Celebrating Mike Auldridge

Mike Auldridge
(photo by Jennie Scott)

The following is from the Mike Auldridge Tribute

Dec. 29, 2012: It is with great sadness that we report that Mike Auldridge passed away this morning. We know that Mike was very touched by the tributes posted in the guest book. A heartfelt thanks to each of you who participated.

Welcome to the Mike Auldridge Tribute website, celebrating the 2012 award of the National Endowment for the Art’s highest honor, the National Heritage Fellowship, to Mike Auldridge.

A major purpose of this site is to provide a place for Mike’s many friends and fans to post a tribute to Mike. We hope you’ll click on the Guest Book link and share your tribute: what Mike has meant to you and your music, your reflections on his contributions and influence, stories, anecdotes, or whatever you would like to share.

Visit the NEA’s bio page for Mike to read more about Mike and hear sound clips of some of his music.

In 2007, the International Bluegrass Music Association presented Mike with its prestigious Distinguished Achievement Award. Visit this page to read the text of Rob Ickes’ presentation of this award to Mike.

Mike at ResoSummit with Jimmy HeffernanThe influence Mike has wielded is incalculable. From the moment his first solo album, Dobro, was released in 1972, the very sound of the dobro was indelibly and profoundly changed.  To borrow from Steve Martin’s assessment of Earl Scruggs’ influence on the banjo:  Before Mike Auldridge, no one sounded like Mike Auldridge on the dobro. After Mike Auldridge, everyone aspired to sound like Mike Auldridge. As Rob Ickes noted in his IBMA presentation, “To this day, [Mike’s] tone is the holy grail of contemporary resophonic guitar players.” Rob also particularly noted how Mike stretched the boundaries of the instrument in terms of technique, musical vision and elegant taste firmly rooted in a “less is more” ethic.

Thanks for sharing your own tributes to Mike in the Guest Book, and for joining in this celebration of Mike Auldridge and his richly deserved National Heritage Fellowship.


James King suffers a parent’s worst nightmare

This story from Bluegrass Today

by  | December 10, 2012 | 8 Comments

Shelby Ann King

Shelby Ann

Tragic news this morning from a bluegrass icon. James King’s 18 year old daughter, Shelby Ann, was killed last night in an automobile accident in Amelia County, VA.

According to Julie King, James’ wife and Shelby’s stepmother, Shelby was driving home from work last night around 6:00 p.m., and was involved in a single vehicle accident. She was the only occupant in the car, which rolled several times. Witnesses reported that Shelby climbed out of the car, and immediately collapsed. Attempts to revive her on the scene were unsuccessful.

Shelby was a talented bluegrass singer in her own right. Here is a brief clip of her on stage two years ago.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_l2y-HiTxj4&rel=0]

More information about arrangements will be forthcoming.

Messages can be sent to James at:

The James King Family
P.O. Box 10179
Danville, VA 24543

I’m sure that the entire bluegrass world joins us in extending sincerest condolences to James, Shelby’s mom, and all their many friends and family members.

Jack Cooke passes

this article from The Bluegrass Journal

By Travis Tackett
December 3, 2009

Norton, VA — Jack Cooke, long-time bass player and singer with Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, died Tuesday (Dec. 1) at 10 p.m. at a hospital in his hometown of Norton, Va., after collapsing at his home.

Vernon Crawford “Jack” Cooke was born Dec. 6, 1936. His first professional job was playing with the Stanley Brothers while he was still in his teens. He left the Stanleys to join Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band, a post he held from 1956-1960. During that time, he recorded such songs with Monroe as “Gotta Travel On,” “Big Mon” and “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone.”

Later, he formed his own group, Jack Cooke and the Virginia Mountain Boys, and played in bands headed by Earl Taylor and the Stonemans. He joined the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1970 and remained there until he was sidelined by health problems early this year. In 2002, he shared with the Clinch Mountain Boys a best bluegrass album Grammy for Lost In The Lonesome Pines, a collection headlined by Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley. Lauderdale produced Cooke’s only solo album, Sittin’ On Top Of The World, which was released in 2007.

