Christmas Eve at the South Side Tavern

Torrin finished his second Evan Williams and Coke and signaled Seth for another as he and a few other evening bar dwellers took in Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” from the jukebox.

“This song makes me think of shopping,” Seth said, taking Torrin’s generous tip.

“Reminds me I’m gonna have to make a late-night K-Mart run. Second year in a row. It’s becoming tradition. Hopefully it won’t be a ‘Jingle All the Way’ situation. If it comes down to it I have no problem taking out Sinbad for a toy. Santa always delivers at the Swanson house.”

Seth scratched at the corner of his thick black mustache as Torrin started laughing. It was a distinctive, contagious laugh, one stand-up comics either love or hate depending on whether “distinctive laugh” thought their joke was funny.

Multi-colored Christmas lights hung behind the bar, just over the unimpressive top shelf. A few were flashing, and some didn’t have any light left for this year. Harry, a disabled vet and a South Side Tavern regular, sat a few stools down, one of the only other people at the bar. 

His light had also faded. Those who knew him before Vietnam also knew him sober. 

But Torrin wasn’t thinking about Harry. He’d just broken a heart, maybe his own, as well. He wasn’t sure. He felt shattered. 

Shattered, he thought. I never really liked that Stones song, but I’m feeling it now. 

Seth handed Torrin his third drink, the one he’d promised himself he wouldn’t have. He didn’t want to brace the cold. The three-minute walk home felt like an eternity in zero degree weather. 

There are more excuses to drink in the winter, he thought. 

This was his first Montana winter, and it was starting to get to him.

“You alright?” Seth asked. 

“I’m OK, I guess. I don’t know. I left Megan and I feel like shit about it. No one wants to be all alone on Christmas, right?”

“Well, I’m not the best at comforting people in these situations, but weren’t you just in here last week talking about how concerned you were about the relationship?”

On “Thirst Thursday” last week Torrin was having drinks with Wes, the new assistant volleyball coach for the community college, and one of the few Black men in town. He enjoyed being the “token,” as he said, especially when he’d go “cougar hunting,” as he called it.

“If you want out, you gotta get out before the holidays, dog,” Wes told Torrin, his voice smooth and sharp from his days as a radio DJ in Vegas. “They trap you after the holidays. Ain’t no gettin’ out, man. Shit…I’ve been there.”

And here Torrin was on Christmas Eve, no longer “trapped” and unsure how to feel about it.

“Megan is kind,” he told Seth, “but she wants a family of her own, and she’s ready for it now. No hesitation.”

“Nah, that’s not it. Sounds to me like you’re just not into her.” 

Seth gave Torrin a liberal pour of well whiskey with a few squirts of Diet Coke, a $4 double in a plastic cup. When Torrin moved here he didn’t think it was possible to get a stiff drink so cheap. Not in 2009, at least. Clearly he’d never been to Glendive, Montana, a small railroad town on the eastern side of the state surrounded by the rustic beauty of the Badlands. Torrin had never seen anything like it. He often felt like he was living in the Land of the Lost.

“Hey, don’t worry,” said a young Native woman who had taken a seat next to him. She must have been around 22, just a few years younger than Torrin. 

He hadn’t noticed her. 

Had she been there for a while? Had she heard the conversation? 

“Excuse me?” Torrin said politely, turning his attention toward the girl. She wore a tattered blue and white coat and had jet black hair down past her shoulders.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said, sliding a free drink token to Seth, who nodded and flirtatiously lifted an eyebrow. She took it as her cue. “A Sea Breeze, please.”

“Torrin, right?”

“Yes, and…”

“Jasmine. We met here a few weeks ago, actually, by the jukebox?”

“Oh yeah, Jasmine…”

He realized he didn’t recognize her because she was smiling this time, even had a glow about her. A few weeks ago she was morose. He kept trying to cheer her up by playing something upbeat and positive, but she just wanted to listen to Mazzy Star’s “I’ve Been Let Down.”

“I don’t mean to pry, man, but, seriously, I was just where you were. I was agonizing over what I did wrong and blaming myself for not being able to make it work, but, you know what? Maybe it just wasn’t the right person? Maybe you’ve been killing yourself to make something work that won’t, and it’s not good or bad. It’s fine. You’re not right for each other. So let it go, learn from it and move on.”

“Here’s your free Breeze,” Seth said playfully, sliding the drink into Jasmine’s hand. He nodded over at Torrin. 

“I was just going to tell that sad bastard the same thing, Jazzy.”

The one-liner was just enough to get Torrin laughing again. Seth had a knack for it.

“There’s some truth there,” Torrin said, looking over at Jasmine. “I just feel guilty, you know? Like I was being selfish.”

“Guilt is a useless emotion,” she replied, getting animated with hand gestures. “Get that shit out of your head, man. Think positive and look ahead. Dismiss all that’s behind you. Everything is in front of you. Stay positive and stay in the moment and you won’t lose what good thing might be right in front of you. I almost missed an opportunity last week. Justin kept asking, and I was apprehensive, but I took a chance and I’m glad I did. We had our first date last night and you know what he did? He took me to ‘The Squeakquel’ and even brought flowers! I couldn’t believe it. Who brings flowers to a movie? I didn’t know where to put them, but it was wonderful. No one had been so sweet to me before.”

