The music scene
Local musicians share the gritty and beautiful world of the Flathead Valley music scene.
The Mike Murray Duo performing at one of the many Flathead Valley drinking holes
Photo by: Aaron Agosto
BY ANNETTE STREAN-CORNELIUS
PART ONE: MUSIC IN MY SOUL
I’m not sure how old I was, but I know I was small. Very small compared to the giant semi truck I was standing on, singing a solo of “In His Time” at the annual Christian Loggers Fair at the Kalispell fairgrounds, probably around 1982. I remember that I accidentally sang the same verse twice; I was singing my absolute heart out and forgot the words. That’s still me: I’d rather sing from the depths and make mistakes than tiptoe through a performance and do it perfectly.
Growing up here, I had all the opportunity I could imagine to be a musician. I learned to sing at home in Olney, where my dad would play the guitar and sing and my siblings and I would join in. We had no choice but to figure out harmonies, because my dad only played in the key of D. If you didn’t want to sound like a bull moose or a screeching magpie, you found your third or your fifth so you could sing in your range.
I sang everywhere, all throughout my childhood: in church (twice on Sundays and on Wednesdays too), once a month at the Whitefish nursing home, and anywhere else I could, from ribbon cuttings for Habitat for Humanity to choir in the Whitefish schools.
“I’m back where it all started, where the love and encouragement of my family and community, along with my deep sense of purpose, helped me launch out on my calling.”
I always had encouragement: from family, from my church, my choir teacher, my classmates, and some really cool mentors. I’d been journaling, thanks to my mom, and writing songs since I was little, playing classical music out of one side of my double tape deck boom box and recording it with my lyrics on the other side. When I was 15, a local photographer asked me to sing in his band, which we named Written in Stone (after rejecting the first suggestion, Right Side Up). The band mostly sang covers, but we also performed some songs I wrote. I knew I had found my place: I didn’t want to sing what other people said, I wanted to sing what was inside of me.
I never had any designs on going to college. I knew that I just wanted to sing. Unlike many artists’ stories, my parents were totally supportive and offered to help me make my first album instead of pushing me to get a degree. My brother-in-law was a live sound engineer, so we used his equipment and recorded in the warehouse where he kept the semi for his gigs, working late at night so the sound of the traffic on Highway 93 wouldn’t bleed through.
My dad had owned his own logging business all of my life and knew what it meant to be in business for yourself, musical or not. He took me out to breakfast at the Whitefish Deli and told me about taxes. He told me, “Whatever check you get, that money is not all yours. Set aside your tithe and taxes, pay your bills and the people who work for you, and divvy the rest up as needed.” That was my college education.
I went to Nashville, then to London. I felt at home singing on stage to two people on a rainy night in Stoke-on-Trent in England and I felt at home singing in front of 10,000 people at the Pepsi Center in Denver. My band, Venus Hum, opened for Blue Man Group, singing Diana Summer’s “I Feel Love.” I sang on the Tonight Show, having no idea how many of my classmates would be cheering me on and later tell me about it at our class reunions.
Montana eventually called me home, where I now work as a remote studio musician and play locally with my bands Tin Finley and Anniversary Party. My other band, Venus Hum, just recorded its seventh studio album, our first in 10 years. My daughter falls asleep to the sound of me singing into my recording gear in any room of the house with decent acoustics that is otherwise unoccupied. I’m back where it all started, where the love and encouragement of my family and community, along with my deep sense of purpose, helped me launch out on my calling. I’m still doing exactly what I was meant to do. Sing.
Annette Strean-Cornelius on stage with Tin Finley
BY KATIE CANTRELL
PART TWO: DOING THE HUSTLE
It’s no joke to make a living as a musician here. From hauling thousands of dollars of instruments and equipment in and out of bars to trying to decide if you should take another gig at the place where you were competing with the ping-pong table for attention last time, grit and determination are just as important as talent and skill. We sat down with Mike Murray and Halladay Quist, two talented local singer-songwriters who have been performing here for years, to hear what it’s really like.
Mike and Halladay are both Flathead natives who studied under classical guitar instructor Steve Eckels at Flathead High School in the early 2000s. Each explored the big-city music scenes before deciding to base their professional lives here. But performing in your hometown can also be a double-edged sword, especially when you’re just getting started.
M: When I first started playing gigs around here, I felt like I was still kind of seen as the “Mikey Murray” that grew up here. I’m sure this was my own perception—it’s not like people said this to me—but I sometimes kind of felt this thing like, “Awww, that’s cute. Little Mikey came back and he’s playing music in his hometown,” you know?
H: I understand what you mean. For me, it’s my dad’s legacy, you know? [Accomplished singer-songwriter Rob Quist, whose bands have included the Mission Mountain Wood Band and Great Northern.] I just got married and I’m going to change my last name to Blake, which is kind of a big risk as an artist because I’m already established as Halladay Quist. But it is a bit of freedom from the past; everybody here has watched me grow up, so I totally get what you mean, for sure.
M: If I was playing a real downer gig–like no one was listening–and there was someone there from high school, it felt like, “This is what I amounted to…here’s me living my great musician life…” and that always was hard. Whereas if you’re playing some awesome gig, you’re so proud to be there, and you’d see some people from your old life and be like, “Hey, check me out!” But that didn’t happen very much early on.
“My art comes from such a very tender, introverted place, creating something that maybe other people want to hear, or something that lights your fire and you want to share it with someone.”
H: Yeah, it didn’t. And I think that’s the tough part about being an artist. You have to go through a lot of days like that, especially at the beginning. Super brutal. And you have to kind of forge this artistic ego that can handle all this crap that to any normal person would be like a dagger in the heart.