Visitation will be at Hagy & Fawbush Funeral Home in Norton on Thursday, Dec. 3 at 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. and the funeral will be held Thursday at 7 p.m. at the funeral home. Burial will be Friday, Dec. 4 at 11: a.m. in the Huff-Brummitt Cemetery in Wise County, Va.

Additional information on Jack Cooke
His 36 year tenure as bass player makes him the longest serving Clinch Mountain Boy except for Ralph Stanley.

According to information on the Stanley Web site, as a teenager, Jack told his sister,

I’m never going to work. I’m going to let this guitar do it for me.

In addition to his musical career, Jack served half a term as mayor of Norton, Va., in 1963. He viewed his appearances at the Grand Old Opry, Ryman Auditorium and his three trips to Japan to be the most interesting places he had performed during his career.

Hank Locklin, 91, dies

Hits included ‘Send Me the Pillow You Dream On,’ ‘Please Help Me I’m Falling’ and ‘Let Me Be the One.’ He was a performer on the Grand Ole Opry for 47 years.
Times Wire Reports
March 10, 2009


Country singer Hank Locklin, whose smooth tenor voice on hits including “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” and “Please Help Me I’m Falling” marked a career that spanned half a century, has died. He was 91.

Locklin died Sunday at his home in Brewton, Ala., Grand Ole Opry publicist Jessie Schmidt said in Nashville. She said the cause of death was not being released.

Hank Locklin
Hank Locklin
A performer on the Grand Ole Opry for 47 years, Locklin helped usher in “the Nashville Sound” that gave country music a more lush feel.

“I’ve been blessed to have hit songs that are timeless and appeal to the generations,” he said in 2001.

Born Lawrence Hankins Locklin in 1918 in Florida’s timber-rich Panhandle, as a teenager he played guitar and sang on radio stations across the South, including the “Big D Jamboree” on KRLD in Dallas and “The Louisiana Hayride” in Shreveport, La.

He scored his first top 10 country hit with “The Same Sweet Girls” in 1949 and scored another chart-topper with “Let Me Be the One” in 1953.

Locklin’s 1958 recording of his song “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” crossed over from country to U.S. and British pop charts and became a standard for many performers, including Johnny Tillotson, Dean Martin, Dwight Yoakam and Dolly Parton.

His recording of “Please Help Me I’m Falling” spent 14 weeks at the top of the country music charts in 1960, the same year he joined the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. His last performance at the Opry was in September 2007.

That song’s “slip-note” piano style became Locklin’s signature, and his version was featured on the soundtrack of the 1993 movie “A Perfect World,” directed by Clint Eastwood.

In the 1970s, Locklin was host of TV shows in Houston and Dallas.

His other hits included “Let Me Be the One,” “Geisha Girl,” “Why, Baby, Why” and “It’s a Little More Like Heaven.”

Locklin was widely credited as one of the pioneers of the themed concept album with recordings including “A Tribute to Roy Acuff, King of Country Music,” “Foreign Love” and “Irish Songs Country Style,” which led to tours in England and Ireland.

In 2001, he recorded “Generations in Song,” which featured Parton and Vince Gill. His 65th album, “By the Grace of God,” was a collection of gospel songs that was released in 2006.

“The Lord gave me a good voice and I can still sing,” he said in 2001.

Information on survivors and funeral arrangements was not immediately available.


Steve Garr and Top Hat story in NewWest.net

Article about Steve Garr’s death and the future of the Top Hat from NewWest.net

Future of Missoula’s Top Hat Bar In Doubt After Owner’s Death

By Peter Metcalf, 2-10-09

A sign outside the Top Hat in Missoula. Photo by Anne Medley.A sign outside the Top Hat in Missoula. Photo by Anne Medley.

The future of the Top Hat bar, a long time feature of the Missoula music scene, remains in limbo, after the death of its long time owner Steve Garr.