“The Squeakquel?” Torrin asked.

“The Squeakquel,” Seth interrupted, his tone cheerful and exaggerated, and he emphasized each syllable with jazz hands.

“Shut up,” Jasmine said, laughing slightly, a bright smile on her face. “It was cute.”

“I’m sure it was, Jazzy,” said Seth. “Justin Long voices Alvin. How bad could it be? Fun for the whole family, really. Chipmunks versus Chipettes. An absurd David Cross performance. It might be forgettable years from now, but my son loved it, and I could bear it. The Squeakquel!”

“Yeah, see, Torrin? Don’t mock it until you try it! Anyway, this is about more than the Squeakquel. It’s about lightening up and being open to getting swept away. There’s someone else out there. Trust it.”

“Yeah, Torrin, trust it. You’ll find your Squeakquel,” Seth added.

Torrin burst into laughter again and looked over at Jasmine, her joyful presence brightening the whole bar. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of those burnt out Christmas lights started to flicker again. He looked over at Henry, who had been listening in. He too looked cheerful.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” Torrin said, raising his glass.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” said Jasmine.

Seth handed his two friends drink tokens and let out a laugh so boisterous he almost snorted.

“I’ll drink to that every Goddam day,” he said. “I found my Squeakquel eight years ago, and we made a little squeakquel of our own. You’ll find your Squeakquel, Torrin, or, better yet, she’ll find you.”

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All aboard the “Zhu Choo”

During the pandemic, ZHU, an electronic dance musician and Grammy-nominated recording artist, has made it a mission to “bring people to a place where they’ve never been.” He’s streamed from the mountains of western Japan, the sand dunes of southwestern Utah, and now Central Montana’s Charlie Russell Chew Choo. 

In the 49-minute video called “Billings Locomotive” – part of the Tito’s Vodka Made to Order virtual concert series – ZHU turned the Chew Choo into an electrifying backdrop for a high-energy concert. It was a vision come to life.

According to ZHU executive assistant Kristin Schaeffer, renting out the Charlie Russell Chew Choo was a concept that came completely from the artist. He found it online and wanted to jump on the opportunity.

“He loves Montana and he loves trains,” she said.

ZHU checking out the central Montana scenery while preparing for the shoot

On September 30, ZHU and his crew arrived at the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, where director Joey Vitalari, drone operators, a full band and others got set up for a four-hour ride to and from Denton. This was no typical ride, as the band recorded a 10-song set along the way, which included remixes of some of ZHU’s standout tunes such as “Faded” and “My Life.” It also included a yet-to-be-released track.

 This modern Western was more than just an escape from L.A. for ZHU and company. It also served a higher purpose: to bring attention and drive donations to the non-profit World Central Kitchen, an organization focused on creating smart solutions to hunger and poverty. It particularly emphasizes helping those affected by natural disasters.

Although ZHU is the focus of the video, the stream is also packed with incredible drone footage of the Charlie Russell train, breathtaking scenery and a gorgeous sunset, providing many unfamiliar with the area with an excellent introduction to Russell country.

ZHU and his crew certainly felt that way, as many expressed gratitude for the chance to travel during the pandemic, to perform on a moving train and to be part of this out-of-the-ordinary experience. It was a pleasure for ZHU, as well, who looks forward to performing in more off-the-grid locations.

“We’ve got to keep live music going somehow,” he said.

Check out the video here.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Talent Scout

I jammed along to Blind Melon’s  “No Rain,” watching from my bedroom window as Adam pulled up in his old Mercedes-Benz.

This was one of my favorite things to do. Rock out and night watch. There wasn’t a lot of activity for a Saturday in the suburbs, but that was typical in this ritzy Hamilton Proper Cul-de-sac. Most of the not-so-modest homes surrounding ours had their lights off. Another quiet night. That’s another reason I liked to stay in my room, where I had my Japanese-made Fender Strat and a Peavey amp. Hendrix was all over my walls, so were Zeppelin and Pearl Jam. Music was one of the only things I cared about.

The rain came down lightly, sprinkling the window and coloring the driveway. Adam pulled nearly all the way up to the basketball hoop, almost out of sight. I saw him and a guy with shaggy hair smoking a cigarette get out of the car.

  I set the guitar on my bed and rushed out of the room. My mom, walking out of the master bedroom in her white pajamas, stopped me as I started down the stairs, tapping on the railing like it was a cymbal.

“Is that Adam?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“He can’t stay long. We’re going to sleep.”

“Alright.”

Adam let himself in without knocking.

“Heeeere’s Adam, he said loudly, playfully, as he walked in from the garage and headed straight for the fridge, humming a Barenaked Ladies song. His muddy shoes left a trail on the tile floor.

“Hey, what’s up, man?” I said. “Who’s with you?”

Adam grabbed a can of Sprite, opened and took a sip. Looking down, he noticed his shoes were dirty.

“Oops,” he said, making an exaggerated clown-like face. He set his Sprite on the counter and started to take off his Airwalks.

“This is the guy I’ve been telling you about,” he said, gesturing at Chad to come in through the garage. He’d left the door open. “You want anything to drink, Chad?”

