|By JOE NICKELL – Like the seasons that govern the
Pinegrass at the Tophat - John Joyner, fiddle; Ted Lowe, Mandolin; Rick Ryan, Bass; Jack Mauer, banjo
growth of all good things in nature, bluegrass music is forever dying away and resprouting anew. In the 1950s, the energetic sounds of Appalachia were spreading far and wide in American culture, until rock â€™nâ€™ roll appeared and diverted everyoneâ€™s attention.In the late 1960s, folk musicians like Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger drew attention back to roots music, leading many young fans to discover bluegrass anew.
Further revivals, minor and major, turned the ears of new listeners back to that high, lonesome sound several times over the subsequent decades â€“ most notably at the turn of the new millennium, when the Coen brothersâ€™ film, â€œO Brother Where Art Thou,â€ provided the most surprising breakthrough soundtrack album in a generation.
The guys of local bluegrass band Pinegrass canâ€™t claim to have witnessed all of those cycles. Only most of them. With 20 years of weekly performances at the Top Hat under their belts, the band now stands as Missoulaâ€™s unlikely elder statesmen of the stage.
If youâ€™ve never heard of the band, take heart. You wonâ€™t see a Pinegrass T-shirt on the back of one of your friends, nor will you hear a recording of the band on the radio. The band doesnâ€™t have its own Web site or even a mySpace page. If you donâ€™t hang in or around the Top Hat, thereâ€™s almost no chance youâ€™ve ever heard the band.
Despite having performed publicly over 1,000 times, the band hasnâ€™t ever bothered to produce any merchandise or push its name outside its weekly Tuesday night performances.
â€œWeâ€™re sort of spoiled I guess,â€ says 54-year old bassist Rick Ryan. â€œIâ€™ve become exceedingly lazy about trying to push things, because all I have to do to satisfy my musical itch is to show up on Tuesday night and play with these guys.â€
Actually, itâ€™s hard to call a musician who has played once a week for two decades â€œlazy.â€ But then, Ryan is one of the last people to claim any special status for the band he helped form back in the late 1980s. In fact, looking back, he almost seems to feel bad about the way that the band formed in the first place.
The story of Pinegrass actually dates back to the late â€™70s, when bluegrass bands such as Poor Monroe, the Great Northern Bluegrass Band (of which Ryan was a member), and Finley Creek frequented stages around western Montana. Over time, the members of those groups became the core of an increasingly tight-knit community of pickers and fans, who began gathering every Wednesday at a local instrument store called String Instrument Division or at the house of one of the musicians to play together in impromptu picking circles.
â€œAnybody could show up, and everybody got to play,â€ recalls Ryan fondly.
Over the years, some unexpected guests showed up, including nationally respected musicians such as Tim Oâ€™Brien, Mark Schatz, members of the Del McCourey Band, and three members from the David Grisman Quartet, who hung around one night until 3:30 in the morning. Those memorable nights helped cement a core group of musical friends, who kept their picking-circles going year-round.
Whenever someone heard about a paying gig, impromptu bands would form out of whomever was available for one-off performances under a variety of names. Practices werenâ€™t really needed, since everybody knew the tunes and knew each other.
One day, musician Tim Ishler was approached by Steve Garr, who had recently bought the Top Hat Lounge, with a proposal for a weekly bluegrass night. One thing led to another, and the picking circle ultimately moved to the Top Hat.
Ryan, for one, didnâ€™t like the idea.
â€œI boycotted it for a while, because I thought it was going to spoil this great thing we had going,â€ says Ryan. â€œBut after a couple of months of not playing at all, I realized I had to give in. And then pretty soon, what I feared would happen happened: An actual band coalesced out of the parts.â€
That band was Pinegrass, named after a real type of grass common to Montana. In the early days, the band consisted of Ryan on bass, John Joyner on fiddle, Jack Mauer on banjo and dobro, Bill Neaves on mandolin, and Richie Reinholdt and Britt Smith on guitar. Neaves has since been replaced by Chad Fadley; guitarist Ted Lowe replaced Reinholdt and Smith two and a half years ago.
The band built its repertoire on a foundation of classic cover songs from across the range of classic bluegrass, country, and other styles.
â€œWeâ€™ve always been pretty much a cover band, which is part of the reason we havenâ€™t recorded an album,â€ says John Joyner, who along with Ryan and Mauer remains from the bandâ€™s original lineup.
After a few years performing every Wednesday night, the band moved to Tuesdays, where it has remained a staple of the scene ever since. Ryan notes that the band has played during election-night celebrations for two Clinton victories, two Bush victories, and an Obama victory.
John Joyner says the key to the bandâ€™s longevity, in a way, is the very looseness by which it came together.
â€œThe thing that we do that not a lot of bluegrass bands do is that we play with abandon,â€ says Joyner. â€œI get the biggest thrill from belting it out and going for it, and thatâ€™s been the hallmark of every player in this band.â€
Ted Lowe says listening to the band is â€œlike watching Evel Knievel try to jump a canyon.
â€œWe have this joke that we say to each other: â€˜I could almost hear what you were trying to do thereâ€™,â€ says Lowe. â€œThere is this carefree thing about the way we approach playing that keeps it fun and interesting every week.â€
â€œEverybody that has ever played in Pinegrass has an affection for that rawness,â€ adds Ryan. â€œNot everyone in the bluegrass world appreciates that.â€
Indeed, the very characteristic that defines Pinegrass is probably the same reason the band hasnâ€™t made a bigger mark in the broader bluegrass scene. Despite the fact that bluegrass music originated out of back-porch jam-sessions and participatory music circles among nonprofessional players in Appalachia, few musical idioms are as burdened by tradition and an obsession with perfection as bluegrass is today.
So when players of that ilk find out that this ragtag band of grinning pickers has managed to maintain a weekly, paying gig for 20 years, most are pretty jealous, says Lowe.
â€œI think we have to tip our hats to Steve (Garr), because finding a venue to play â€“ much less one that pays â€“ is huge,â€ says Lowe. â€œIf we didnâ€™t have the Top Hat, itâ€™d be really hard to keep it going. We marvel at it sometimes. Weâ€™re really lucky.â€
As to future plans, the band has actually been working, on and off, on a CD recording, though no firm release date is set. Beginning in January, the band plans to bump up its Tuesday night start time to 9 p.m., in hopes that the earlier hour, combined with the clubâ€™s new nighttime nonsmoking policy, will encourage some of the older fans to come out to hear.
Other than that, the guys of Pinegrass just hope to keep this good thing going.
â€œFor me itâ€™s the simple act of getting together once a week and playing music that I enjoy, with people that I enjoy,â€ says Ryan. â€œAs long as I can scratch that itch, Iâ€™m a happy guy.â€