The Top Hat “is in a time of transition right now.  It won’t be closed per se,” Nicole Garr, Steve’s oldest daughter said by telephone Monday afternoon.

Steve left the bar to his six children, who must now figure out how to run and work the place, Nicole said.

“We’ve all been in this bar all our lives.  Each one of us grew up in this bar,” Nicole said.  And like their father they worked as bartenders or musicians there too.

“Of course we all have a fantasy of coming together to run it,” Nicole said, but now most of them live in other far flung corners of the West and running the Top Hat would require some major readjustments to their lives.  Still the family hopes to keep the bar open in some modified way or find an investor who wants to continue the bar’s legacy.

The bar’s late owner, Steve Garr, passed away Friday at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula from natural causes.  He was 62.  He began working at the Top Hat around 1974 as a bartender, musician, carpenter and about every other role imaginable.  A few years after the bar closed in 1984, Steve purchased the bar. It reopened around 1987.

The Top Hat “was everything to my dad,” Nicole said.  “It was a place for him to express music.  It was a venue for the fantastic musicians of this country and out of this country as well.”

Steve, a well known musician in his own right, set out not so much to run a bar, as a venue for live music, Nicole said.  Music memorabilia decorates much of the bar and crowds regularly pack the place to listen and dance into the morning, especially to the blue grass, pine grass or other string jam-bands that were mainstays of the bar’s music scene over the past two decades.

Now the future of this Missoula music mainstay is clouded.

But before any future decisions can be made, the family wants to focus on a celebration of their father.  This week the bar will “go black” in honor of its late owner.  Beginning at 1 p.m. on Saturday, a celebration of Steve’s life will take place at the Top Hat for friends and family of Steve and the bar.  In true Top Hat style, the celebration will contain plenty of music, Nicole said.

An announcement on the bar’s future could be made at that time.

Top Hat Owner, Steve Garr’s sudden death

An uncertain Top Hat – Steve Garr’s children consider future in wake of owner’s sudden death
By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian

The children of legendary Top Hat bar owner Steve Garr, from left, Heidi, Nicole, Greta and Nate, spoke about their late father and about the future of the Missoula landmark Tuesday afternoon at the bar. MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

The Top Hat has always been a place of many faces. To some, the bar on Front Street has been a low-key daytime hangout, a place where the conversation flows like slowly poured beer and where you’re perfectly welcome to light up a cigarette if you so please. Later at night, it’s been a place where a somewhat younger crowd gathered to play pool and listen to local jam-rock bands, bluegrass ensembles or the occasional touring act.

Whatever was happening on a given night, the crowd at the Top Hat was never homogenous. Rather, it encompassed every walk of Montana life: barely legal drinkers playing pool with grizzled bikers; young professionals and dreadlocked hippies swing-dancing on the dance floor.

It is a place where the walls themselves are lined with memories of the diverse faces that have passed through. Photos of old blues musicians – some of whom count among the most respected and famous in America – share space with bass drum heads donated by rock bands that few people ever heard of in the first place (any Nite Snackr fans still out there?).

But when all was said and done, those many faces were, in a way, simply a reflection of the man who owned and operated the Top Hat these past 21 years: Steve Garr.

Gruff in demeanor and rough in appearance, Garr probably seemed an unlikely ambassador for the place to those who didn’t know him well.

But few casual patrons of the downtown Missoula bar would have ever guessed that behind Garr’s crusty exterior lay the soul of a devoted father whose passion for music and tireless work ethic helped shape the lives of four gregarious, thoughtful offspring – who now find themselves grappling with Garr’s sudden death last week at the age of 62.

Garr’s quartet of kids – twins Nate and Nicole, 32; Heidi, 26; and Greta, 20 – find themselves in the doubly painful position of dealing with the loss of their beloved father and determining the fate of his legacy.

“We are looking at a huge transition either way, whether the Top Hat lives on as a memory or as an institution,” said Nate of Boise. “All four of us have put our blood, sweat and tears into this place with our father. We want to continue to do that to honor his legacy, but he was also fiercely proud of the directions we’ve all taken in our lives. So we’re facing a tough decision.”