“Wait, State of Bliss Chad?” I asked

“Yeah. We were out cruising and I thought we’d stop by to see your dad’s guitars. It’s a win-win. Chad’s got to see your dad’s Gibson and you’ve got to hear Chad do his thing. He’s the real deal, Troy. Seriously. You’ve got to hear him.”

After chucking his cigarette butt into the yard, Chad walked through the garage and into the house, introducing himself with a hesitant smile.

“Chad,” he said, shaking my hand.

“Nice to meet you, Chad,” I said. “Adam’s really been talking you up. He says I have to hear you sing.”

Chad didn’t look me in the eyes when he talked, although I could hardly see them through his long brown hair. My comment seemed to surprise him.

“Yeah, I guess that’s why I’m here. No pressure, right?”

Buffy, our yellow lab, greeted Adam cordially, but looked at Chad skeptically.

Petting Buffy, Adam kept talking.

“Chad should play with us at the dance studio,” he said. “He should do an acoustic set, followed by State of Bliss. You ready to make this happen, Troy? Come on, let’s do this.”

I could hear my mom coming down the stairs. Before she was visible, she was audible.

“Adam, it’s pretty late. If you guys are going to play guitars, keep it down,” she said, hardly in sight, but she got her point across.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Daschle. No electric guitars tonight, just an acoustic set. Troy has to hear Chad.”

“Chad?”

“You want to meet him?”

“Oh, no, no, that’s OK. You boys do your thing. Just keep it down. We are headed to bed.”

“Don’t worry, mom,” I said.

As my mom went back up the stairs, Chad, Adam and I headed into the basement, where we gathered in my dad’s guitar room. Flyers, newspaper clippings, pictures of guitars, travels through Europe, posters of movies and musicians littered the wall.

“This is a bad-ass room,” Chad said, captivated by the montage.

“I love this wall, too,” I said. “My dad put it together, mostly. I found a lot of flyers to help with it. Look at this one. It’s one of my favorites.”

I pointed to a flyer for “Blues, Inc.,” featuring “the guy who played sax on Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street,’” promoting their show at the Golden Lion in St. Ives, England.

“We went to St. Ives last summer,” I said. “It was awesome. That night was actually the first time I got a little drunk. My mom wanted to see how I’d act if I was tipsy. I got pretty into the band, but there were definitely too many sax solos. Like two a song or something.”

Chad continued to look at the wall: B.B. King and Bobby Bland Live at the Star Plaza, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, vintage Beatles and Rolling Stones posters, a Jonny Lang promotional poster and the list went on. Chad put his hands in his pockets, said nothing, and displayed a blank expression.

“I wish I was rich,” he said, perhaps more audibly than he’d anticipated.

In the corner of the room was a Gibson acoustic on a stand. Adam picked it up gently, idolizing it.

He sat down on a stool and started tuning it to itself.

“What do you think, Chad?” he said. “You ready to play?”

“That’s a sweet guitar,” Chad said. “You sure your dad won’t mind?”

“No, man, it’s cool,” I said. “Play me something.”

Adam stood up and held the Montana-made Gibson out to him like he was giving a ninja a samurai sword.

“It’s ready for you,” he said.

“Holy shit,” Chad said, sitting down on the stool, feeling out the guitar, playing it gently using only his fingers. After massaging an E chord for a while, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a nylon pic.

“Play ‘Lucky’,” Adam said. “Troy, you’ve got to hear him play ‘Lucky.’ He sounds just like the Seven Mary Three guy.”

“I don’t know, man,” Chad said. “I haven’t played that one much.”

“But you nailed it last time you played it. Dude, really, come on.”

“Play whatever you feel like playing,” I said.

“No, dude, play ‘Lucky,’” Adam said to Chad, then he looked over at me. I could tell he was getting annoyed. “Really, you’ve got to hear him play ‘Lucky.’ It’s better than Seven Mary Three.”

“Like I said, no pressure,” Chad said, shrugging. “I’ll play it, alright?”

Gently and quietly, Chad started playing, smiling a little as he got showy with his picking, loving the sound of the new Elixir strings.

As he played, his body relaxed, and he closed his eyes. He started to sing.

“Mean Mr. Mustard said he’s bored of life in the district,” he sang. “He can’t afford French Quarter high, said it gets old real quick.”

Chad started to get into it, the veins in his neck showing, the voice straining with the rasp that made a number of grunge singers famous.

“See, Troy, see? I told you he’s good. Doesn’t he sound just like the Seven Mary Three guy? He sounds just like him. You sound just like him, Chad.”

His eyes burning into me, I could tell Adam was proud. I looked over at the big, tall, curly-haired friend and saw him nodding just like he did when he had me hear April, the singer of our band.

“Yeah, you called it, Adam,” I said. “He’s got it.”

Chad kept playing, escaping the moment, escaping his world, losing himself in the second verse. He didn’t even seem to try. It just came naturally. I loved him and hated him for it.

“Divine apathy, disease of my youth, watch that you don’t catch it,” Chad sang.

Adam stopped his celebration and sat down on the chair by the computer, crossing his legs and listening intently, flipping a switch.

