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

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