Nate and Nicole (“Colee,” to her friends) can still remember when their dad decided to buy the Top Hat. They were in the sixth grade, and their father was working days as a carpenter and nights as a bartender. The twin siblings still recall the excitement of that time, and the pride they felt.

“I was ecstatic that my dad was going to be a business owner,” recalls Nate.

“Dad was like an old farm owner: ‘You have kids to help with the business,’ ” adds Nicole, who now lives in Hawaii. “So we were always here. It wasn’t just Dad’s place; it was our life, growing up.”

There was certainly plenty of work to be done. Though the Top Hat had existed by that name since the early 1950s, it was in a state of disrepair and neglect by the time Garr and his younger brothers, Scott and Dave, decided to buy it.

“The old, original floor was in storage in the basement at the old Carousel (a former Missoula bar),” recalls Heidi, who was 5 years old at the time. “Dad and his brothers went and got all the wood, planed every piece of it, and reinstalled it.”

Over the years, Garr – with help from his kids – continued to work on shaping his vision of the Top Hat. Old memorabilia including historical photographs of Front Street businesses, license plates from all across the country, farm implements, artwork and Garr’s softball trophies filled the walls, while Garr gradually upgraded the stage and the bar.

“When we look around at the stuff on the walls, we remember when he found it,” says Greta, the only of Garr’s offspring who still lives in Missoula. “He was so excited when he found those things.”

In the early 1990s, he found his pride and joy in Wyoming: an antique bar and backbar built by Brunswick-Balke-Collender. Garr spent 10 years refinishing the bar in the basement of the Top Hat before unveiling it for the Top Hat’s 50th anniversary.

“It was important to Dad to serve as a facilitator for the history of Montana,” says Nate. “He loved all this old stuff, and he felt it was important to preserve it and share it – the Top Hat itself, most of all. Every little thing that went up in here that looks to be weathered, Dad touched it, he loved history and wanted the Top Hat to represent a house that can help reflect the history of this place.”

Garr was also committed to preserving a venue for live music shows. In a town where concert-presenting nightclubs have come and gone year by year, the Top Hat stands as by far the longest-lived place where live music can be heard most nights of the week.

It was that love for music – and respect for musicians – that Nate feels most strongly influenced his own outlook on the world.

“Growing up here in Missoula, we had a very unique exposure to culture and ethnicity that I don’t think a lot of people did,” says Nate. “We didn’t see the bands play on stage as much as we got to know the musicians and where they came from: Chicago, Memphis, all over. They spoke differently from people from around here, and they talked to us with an incredible amount of respect because they and my dad spoke the same language of music. That’s helped me out the most in my life, besides the work ethic he instilled in me.”

Nicole chuckles.

“He definitely had a work ethic. He was always living nine lives at once around here,” she says. “He was a father not only to us but to everybody in the bar; he was always working on something here or building two homes or working on his Cadillac. He never slept through the night, he would just take a nap and then get back to it.”

So what of the guy that so many people in Missoula knew – the gruff man who might, if he was in the mood, give you five minutes of his time before cutting you off midsentence?

“Compromise wasn’t really his thing,” says Nate with a loving laugh. “And that’s a hard thing for people to receive.”

“He always shot from the hip,” adds Nicole. “But if you don’t own a business, it’s hard to understand just how much there is to do.  He didn’t waste any time B.S.-ing with anybody, he didn’t have time to be clouded by what other people thought he should do. I know I’m feeling right now that that’s something I want to be better at doing in my own life.”

Sitting in the Top Hat, surrounded by all those reflections of their father, Steve Garr’s children admit: They just don’t know what’s going to happen from here.

“This (the Top Hat) isn’t an inheritance in the sense that we can just do whatever we want with it,” says Nate. “It’s a huge asset but there are also a lot of liabilities out there and we have to address those first.  I have the utmost faith in the capabilities of these three women (Nicole, Heidi and Greta) to not just take it on, but to take it to the level my father probably couldn’t have dreamed of, and make him fiercely proud. But the reality is, we do have limited time. We can’t rush to make these decisions, but there is a clock and it’s ticking.”