I stood by the entrance of the guitar room, mesmerized by how Chad captured and embodied the sound of our era: late-nineties alternative rock. I knew without hearing him try that he could sound like Eddie Vedder or Kurt Cobain, but what I wanted to hear was his own voice.

“Why don’t you play something you wrote?” I asked him.

Knowing he’d captivated us, Chad was confident, sitting up in the stool, the hesitant smile now looked a little cocky.

“OK, man, I’ve got one in mind,” he said. “I just wrote it.”

“Have I heard it?” Adam asked.

“No, man. I don’t think anybody has.”

“A debut, Troy. This is it right here, man. Lay it on us.”

“Shut up, Adam,” Chad said. “Alright, I might fuck it up.”

“Don’t worry about that, man,” I said. “You’re not on stage.”

Chad took a deep breath and started playing a catchy riff that reminded me of Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile” but slower and definitely its own sound.

“If I could turn back the hands of time,” Chad sang, his eyes closed again, as he reacquainted himself with past emotions. “You would still be mine.”

In one verse and a chorus, Chad went from angry to sad, from regretful to pained. He knew where the emotion lived in each breath. Longing. Discomfort. Angst. I couldn’t wait to see him on stage.

“See, Troy, see?” Adam said proudly. “I know what I’m talking about. This is the guy right here. This is the guy!”

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Falling Out

“I wonder how we look to other people,” Penny said. “Do you think we look happy?”

She took a sip of her Guinness and stared blankly into the mirror behind the bar. under a poster for “The Commitments,” a movie we both loved about an Irish soul band.

We were at O’Connell’s Pub on Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky, a bar we’d never gone to before. I’d just returned from a trip to Spain and the same old haunts didn’t seem so appealing, especially since I wanted to talk about the future.

The scruffy bartender hated my Manchester United coat.

“Man U?” he said in a rich Irish accent. “I shouldn’t serve you.”

At first I thought he was joking, but he was stone cold.

He didn’t give two shits if Penny and me were happy.

I looked around the bar. There were three frat guys sitting adjacent to us; there was a couple that also looked college-age playing shuffleboard; a middle-aged man sat at the bar by himself drinking scotch. Between drinks he used his hand to hold his head up.

No one noticed us.

“People are too caught up in their own lives to wonder one way or another,” I told her.

“You really believe that?”

“Usually.”

“Well, what do you think? Are we happy?”

I took a good look at Penny and knew her answer to the question. She took a long sip from her Guinness and looked in the mirror again, brushing her red hair back with the hand not holding the beer. She sat up straight on the bar stool and crossed her skinny legs, then uncrossed them. I got the feeling she was trying to find a posture that would look the coolest. She wasn’t comfortable in her own skin enough to just sit comfortably.

I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, either. I’d been back for a week and the magazine I was writing for just went under. My lease was up in a month and I didn’t want to stay in Kentucky. I’d decided to flee for Montana and pick up a bartender job. My parents were there and my dad had been encouraging me to get my ass out there since my I lost my writing gig.

Penny didn’t know.

“I’m not happy,” I said plainly. “This place isn’t doing it for me. It’s not the kind of town I want to hold onto if I can’t do what I love. If I have to tend bar I’d rather do it in Montana and figure things out from there.”

Penny was working at Starbucks. She hated it. We’d both graduated from the University of Kentucky in December. It was April now and nothing was tying us to the area anymore. She was from Calgary and I was from Indiana, but our families had both relocated. There was nothing calling us to go back, there were no roots. We were free to create our own futures. We could go anywhere.

In June Penny’s mother – who also lived in Lexington – was moving to Denver. Penny wanted us to join her.

“What happened to going somewhere together?” she asked. “It doesn’t have to be Denver. What about Louisville? There is a culinary school there I like and you could get a job for a paper there. I’m sure you could.”

I was drinking Wild Turkey on the rocks and my glass had been empty for some time now. The bartender knew it, but he didn’t care.

“Another Wild Turkey over here,” Penny told the bartender.

Reluctantly, he grabbed my glass and refilled.

“I don’t want to live in Louisville, I don’t want to live in the Midwest,” I said. “I want a fresh start off the grid.”

“Without me?”

She was persistent, but, like me, she was lost. We wanted to believe we were looking for the same thing, that we were heading the same direction, but we weren’t, and I couldn’t pretend.

“I’m sorry, Penny.”

The bartender set down my Wild Turkey and I took a sip right away, quickly, spilling a little on my thick, fluffy beard.

“This is just about your job,” she said. “It’s not about us, it’s not about me. You’re only thinking of yourself. Don’t you know we’re in this together?”

“We’re not really in this together,” I said. “We’re just too afraid to be alone.”

Her face reddened as she slammed her Guinness.

“I told you I loved you. Do you know how hard that was for me?”

Penny took a deep breath and stood up. She looked around again to see if people were watching us. One of the frat guys was, so was the bartender.

“Finish your drink. I want to go.”

Before I could respond she started walking toward the door, sticking me with the tab.

“You get a new coat and you’ll have better luck with the women,” the bartender said. “Guaranfuckinteed.”

When I stepped outside Penny was standing by my jeep with her arms crossed, pacing. Behind her was a nice view of the new courthouse square and fountain. Downtown had been renovated and cleaned up. Lexington was getting ready for the FEI World Equestrian Games. It had two years to prepare.

