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Big Sky Gig
Illustration by Paul Blow
January 1994 was a bleak one in Cincinnati. I was stuck in an isolated apartment in Mt. Auburn, frozen like an insect in an amber bead. Sometimes, though, the very thing you need can come along just when you need it most. As my old friend Tom Cahall used to say, “Sometimes things can turn around on Double Jeopardy.”
So when the phone rang, my heart lifted. It was my pal, bluegrass mandolin player Bill LaWarre, who in those days owned the ad agency Northlich Stolley LaWarre.
“How are you?” he asked without identifying himself (powerful men seldom do). Then, after the pleasantries: “How would you like to fly to Montana next weekend?”
Bill and I had been playing in bluegrass bands together for years. He was a top-notch musician and a good tenor singer, but he had a day job that was hardly conducive to touring, so this request was totally unexpected. What had changed? He had recently acquired a second home—a log cabin close to Yellowstone National Park—and he was putting a band together to play on a radio show called Main Street on Montana Public Radio. He had already lined up a banjo player there—a guy named Joe Rockefeller. I had met Joe and the guitar player Tom Fish at Bill’s house once when they were passing through town. They were the kind of musicians you can walk on stage with anywhere and feel confident they’ll make you look good. I had no reservations about having them as part of the show.
Bill said, “Well, are you working that weekend?”
I said no and began pulling a suitcase out of the closet.
“Good. We’re leaving at 6 a.m. sharp from Lunken Airport.”
“Six in the morning?” I shrieked.
“Six a.m.” Bill said. “And we’ve only got one refueling stop, so don’t drink a lot of coffee.”
“What about my REM sleep?” I said. But it was useless: Bill had hung up and gone on to his next project.
When he and his date, Claudia Massey, actually showed up a week later at 6 a.m., I was dozing on my suitcase, packed and ready for the western journey. Bill and Claudia were in fine moods, talking about Roy Rogers (Bill’s childhood hero) and their shared passion for collecting vintage mangles—old-fashioned washing machine wringers.
At first glance, Claudia did not seem to be a cowboy-and-antique-tchotchke kind of woman. She was dressed in a cashmere turtleneck sweater and a jacket with the cuffs rolled up, and had an elegant stillness about her. She carried a round wicker basket packed with snacks and sandwiches on whole wheat bread with lettuce and sprouts. I didn’t know her very well then, but somehow I sensed there wouldn’t be any doughnuts in that basket. I was right. I helped myself to a sugarless pudding cup and observed the two of them on the drive to Lunken. Bill gave her such tender looks that I thought, A-ha. This is serious.
I remember nothing of the flight except waking with the half-eaten pudding cup just long enough for the bathroom stop. The next time I opened my eyes we were nearing Montana. When the plane began to descend I could see Yellowstone looking like a snow globe, white flakes falling silently, wilderness everywhere, nothing moving. We landed rough on a gravel strip in a valley surrounded by mountains—stone outcroppings with glacier-scraped surfaces, everything else buried in snow. Bill’s property manager met us at the little airport and drove us to the two-story “western chalet” Bill was renovating. Heat was the first priority, so he set about bringing in wood for a fireplace so big it seemed like it could swallow up several adults. I had seen Bill make fires before, and he was always meticulous, but this time he outdid himself. Within 10 minutes, we had a glorious blaze, flames leaping and logs snapping in the dry mountain air.
The place was homey, with Indian blankets and landscape paintings adorning the walls, roomy leather couches, a small Remington sculpture, and a floor-to-ceiling art quilt done by Rabbit Hash artist Jane Burch Cochran. A second floor gallery ran around the upstairs, where I was to be quartered in the guest suite. Its renovation was not complete, but there were baskets of shampoo bottles and pretty soaps, an old china cup, and soft, thick towels stacked like a picture in a magazine.
I fell asleep again for a few hours, and when I woke everyone was gone. I figured I had missed dinner, but I felt so much better that I didn’t mind. I rummaged through the pantry, which was filled with P&G products—a very comforting sight—and found something to snack on.
When Bill and Claudia returned, holding hands and blushing, I was in good spirits, well rested, and ready for what we—well, I—had come for: music. I tuned up my guitar, and Bill got out the fiddle he was just learning to play. We rehearsed for hours, working out tunes like “Soldier’s Joy” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”
We went to sleep quite late, confused by the time change, and when we finally woke and headed into town we were three friends, more at ease with each other, armed with instruments, spirits high, anxious to perform.
It was Claudia who saw the eagles first: two enormous predators, swooping and gliding in the blue Montana sky. Their wings were spread out for what seemed like miles, and their beaks and claws were poised to nab a small animal and rip it to pieces. They were magnificent and frightening.
Bill slowed the beat-up old pick-up truck and slipped and slid in the snow onto the shoulder of the switch-back mountain road. “Are those the eagles we’ve been seeing around the cabin?” Claudia asked, and Bill said he thought they were.
“That looks like their nest,” he said, pointing to an aerie high on a rocky outcropping. We sat and watched their acrobatic loops. The sky was cloudless and cold, the snow piled high. We were close to Livingston, Montana, north of Yellowstone, not far from the valley where the movie A River Runs Through It was filmed.
“They’re golden eagles,” Claudia said in her soft voice.
“You think?” I said, a little thrilled. I had only been in Montana for 12 hours and I’d already seen something exotic. I shielded my eyes from the sun and gazed at the red mountains in the distance. The rocky ledges and cliffs looked like something from one of Bill’s old Roy Rogers movies, and all around us we could see the big, blue sky.