In the short term, the Top Hat is closed, as the Garrs work to sort out their father’s estate. It will reopen for one day on Saturday, for a benefit event to raise money to cover Steve Garr’s lingering medical expenses.

Beyond that, Garr’s children are looking for answers – not only from themselves, but from the community at large.

“We really want to hear from the community as to their expectations of the Top Hat,” says Nate.

He catches his breath, sits quietly for a moment.

“The bottom line is that this is just about as heartbreaking as you can imagine for us,” he says. “It’s our dad.”



A potluck celebration of Steve Garr’s life will be held at the Top Hat this Saturday from 1 to 11 p.m. The event will serve as a fundraiser for Garr’s medical expenses. The event is open to the public, and musicians are encouraged to bring their instruments.

Jerry Swafford’s Obituary

Jerry Swafford passed quickly Wednesday night after work on Wednesday February 4, 2009 at his home in Hamilton Montana.  He hadn’t practiced his banjo, yet, but that was the next thing he would have done.


Jerry was brought into this world by his grandma, Marie in 1942 in Heyburn, Idaho. He was the second in a series of 5 boys born to his mother Lucille.  The Swafford family moved to Shelley Idaho where Jerry graduated from high school.  While in high school Jerry excelled as an athlete, was elected to Boys State, and began developing his spectacular musical talent.   After graduation from Shelley High School, Jerry struggled in search of his life goals.  He was fortunate to have experienced life to the fullest.  Jerry lived many different lives.  In his early years he was a cowboy, a trapper, a musician, a sheepherder, and a mountain man.  He was always a philosopher, a psychologist and an avid reader.     Jerry attended the University of Idaho and Idaho State University for several years searching for his career while spending his summers working for the U.S. Forest Service fighting forest fires.  Jerry worked on the first USFS Helitack crew for the USFS out of Cobalt, Idaho. 


Two wonderful events forged the remainder of Jerry’s life.  First, Jerry met his life mate and soul mate Maryett who became Maryett Swafford in 1968.  It was the beginning of a lifetime romance exemplified by their constant mutual love and respect.  They lived, loved and worked side by side for 40 years.  They were always a team.


The second event occurred when he realized his life calling in the chiropractic field.   Jerry and Maryett moved to Oregon in 1968 where Jerry began is professional education at Western States Chiropractic College.  Jerry graduated, summa cum laude, in 1975.  Jerry was educated and experienced in child birth and maternal care and experienced the joy of delivering his first child, Marcus, at his home in 1974.


 He began his extraordinary practice in Pocatello Idaho in 1976 by joining the Dr. Henry West, Jr. and Sr. each of who were renowned and distinguished in their field. In 1976 he delivered his second son, Matthew, at home and claimed “it was worth a year in church”.  In 1979 he became president of the Idaho Chiropractic Association.  

06_08 MRBA Hughes Creek Campout (35) by mtbluegrass.

Jerry playing banjo in a MRBA pickin' circle down the Bitterroot in Aug. 2006 with Maryett by his side


He spent the rest of his life in the valley he loved, caring for his patients, experiencing nature, and enjoying his family.


06_08 MRBA Hughes Creek Campout (39) by mtbluegrass.

Maryett sitting by Jerry playing his banjo at a MRBA campout down the Bitterroot in Aug '06

Jerry was a Christian whose church was in nature.  He loved being outdoors, or at the kitchen window watching the light play on the mountains and watching the squirrels eat all the bird seed.  He loved to play music and sing.  Recently he began playing the banjo with all the crazy blue grassers and thoroughly enjoyed recalling the old time tunes his Grandma used to sing.  His bluegrass friends were like brothers to him.  He relished every minute of it.


Though Jerry died at an early age, he lived and loved life to the fullest.  He never lost his priorities, continuing seeking to serve people, achieve inner peace, and the enjoyment of life with his wife and family.