Lexington in April was often unfavorable. It was chilly, windy, with a steady sprinkling of rain.

We got in the car and said nothing. Penny grabbed onto me and started crying before I could start the ignition.

I held Penny, kissed her forehead and told her it was going to be alright.

“Can you do something for me?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Define your love for me. You told me you loved me. What does that mean to you?”

Rain hit the windshield harder as I took in the question.

Penny wasn’t like the other girls I’d met in Lexington. She wasn’t a hipster. We never had a 45-minute discussion about the best Ryan Adams album; she didn’t obsess over Andrew Bird.

She was a writer, and I loved her latest screenplay. It was a western revenge story that exemplified the morals and life lessons from James Owen’s Code of the West, especially “know where to draw the line,” “keep promises,” and “be tough but fair.”

Coincidentally, her screenplay inspired me to head west.

But Penny was different in her writing than she was in reality, and so was I. The headstrong, romantic letters we’d write while I was abroad captured what we longed for but not what we had, and we knew it when I returned, we knew it after we made love. We were cold, distant. confused. We were detached, smoking weed and watching “Deadwood.”

We could pour our hearts out to each other while we were thousands of miles away but had little to say to each other face to face.

I only knew her on the page, and she only knew me there, too. The people we loved didn’t truly exist.

“My love for you isn’t real,” I said. “I love the idea of you, not who you truly are, not who we are. It’s fiction.”

She looked at me blankly.

“You’re running away from me,” she said.

“I’m not running away from you. I just want to take this journey on my own to figure out who I am. I can’t love you if I don’t know who I am. Can you understand?”

“You want me to understand you but you aren’t making any effort to understand me. I want to bust out of this town, too, but I’ve got six more months before I get a chance to get the money I need to be a little more free on the road. All I am asking is that you wait a bit before you run off to Montana. And stop overthinking so much. Who I am on the page is who I am right here, right now. Don’t give me that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “My mind is made up.”

“You’re going to regret it. Moving to the mountains is better as a thought than a reality.”

“Funny, that’s how I feel about us.”

Penny reached into her purse and grabbed a cigarette.

“Take me home.”

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Senior reporter grateful to be considered family

“You’re family, Charlie.”

That was Lynn Toller’s reaction when I told her I was leaving the News-Argus to take a position with the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce.

She gave me her sad puppy face. Those of you who know her have probably seen it and know she’s perfected it with help from her cockapoo, Sadie Sue.

In November Lynn celebrates 40 years with the News-Argus. That makes my eight years seem like no time at all.

Reflecting on that eight years, it’s amazing to think of how much has changed since I started in April of 2012. I came in not knowing anyone in this town. I’d visited once and hiked the Lewistown Overlook trail, hopped around Main Street and saw the town’s charm and potential. At the time I was a reporter in Glendive. Knowing the News-Argus was part of the same company (Yellowstone Newspapers) I kept the destination in mind.

That was a good idea.

I didn’t know what my goal was when I first clocked in, but the experience has far exceeded any expectations, whatever they may have been.

The community has embraced me and taught me so much. It’s amazing what you can learn from people when you set your intention to listen, and I’ve enjoyed hearing stories from many different walks of life.

There have been many changes in the office through the years. Editor Deb Hill and I have worked with six different reporters, three different sports editors and five different graphic designers. We’ve weathered many storms and overcome a lot of adversity together, and I’m proud to say we’ve been rewarded for it by winning our division’s coveted “General Excellence” award three years in a row.

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We had a great run at the News-Argus, winning many first-place awards for our local coverage.

“Are you sad?” Lynn asked me the other day, giving me the sad puppy face again.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ll come and see us, won’t you?”

“Of course.”

I’ll miss working with Deb, Lynn, publisher Jacques Rutten and the rest of the gang. There are many fun memories, many of which are inside jokes that are hard to relay here without using up much of my column space for context. We’ve shared a lot of laughs. Believe it or not the newsroom meetings were almost always fun.

It’s never easy to leave a crew you enjoy, but it’s even harder to leave a community you love, so I’m staying put with my wonderful wife, Kari, who I met at an open mic night at the Rising Trout Café shortly after moving here. We’ve been through it all together and I’m continually grateful for encouragement and support.

This will be a big change, but change can be good. It’s not something to fear or avoid. It can be trying, but it’s worth it, because you learn about yourself every time you try something new, and that’s what I’m ready to do here. It will be an interesting adventure at the Chamber and I look forward to working with new director Jo McCauley.

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I’m on a new journey, but I’m not going far, as I’m grateful to stay in central Montana.

Nevertheless, there is much I will miss about sharing the stories of Central Montana. It’s been a pleasure to sit down and learn about your lives and I’m grateful for those times we’ve had together. Thanks for your trust, for your openness and for making this a wonderful place to live.

This is not the end – it just changes our relationship, and I look forward to seeing you around because, like Lynn said to me, I consider you all family, as well.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus June 6, 2020)

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Choosing happiness in a time of uncertainty


Looking for something upbeat?