We drove on, past small ranch houses, a strip mall with a large supermarket, and a double-wide house trailer with a large tire lying on its side near the edge of the property. I figured in summer the tire would be planted with petunias, and there would be a mongrel dog lying in the sun.
Livingston itself looked a little like Dodge City waiting for Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday to show up. We grabbed coffee and a sandwich at a local saloon in a dining room full of ranchers wearing fleece-lined coats and eating steak and eggs. Then we hurried to the radio station.
Playing always starts with tuning up—no small thing, especially with a mandolin. Nowadays young musicians have fancy accessories, including electronic tuners, but Bill and I had come up in the old school. Tuning was a job we had to do on our own. And where I had six strings to tune, Bill had the nearly impossible job of tuning eight strings, paired, and each pair of strings had to match each other perfectly. He paced as he went through this ritual, gazing intently at his small, ornate instrument, playing fast riffs and fills to warm up.
When Bill was playing full throttle, I was always amazed at his big hands speeding across the slender neck of the mandolin. How did he get the right fingers on the right frets on that skinny fingerboard?, I wondered. Yet he did. Banjo player Jeff Roberts once attributed the virtuosity of some musicians to the fact that they had fallen in love with a particular instrument, and that had happened to Bill. He’d had the good fortune of finding a rare Gibson F-5 mandolin when he was young. Besotted, he bought it and it became his love. Sometimes even when he wasn’t playing, he’d pick up the F-5 to admire its clean lines.
Before long we were joined by Joe Rockefeller, his five-string banjo hanging around his neck, his picks bristling on the ends of his fingers, running scales up and down while Tom Fish, dark and scholarly-looking, accompanied him on the guitar. We introduced ourselves and discussed repertoire, and before we knew it, it was time to play.
It was a live radio show with a real stage and an audience dressed in jeans and flannel shirts. The air crackled with energy and the excited expectation of entertainment-starved folks in winter. There were mothers with babies in carriers strapped to the front of their bodies, and standing across the back of the room, a row of ranchers wearing exquisite Stetson hats. They reminded me of Garrison Keillor’s “Norwegian bachelor farmers”—men who might bolt at the first sign of social interaction.
We played for nearly an hour—all the classic tunes—then I began “I’ll Fly Away” to end the show, and by the second verse the audience was singing along, too. We all got a standing ovation, and we felt lighter as we put our instruments back in their cases. Everyone was smiling, a few people were humming as they rose to leave. One couple was holding hands as they filed out with the crowd. We’d achieved what every performer hopes for: We’d made contact with our audience, and we were all a little better for having done that.
Back at the ranch that evening, I was wide awake and Bill and Claudia were sleepy. We made a fire in the huge hearth of the great room, and Bill and I played tunes on the mandolin and guitar into the night while Claudia dozed on the couch. When Bill went outside to replenish the firewood, I followed. With no city lights to dim their brilliance, I could see the great round moon and billions of stars in the cold night sky. Somewhere people were moving and driving cars and playing jukeboxes, but not here. Here there was a stillness, a quiet beyond anything I had experienced.
The next morning, I woke to the smell of bacon frying, coffee perking, biscuits baking, and the promise of adventure. After breakfast we set off, Bill fixed on driving across Yellowstone, all the way to Wyoming and back, intent on showing me this place he loved so much.
As we made our way through the park, the weather turned blustery until, it seemed to me, we were in the middle of a blizzard. In the blowing snow, the park bristled with life. The wild animals had headed down to the valley where food was easy to find, Bill explained. “Look,” he said, and pointed to some elk walking slowly, wearing their tall antlers like Las Vegas showgirls.
When we came upon bison along the sides of the road, I was speechless. They stood there like a small herd of black behemoths, their shaggy hair blowing in the stiff wind, and when they grazed, their heads swept from side to side as rhythmic as metronomes. Once the patch of grass they were browsing on was bare, they didn’t lose a beat—just side-stepped slightly until they found more under the snow.
Bill stopped the truck so that I could get a better look at them. If the golden eagles had been mystical, the bison felt primal—like creatures from the beginning of time.
“It’s an inspirational place,” Bill said as we took it all in. “I heard Tom Brokaw say in a speech once that he had never made an important decision in his life without first going to Yellowstone.”
What I knew about Yellowstone is what I’d heard from others: that it was magical; that the geysers were spectacular; that this important, remote spot has drawn life here for millions of years—amoebic creatures multiplying in the thermal pots, then dinosaurs, then paleo-Indians, then trappers and hunters who lived off the thick herds of animals. But I didn’t really appreciate the hold Yellowstone had on my friend until I visited it with him.
Here’s an odd thing about friendship: You start out being pals because you have something in common—liking softball or enjoying the same movies or, say, playing the heck out of “Orange Blossom Special” for a room full of winter-weary Montana ranchers. But your bonds don’t really deepen until you get a good look at the other things that your friend holds dear—especially when they are so far from your own experience that they seem otherworldly.
Long after our trip, after Bill and Claudia had married, they were honored by the Yellowstone Park Foundation for their work on the organization’s board of directors. In the intervening years, Bill had served as Foundation president of the and Claudia had helped raise money for projects at the park. I attended the ceremony proudly. After all, I felt I had been present at the creation.
We ate out that last night in Montana, but I don’t remember much about it. The sounds of music were re-playing in my head, accompanied by the blowing snow, then the deep silence of Yellowstone. When I closed my eyes I saw the eagles’ nest and the buffalo grazing, and the stars strewn across the heavens like diamonds. Then, having thought it all through one more time, I slid into sleep as peacefully as a child.