Jerry’s family includes his wife Maryett, two sons Marcus and Matthew; Stephanie, daughter-in-law; Sara, daughter-in-law; Christen, Aaron, Christopher, Makayla, Elias, grandchildren; Ron Swafford and John Rosenkrance, brothers living; Allen Swafford, Jack Swafford, brothers preceding him in death; and a loving mother, Lucille Rosenkrance, who was a strong influence over each of her children’s lives.  Sadly, Lucille has been forced to endure the raising five sons only to experience the grief of having three of them precede her in death. 


He was a proud father and grandpa, best friend and partner to his wife and family for 40 years.   He was a unique man who made everyone’s life a little brighter; a little better.  He will be truly missed.  To know him was to love and respect him.


            Family and friends will celebrate his life on February 14, from noon to 5:00 p.m.   at the Woodside Grange, located 2 miles north  of Hamilton Montana at the intersection of Highway 93 and Corvallis.  Everyone is invited.

Jerry Swafford Passed away on Tuesday

I’m so sad to have to post this notice that we’ve lost one of our dear friends and bluegrass family membes, Jerry Swafford.   Our hearts are with Jerry’s beautiful wife Maryett who also plays fiddle with us.

Here’s a note from Jerry’s brother Ron Swafford:

Just to let you know, one of your awesome members died.  Jerry Swafford of Hamilton Montana died Tuesday night of a heart attack.  He loved blue grass, their entertainment and most of all his musician friends.  He loved the participation.   In case anyone wants to know, a get together is planned in Hamilton for a week from Saturday, the 14th of February.   Some of the local members will there to play, hope everyone who knew him or appreciates the organization can show up and participate.  It would mean an enormous amount to his family and friends.   I am bringing his 89 year old mother from Idaho, God willing.  It would mean a lot to her. 


  He was very special, generous, kind man.   I don’t have all the details yet.  If anyone wants to know, send me an email and I will forward all particulars as they are learned.




Ron Swafford  20…

Jerry’s Brother


Daily InterLake story on Casey Kent R.I.P.

Casey Michael Neil Kent, 35, passed peacefully from this world June 14, 2008, from injuries sustained in a skateboarding accident in Columbia Falls.

Casey was born Sept. 24, 1972, in Garden Grove, Calif., to his parents, Gary and Teresa Kent, and sister, Crystal Allbritten.

Casey was the beloved husband of Sara, and proud father of 2-year-old Stella, and a child on the way.

Casey was raised in Thompson Falls, where he graduated from Thompson Falls High School. He was a graduate of Roberto Venn School of Luthiery and co-founded Kent Lutherie with his father in 2002.

Casey’s love and gift of music, and his humble and loving heart, touched the lives of many. He will be missed, but his legacy will live through music, laughter, and kind and loving acts toward one another.

The Kent family would like to invite Casey’s friends and family to a life celebration from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 21, at O’Duachain Country Inn, 675 Ferndale Drive, in Bigfork. Please bring your instruments, thoughts, and memories of Casey, and picnic baskets and lawn chairs. We ask that there be no alcohol, out of respect for Casey. Children are welcome. More information is at www.caseykent.com.

In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested that memorials be made to the Stella Kents’ Charitable Fund in care of the Freedom Bank, P.O. Box 2076, Columbia Falls, MT 59912.

Arrangements are with Columbia Mortuary in Columbia Falls.

Missoulian story about Tim Ishler R.I.P

Tim Ishler: Musician’s death leaves void in scene
By JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian

Tim Ishler performs at the Chalet Music Festival last summer.
Photo courtesy of Walt Pedersen

Tim Ishler was just starting to feel happy again, recovering from the trauma of finding his wife, Dawn, burned head to toe in a fire that claimed her life and the couple’s Alberton home.

In the 17 months since the tragedy, Ishler had returned to work as a respiratory therapist. He talked about rebuilding on his land. And best of all, he had picked up his banjo and dobro again, taking the stage as he had done for more than 30 years in western Montana.

