Lil’ Smokies at Big Fork, MT Riverfest 2009

Check out this clip of Andy Dunnigan imitating Jerry Douglas on his dobro. Wow! I know his pa’ Johnny Dunnigan is bursting with pride at his son’s musical prowess. I can remember when Andy was just a wee lad still green in the horn on the dobro. phew!!! this shows you what some talent and practice can do for you. inspiring…..

Lil’ Smokies is made up of:

Andy Dunnigan – dobro

Pete Barrett, pistol – guitar

Ted Germanson – bass

Cameron Wilson – mando

Booking – (406) 381-0525


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

Ride ’em Cowboy

Here’s a great article on one of our members, Vince Felty (dobro) from the Ravalli Republic.

Range rider
by JOEL GALLOB – Ravalli Republic

Vince Felty is a man who knows how to take care of his tools – and according to Felty, the most important tool a cowboy has is his horse. That’s why Felty has spent a lifetime developing his training methods, which can be summed up in a few simple words: communication, consistency and patience. WILL MOSS – Ravalli Republic

Vince Felty grew up in Wyoming and Nebraska, working with horses and cattle on his grandpa’s ranch as a kid, learning things that would serve him well in his later years as a cowboy in Montana. Now, he’s a cowboy who talks about animal neuropathways as easily as about roping cattle.

Based at his Double Star Ranch on South Sunset Bench Road, the tall and thin Felty trains horses and moves cattle around the range land of the Bitterroot Valley and below the Tobacco Root range.

“I love the independence, and working with animals,” he said. “Animals are honest; what you see is what you get. You’ve got to be honest and consistent with animals. I’ve trained a lot of horses for people here. Most people do not have the time to train them; they think they’ll get it done in a couple evenings.”

One key, he said, whether working with horses or cows, bulls or calves, is to learn how to communicate in their language, which is body language. Another key is to work with their instincts. And finally, it is crucial to be fair and consistent, he said.

There are two approaches to doing the work of a cowboy, Felty explained, one that originated in Texas and Oklahoma, which is rougher on the animals; and another, called the Californios, that originated with the Spanish in California.

When Felty gave presentations at the most recent county fair, he told groups of youngsters the number one tool a cowboy uses is his horse.

“Consistency and fairness and honesty, they understand that, like a 2-year-old does,” he later said. “They do not understand if you let them get away with stuff and it gets on your nerves and then you chastise them. It’s inconsistent. You try to understand where they are at, and where they need to go and you help prepare them. Everything is keyed to what’s coming up, whether you are breaking a horse or fixing one that somebody messed up.”

Recently he worked with a pony that had a problem of kicking at people; she didn’t want people to touch her feet.

A previous handler had improperly driven a horseshoe nail into her foot, hurting the animal, he said. Undoing that damage was “a test of patience and consistency,” he said. “You reward the smallest improvement. You’re working with a brain in there accepting signals, smells and movements, assimilating it all, sorting it out, sending signals to muscles to do something. There is an instinctive response to a lot. You learn to work with those instincts, and things go better.”

One of them is the instinct to be gregarious. Horses in the wild live in small herds. Within each such group, the horses must have ways of working out who is the leader.

“We used to kind of intimidate them into doing what we want. But their instinct is to be friendly. They’ll come around and want to be with you. If you watch wild horses, they get along together. Say you have two horses eating grass. One has his head down eating, the other has its head up, looking for danger, and then they change and its vice versa, vice versa again. If the up horse spots something, it’ll run off, and the horse with its nose down will see the movement. He’ll instinctively follow the movement. The instinct is to follow the other horse. You use that.”

If you introduce two horses in a field, he said, they’ll chase each other, bite at each other, maybe even strike each other.

“It’s to see who’s the leader. Neither cares which is which. Once it’s established, they have a good relationship. So you are trying to establish that you are the leader. Then everything goes better. A cowboy and his horse must work together well. When the chips are down, you’ve got to have him listen to you and react. They have to pay attention to you; it’s your body language. They understand and react fairly predictably.”

The horse can see that human body language even when the cowboy is sitting on its back because the shape of its head and position of its eyes combine to leave only two blind spots. One is immediately in front of the nose, the other behind the head where the mane is. Everything around them, including the man in the saddle, they can see.

But the cowboy or other trainer can’t push a horse beyond what it can do at any given moment. Instead, the trainer must notice even the smallest improvements, appreciate them, and move the horse ahead by another small improvement.

“It conditions their brains, signals the muscles and it makes that neuron path stronger and stronger ‘til it overpowers the response you didn’t like. That memory will be in her brain the rest of her days, but with the right consistency you can build new neuropathways that overpower the old ones.”

Some folks in upstate New York had a wild pony that nobody could catch, which they were going to shoot, when somebody suggested calling Felty.

They had a 10-acre pasture with a round pen, and Felty used that to train the horse. In that process, the various insights he describes came together.

“We can’t run with them like another horse would in the wild, where they run together, gesture together, ‘til they become buddies,” Felty said.

But in a round pen, they can run and run and the person in the middle can be running, and gesturing, with them, so that the animal experiences the person in a positive way, understand the person won’t hurt it and accepts the human as the leader.

“Then they look at you as the boss, and the rest of the training goes from there,” Felty said. This procedure, Felty said, saved the life of the horse with the hurt hoof.

Most people see cowboys trying to ride cattle, going fast and furious, at a rodeo. But that is not how a cowboy works with cattle outside the rodeo.

There are “four or five” cattle ranches Felty works with in the Bitterroot, and several others by the Tobacco Root Mountains.

“You’re real gentle, moving them along at a steady pace, and the animals understand that. If you go at a rodeo pace, soon everybody is so shook up you can’t get anything done.”

When roping cattle, he continued, “you sneak up on them nice and easy, throw a rope around them and get your job done. You don’t do like you see in the rodeo, that’s about competition and speed. Working with horses and cattle, you can’t do anything with speed. You have to get the job done without hurting the animal. It can take longer, but you don’t burn fat off your cows.”

On the range, if the cowboy gets behind a cow and she is new to the situation, “she’ll go off in all directions, unless you teach her. If you’re consistent,” he said, “they’ll drive straight. And, as with horses, the cowboy uses the animal’s instincts to get the desired results.”

He takes them pasture to pasture, separating the bulls from the cows, keeping them several miles apart, and then later brings them back together again, also sorting the calves out.

The goal is to properly time the mating of the bulls and cows, to produce offspring who get born 9 1/2 months later, as the good weather arrives in April.

After they breed, the cowboy separates them again.

“You drive your bulls to your cows in July, and in September or October split them up again. In the spring and fall you have roundups.”

Today’s cowboy is also, at times, an on-the-hoof veterinarian. If a cow is sick with scours (diarrhea) or pink eye, it’s the cowboy who may go out and rope every calf and give them a shot, or for pink eye, a spray of medicine in the eyes.

And it’s not only the cowboy who does that job. His horse is as involved as he is, following the cowboy’s directions to keep the rope, and the roped cow, where the cowboy can administer the medicine.

A cowboy’s number one tool, Felty told the kids at the Fair, is his horse. But it’s a lot more than that.

“If you train a horse right,” he said, the horse and rider “truly become one.”

Reporter Joel Gallob can be reached at 363-3300 or

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

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