Based on the novel by French writer Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness” is a fitting watch for the moment, as it takes the viewer on a journey to discover what it means to be happy. Hector (Simon Pegg), a London psychiatrist struggling both personally and professionally, impulsively goes on a happiness-seeking quest, which takes him to Shanghai, the Himalayas, Africa and Los Angeles, where he makes new friends and visits some old ones (including his ex-girlfriend, played by Toni Collette).

Hector was looking to get out of a rut. He felt like a fraud. How can he tell people to be happy if he didn’t know what it means to be happy? The shrink lost sight of what really mattered, something that can happen to any of us. This crisis we’re facing, however, gives us an opportunity to hit the reset button, to reprioritize and refocus. It’s a time to ask some of those difficult questions, such as “Am I happy?” “Am I living the life I want to live?” and “What are some things I love that I have neglected?”

It’s so easy to get overrun with commitments and obligations. We can make ourselves so busy we forget what kind of life we were after in the first place. Personally, I feel like there are a lot of blessings when it comes to our current situation. There is tragedy, yes, and there is fear, but there is also discovery…and self-discovery. Now can be the time to work on that project you’ve dreamed of doing, be it writing a novel, building a deck, building a sports car or something else. It’s obviously not the time to travel, but it can be that time to finally read that book you’ve been putting off. If you’re fortunate enough to be quarantined with your family, even better: play “Scrabble” with your wife. Watch movies with the kids. I can tell you our household is grateful for Disney + and Netflix. Hulu comes in handy, too.

We all have different ideas when it comes to happiness, and far too often it eludes us, but that doesn’t have to be the case. What Hector ultimately decides is that he already has everything he needs to be happy, and I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion. Happiness lies in being present. It lies in listening to others, offering compassion and not focusing so much on yourself. Slow down, be mindful, don’t worry so much about the past or the future. As I read in “The Book of Joy,” “We must try to be conscious about how we live and not get swept away by the modern trance, the relentless march, the anxious accelerator.”

This, of course, is easier said than done. It takes practice. It takes continual reminders, but it can be done with intention. As Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer) says in the aforementioned film, “We should concern ourselves not so much with the pursuit of happiness but with the happiness of pursuit.”

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Seeking Solace in Song

“Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul

I want to get lost in your rock n’ roll and drift away”

I’ve always known this comforting chorus, but I never really connected to Dobie Gray’s 1973 smash hit until recently, when my friend Troy in Glendive requested I play it on my live stream.

I told Troy to pick a song – any song – and I’d play it for him so we could celebrate his recent news of remission.

“I’ve been hearing and feeling it lately,” he said. “There’s something about it.”

Music is the foundation of my friendship with Troy. It all started at Reynold’s grocery store when I complimented him on his Bruce Springsteen “Darkness on the Edge of Town” T-shirt. I told him I was a big Springsteen fan, but Troy was a super fan. He knew every song and every album. Through the years he’d send me iconic live recordings, rarities and underrated albums. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about “The Boss,” a lot about Troy and a lot about life.

So when I asked my friend what song he’d like me to play I was certain it’d be Springsteen. It almost was, as he first suggested “Promised Land,” but he quickly changed his mind.

As I gave “Drift Away” a listen, I tried to think of when I heard it first and couldn’t place it. I feel like it’s always been there, often blaring on oldies radio stations. It’s one of those summertime feel-good jams or wedding reception dance numbers. It’s timeless.

There was one moment that really stuck in my mind, when the song took a new meaning. It was my 21st birthday in Bloomington, Indiana, when the mysterious, always well-dressed Curtis Crawford played a Delta-blues-inspired version of the tune at my party. For the first time I was entranced and captivated by the words. Working on the song for the first time, I thought of Curtis – an older gentleman kind enough to share life experiences and music with– and I thought about why he chose that song that day. I thought about why Troy chose it. What is it about this song?

That’s when the third verse spoke to me.

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me

I want you to know I believe in your song

The rhythm, the rhyme and harmony

You help me along, making me strong

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Playing in Glendive, 2010, freeing my soul

It was music that strengthened Troy as he fought his way free of cancer, it was the music that helped Curtis get through his hard times and it’s music I find strengthening many of us during this trying time for our world. On Sunday night, as I struggled with the loss of my grandfather to the coronavirus, I turned to Casey and Jeff Sanders’ Joy Valley Hymns live stream. As they sang, “Hope has not abandoned me,” my spirits lifted and sorrow subsided. That’s the beauty of music, be it “Drift Away,” Springsteen, the Sanders’ unique contemporary takes on old hymns or something else. If you’re struggling right now, I encourage you to turn on music that brings you joy, something that frees your soul and helps you along. For me, I’ve been turning to Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” and The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine,” but, really, the list is endless. Put on the music that speaks to you. I hope it brings you comfort.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus and Glendive Ranger Review)

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Paying tribute to Grandpa, the most grateful man I’ve known

On Saturday, April 18, my grandfather Marshall Cheek Kidd passed away. He had just turned 97, and, for the first time, was really starting to feel his age. The life of the party was slowing down, both physically and mentally. It was hard to believe, but the man with the gift of gab suddenly had a hard time keeping up with conversation. A man known for his delightful aphorisms (“Giving up procrastination is very difficult,” “Big data allows us to make bigger mistakes with confidence,” “Politics, like religion, is not about logic and reason,” to give you a few) stopped sharing quips and just shared smiles, still just as grateful for each moment.

