing and soon found that he hadn’t touched a basketball in two years. He moved to Las Vegas, where he played piano seven nights a week in lounges at hotels and casinos. Eventually, he realized he wanted to play music of a different style than the covers he played for work.
Country music was a natural extension of his impulse to perform. He found that the genre allowed him to explore all of his influences. He could write narrative songs about his experiences growing up in Montana while maintaining his enthusiastic stage presence (he says he likes to “rock out”).
“Country kind of chose me,” Riddle said. “I put a cowboy hat on to represent my dad and my family and … growing up in Montana.”
In his years as a country artist, Riddle has toured across the country and internationally, opening for acts like Luke Bryan, Hank Williams Jr. and Dwight Yoakam. This summer, Riddle is returning to Montana for a round of shows in his home state. He will play in Missoula, Whitefish, Billings and Hot Springs. The short tour is something of a homecoming for Riddle.
“This thing that I’ve been doing all over the world for so long, I get to bring it home and do it in front of people I grew up with,” he said.
See Riddle at the Great Northern in Whitefish on June 25 and July 2. Tickets can be purchased at the door or on Great Northern’s Facebook page.