Ishler, 49, one of the most respected and entrenched musicians in the area, played his last two gigs over the weekend. He was found dead Sunday morning at a friend’s house in the Ninemile, and the shock of his passing reverberated everywhere.
“He was just a big part of the music scene,” said his friend and fellow musician Tim Damron, who knew and played with Ishler for 32 years. “Anytime anyone ever heard him, they were absolutely in awe.”

Ishler’s prowess on the banjo – but most notably the dobro, a resonant guitar that’s very difficult to play well – landed him in so many bands over the years that even his close friends can’t keep count.

Over his professional career, Ishler was a member of country, blues and bluegrass groups like The Lost Horse Express, Southbound, Michael Purington and the Messengers, Monture Creek, Finley Creek, Hot Diggity and, most recently, The Woodpickers, with whom he played until the end of his life.

Walt Pedersen, drummer for The Woodpickers and a close friend of Ishler since the early 1970s, knew there was something special about Ishler’s musicianship the first day he met him while “piddling around” at an informal jam session with the band Monture Creek.

“We were just getting started, and we all immediately noticed what a talent Tim was at that point,” Pedersen said. “He was probably still in grade school back then, but he was head and shoulders over us guys. He was just a phenomenal player.”

In 1976, before he graduated from high school, Ishler went to Southern California and auditioned for “The Gong Show.” He made the cut, and earned perfect scores from all three judges with his banjo-and-dobro rendition of the frenetic bluegrass tune, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

“He had those judges just dumbfounded,” said Damron. “Their jaws were on the ground.”

Never professionally trained, Ishler nonetheless was a master of his instruments, and even played the fiddle on occasion. He earned the admiration of bandmates and crowds up and down the valley.

One of the last people to see Ishler alive was guitarist Richie Reinholdt, who with Damron and Ishler, performed as a trio on Saturday night for a private party in Condon.

After the gig, the three returned to Missoula around 11 p.m. Reinholdt turned in for bed, but Ishler headed downtown to the Top Hat, where he was well known and well liked.

“Tim got in his car and said he was going to have a drink,” said Reinholdt. “He went downtown and talked to some people at the Top Hat” before retreating to a friend’s home in the Ninemile.

He was found the next morning unresponsive and was pronounced dead upon arrival at St. Patrick Hospital.

The Missoulian requested Ishler’s autopsy report, but it was unavailable Thursday afternoon. However, friends said that Ishler apparently died of a respiratory disorder.

Ishler had recently taken a job in Billings as a respiratory therapist, and was also considering working in Alaska. But he would always keep western Montana as his home.

Ishler lit up the stage, said his friends, and quickly made friends with anybody he came across.

“He just had that incredible good-time-Charlie ability,” said Reinholdt. “He really got across to people.”

“He was such a nice, likeable guy,” added Pedersen. “I don’t think he had a mean streak in him. And girls liked him because they thought he was hot-looking.”

On Jan. 18, 2007, Ishler returned home after a trip and found his wife, Dawn, sitting at a picnic table, her skin burned from head to toe. Behind her, the couple’s trailer home was in flames.

Ishler rushed her to the hospital, and she was then flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where she died. She was 37.

“I’m not sure he ever totally got over that,” said Pedersen. “He was getting better, but something that tragic takes a while to get over.”

Still, Ishler was feeling better every day, and Damron especially noticed it over the weekend.

“This past weekend I spent with Tim was one of the funnest I’ve ever had,” he said. “He was probably the most upbeat he’s been since Dawn’s death.”

Friends and fellow musicians are planning a musical wake for Ishler sometime in the coming weeks. Whenever or wherever it occurs, it will be a packed gathering, given Ishler’s musical imprint on the community.

On Monday night, after learning of his friend’s death, Pedersen said he and a friend were remembering Ishler. Pedersen looked up in the sky and saw a familiar sight, one that brought tears to his eyes.

“I saw a cloud shaped like a dobro,” he said. “And that was Tim, giving us a sign: ‘Everything’s OK.’ ”

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com