Gregarious by nature, Grandpa was always a sucker for social interaction, which made this global pandemic extra discouraging for him and those he loved.

“For your grandpa, social distancing is a punishment,” my Aunt Margie told me last week. Margie and my Uncle Steve (Marshall’s eldest son) went to see Marshall at his retirement home in Nashua, New Hampshire over the weekend, but they could only talk to him on the phone and interact with him from outside the building, separated by glass. It’s hard to know how much of this my grandpa understood. He couldn’t eat with his friends anymore. Meals were delivered to him. He couldn’t go out and about to see his plethora of friends and participate in lively discussions. Lockdown was enforced, as residents and employees were testing positive for COVID-19.

Grandpa would also test positive.

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Marshall spending some time with his grandson in the early 90s at his lakehouse in New Hampshire

Listening to Benny Goodman, my grandfather’s favorite composer, I reflect on Marshall. Like Goodman, he was a clarinet player. I got to see him perform with a big band once during a visit to New Hampshire when I was in high school, and he was fantastic. Playing the clarinet was one of his great joys in life, and it was evident when you heard him.

He stayed with the music. At The Huntington – where he spent the last decade and a half of his life – he participated in the Monday sing-a-longs, his clarinet chops still there after all those years.

Grandpa once told me music was the secret to a long life. He was quite certain of this.

“I noticed this at my last high school reunion,” he said. “Most of us from band were still around.”

Although I didn’t have an appreciation for jazz in my adolescence, my grandpa was still able to establish a bond between us through music. He’d always ask what I was into and was almost always willing to listen.

During one visit I played him Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and asked him if he could play it on the clarinet.

“It’s actually pretty easy,” he said, smiling. “Can you play it on guitar? If not, you should try it. You’ll get it.”

 

His self-confidence and constant belief in me never failed to inspire. I came home from that trip and brought “Kashmir” to my guitar teacher. He taught it to me in one lesson, and I came to admire my grandfather even more. He always applied himself and always was a student of life. He couldn’t get enough. I would even share some of my college textbooks with him so we could learn together.

Grandpa’s thirst for knowledge was almost as contagious as his positive attitude, which constantly amazed his family. We’ve often joked about how many times he said, “This is the best day of my life.” How wonderful is that?  It’s like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said, “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

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Grandpa playing piano at the Huntington a few years ago

Benny Goodman plays on, and I can see why Grandpa was so taken by his sound and why he picked up the clarinet in the first place. He was fortunate to be a part of such a remarkable era, and he didn’t take it for granted. One of the only regrets he shared with me was not being able to fight in World War II. He would’ve gone in a heartbeat, but they didn’t take him, so he stayed behind and studied engineering at Ohio State University. He went on to become an electrical engineer, working for RCA and General Electric. He enjoyed his career and was honored to play a part in creating the Lunar Excursion Module for the Apollo program.

Grandpa was always the first to tell you how good he had it. Even during hard times he could seek out the silver lining. I’ll always cherish that about him and aspire to follow in his footsteps that way, especially right now, when we could all use a little more positivity.

I can’t think of a better way to do that than with music, whether it’s performing, writing a song or putting it on and sharing a dance with my wife.

My grandpa once said, “If it weren’t for music, I would’ve been a disaster.” I know the feeling and will always be thankful for his encouraging words that helped instill the confidence I needed to stick with guitar. But, more than that, I will always be grateful for his love, his wisdom and his joyful spirit. Thank you, Grandpa.

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Let laughter and positivity carry you through this difficult time

“Blow up your TV. Throw away your paper.

Go to the country. Build you a home.

Plant a little garden. Eat a lotta peaches.

Try and find Jesus, on your own.” – John Prine, “Spanish Pipedream”

Well, it’s Holy Week, and here we are in the middle of the greatest pandemic of our lifetime. It becomes more real all the time. When I heard legendary singer/songwriter John Prine was put in intensive care after contracting Covid-19 I felt numb.

A man I consider the Kurt Vonnegut of country music, Prine has many songs that capture the beauty and absurdity, the wit and wonder life has to offer. I paid tribute to him last week on my weekly live stream by playing a few of his tunes, including “Spanish Pipedream.” It’s one of those songs that can make you laugh out loud. Prine has a lot of those: “Illegal Smile,” “It’s a Big Old Goofy World,” “In Spite of Ourselves” and “When I Get to Heaven,” to name a few). So when I saw the news on Instagram I stopped what I was doing and tried to process this alarming news. Prine passed April 7, joining country singer Joe Diffie, Fountains of Wayne singer Adam Schlesinger and more than 10,000 others killed by the virus in the U.S. thus far.

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John Prine performs “Six O’Clock News” in Milwaukee April 25, 2018, a show I went to with my father and brother-in-law

Among those deceased is Lew Berry, a funny, tough (he held our school’s squatting record), larger-than-life character I graduated from high school with in Indiana.

Famous musicians are one thing, but when it starts taking 37-year-old buddies, it gets personal. There’s no ignoring this. We can’t pretend it’s not coming our way. We can’t pretend the stay-at-home directive doesn’t apply to us. Like Don Thomas wrote in a letter to the editor in last week’s Lewistown News-Argus, “Really, really wanting to believe something will not make it true. It may have worked for Peter Pan, but it will not alter the course of the current epidemic.”

With all this in mind, it’s natural to be scared or anxious, it’s understandable to go to a dark place, but try your best to stay positive. That’s what I’m going to do. It’s something my wife encourages and exemplifies. There is so much to take in. Sometimes I overload myself with news and constant phone calls. It’s good to be informed, yes, but balance is critical. We can’t make information an obsession.

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Prine plays “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” with The Milk Carton Kids in Milwaukee

Sharing music has helped me. So has laughter. The more we can make ourselves laugh the healthier we’ll feel. Motivational speaker Les Brown agrees with this philosophy. His live stream helped me out Monday morning with some jokes that brought levity to the situation: “If you get an email that says, ‘knock, knock,’ don’t answer – it’s a Jehovah’s Witness working from home.”

There is a lot of healing in laughter. This was evident while watching “The Croods” with my stepkids and “Raising Arizona” with my wife. There is also a lot of healing in positivity. Les Brown encourages us to have a “perpetual mindset and attitude that we will get through this.” Yes, there are going to be more deaths. People we know will die. It’s a harsh and uncertain reality, but we are in charge of how we respond to it.

I ask you to follow this advice and find something that makes you laugh. Share what brings you joy with your partner or your children. Use this time to your advantage and avoid panicking, even if you’ve lost your job or are suffering in other ways, be it loneliness, depression, fear or financial strain. Try your best to stay mindful, stay grounded and be purposeful in how you use this time. If you need help, reach out to a family member, a friend, a counselor or a crisis hotline.

One way to improve physical and mental health is by utilizing Lewistown’s walking trails. I can’t believe how many people were on them Sunday, enjoying the beautiful day with their families. We are lucky to have them in our backyard. Take advantage.

As bad as it is, there is still much for which to be grateful. Find those things in your life. Listen to some John Prine, too.

(a previous version of this was published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

 

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Local musicians, artists go “live” to lift spirits

It was February of 2007. I was in New Orleans with my friend Daniel – a native – celebrating his first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the impassioned city, its impact still widely spread. Daniel’s home had significant water damage and some of his friends were still crashing in FEMA trailers.

New Orleans, however, is a resilient place. Hope remained, spirits stayed strong. The community – and thousands of others from all over the nation and the world – united together for the carnival’s return.

The most unforgettable moment of this experience came uptown at Tipitina’s. Trombone Shorty – who had just returned from a tour with Lenny Kravitz – was headlining with a band of local All-Stars, getting funky, the spirit of The Big Easy back intact. As Shorty and his band marched through the crowd, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” everything was electrified. We were all moving and grooving together, marching along.

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Tipitina’s in New Orleans – a historical music venue named after a Professor Longhair classic.

I’d never felt anything quite like it. Music rejuvenated the people and it rejuvenated a city that went to Hell and back. It was soul restoration.

Nothing brings us together like music, and, during this alarming time in history, we need it badly.

Unfortunately, we can’t physically bring people together during this time of crisis, so musicians are taking to live streaming to entertain, to try and bring joy to others who are saddened, sick, stuck at home or all three.

A friend of mine was just streaming live in Austin, Texas, backing up Nikki Lane on keyboards. It was a fun time for him joining a bill with Willie Nelson at the top, but he’s just processing like we all are and trying to find ways where he can contribute.

“It all feels like self-healing to me,” he said. “I’m happy to pass it on.”

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A lot of musicians are taking to live streaming during this crisis, and I’m glad to participate.

That’s what local musicians are doing, too. Last week Chris Hildebrant and I did back-to-back sessions on Facebook live and we’re going to do it every weekend. Dave Rummans, Jeff and Casey Sanders, Christie Aldrich and others are doing the same, and why not? Music offers community and solace.

When I did my live stream last week from my basement, it really felt like I was playing a show. The comments poured in, people were grateful, excited to have the entertainment. Like Jon said, it was a self-healing experience, but it also brought joy to others, and that’s special. That’s what we need. Whether a musician or not, we can all find ways to contribute. Like David Byrne of the Talking Heads said, “we’re all in the same leaky boat.”

It’s inspiring how many musicians are keeping the party going right now. DJ D-Nice (Derrick Jones) kicked this trend into gear a few weeks back through “Homeschool,” the name for his social distancing Instagram live parties he puts on from his kitchen in California. This party has had some A-list viewers, including Will Smith, Jimmy Fallon, Michelle Obama, Magic Johnson and Lenny Kravitz himself.

“We are one,” Kravitz commented during last Saturday’s “Homeschool” session.

The streams might not get as wild as that night at Tipitina’s 13 years ago, but – even when we can’t leave the house – music can continue to lift us up, pacify our problems and set us free. I invite you to join me and the other local musicians, to follow your favorite artists and see what they’re doing because they are likely going to stream, as well. Also, if you want to bring a taste of New Orleans to your living room, check out Jon Cleary’s “Quarantini Hour” from his Facebook music page.

We can get through this, friends. And if you’re having doubts, put on some music. Let your troubles subside.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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