Mike and Halladay point out that half the battle of success is sticking with it through the bummer gigs, through the insecurities and doubts, and recognizing the moments when your hard work finally starts to pay off.
H: I don’t really know if there’s one turning point. Honestly, I feel just as vulnerable now as I did when I started. My art comes from such a very tender, introverted place, creating something that maybe other people want to hear, or something that lights your fire and you want to share it with someone. But I would say one turning point for me was when I stopped making phone calls. And that was pretty huge, because you’re like, chasing it, chasing it, chasing it, and then all of a sudden, now, I just get to answer my phone.
M: I think I started to feel a little bit of a turning point when I made an album called “Tumbleweeds” in 2015. My first couple albums, it always kind of felt like, “Oh, that’s nice, good for you, you made an album! That must have been fun!” With “Tumbleweeds,” people would say that they loved the songs. Strangers would sometimes ask, “Can you play ‘Bury Me in Montana’?” And I’d be like, “MY song?” So that was definitely a turning point. Starting to feel like I was writing songs that people actually enjoy.
They agree that the valley has become a solid place to make a living as a musician, though it hasn’t always been that way.
H: When I started doing solo gigs, there were just a couple places to play. I’d maybe get $100 at the end of the night, maybe not. Then some of the hotels started having music; they could pay better because they were hotels. Because they set the standard, the artists started demanding a little bit more.
M: You’re really good at that, Halladay. I respect that you were able to say, “No, I’m worth more than that, I’m not going to take that gig.”
H: My dad got a hundred bucks! In the ’70s! So it’s like, “Come on guys, that’s not going to work
M: You’re doing a good thing for other artists too. Places realize, “Okay, if I want to get that act, I have to pay a certain amount.” If Halladay was always playing for $50 and dinner, they’d be like, “Why would I pay Mike more if I can get Halladay for 50 bucks and dinner?”
Mike and Halladay see the local music scene continuing on its strong upward trajectory, fueled by the local audiences and a uniquely supportive community of musicians.
M: We are a tiny little town, but I have massive respect for the other foundational musicians of this community. There are incredible original artists who write their own songs, make albums, play shows. I feel really honored to be a part of it.
H: I feel very honored too. I feel like we’ve decided as a community to make this together, the business owners and the artists that are deciding to continue that journey, to strive for excellence. That’s really cool. It makes this a special place where we can enjoy music and work together to make our own little thing here in the mountains.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Halladay Quist & Mike Murray performing at the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival
Photo by: Mike Rossmann
BY ANDREW KROP
PART THREE: WHEN THE BIG SKY AND THE BIG APPLE COLLIDE
The abrupt shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic left artists with canceled gigs, zero income, and no end in sight. But while many were busy feeding sourdough starters or binging “Tiger King,” singer-songwriters Nick Spear and Susan O’Dea developed Big Sky City Lights, an Americana folk music duo whose name acknowledges the 2,400 miles of distance they bridged between Nick’s home in Whitefish and Susan’s in New York City.
The two first met back in 2012 when Susan came to the valley to perform with Alpine Theatre Project in the punk rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which Nick directed.
“Toward the end of the run, Nick and I started going back and forth about artists that we loved and songs that we loved,” Susan remembered. “That’s when we realized that we had a similar aesthetic, musically, and similar love for sounds.”
As Susan returned to Whitefish for various theater projects over the years, their friendship deepened. In 2016, Nick asked her to record some backup vocals on his solo album; recording together became part of her annual Montana routine.
When the pandemic hit, Susan reached out to Nick. They made a cover video of “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls, Nick recording in his closet studio and Susan in her bathtub, sending files back and forth until they liked what they had. Their YouTube audience liked it too, and asked for more. They started producing a weekly offering that their stuck-at-home audience could count on each Friday.
After several videos, Nick told Susan, “Listen, I play cover songs all the time in several other projects I do, and I would rather write some original music.”
They started collaborating remotely, then Susan returned to Whitefish in July 2020 to teach at Alpine Theater Project’s kids’ performance camp, which sparked their creative energy.
“I tend to be a person with anxiety, and anxiety doesn’t always spark creativity,” Susan said. “New York City is so loud and boisterous and full of movement and motion, and it’s just a lot coming at you at once.”
Montana helped her feel like she could breathe again. “The peace and the stillness of hiking up a mountain and feeling the breeze through the trees and having that be the only sound I hear helps me clear my mind, and it helps me be more creative. Some of my best work I think I’ve ever done has been in Montana,” she said.
They harnessed the dichotomy of spaciousness and intimacy that exists here and wove it through their music, creating an album with a soaring dreamlike spirituality in its stillness.
She and Nick met every afternoon, working on lyrics and melodies among the pines and peaks. What was only supposed to be a summer away from the city turned into an extended stay in the Flathead as they wrote and recorded their first album, “Wake Me When We Get There.” They harnessed the dichotomy of spaciousness and intimacy that exists here and wove it through their music, creating an album with a soaring dreamlike spirituality in its stillness.
“The album had a mood and it had a vibe, and all we had to do was just honor what it wanted to do,” Nick explained. “And then, you know, mindfully correct it when we felt like maybe the songs were going off the road a little bit.”
“It was like watching a beautiful garden bloom,” Susan added.
Soon after the album’s release, Big Sky City Lights had the breakthrough opportunity to perform at the Under the Big Sky music festival.
“Look, Montana being Montana, I buy ground beef from Johnny Shockey, who puts on the festival, and I asked him if we could play it, and he said yeah,” Nick explained. “It was honestly just really flattering and awesome that they wanted us to be a part of the show.”
The festival was a launchpad that led to gigs all over the state and national attention from Good Morning America after a producer’s partner saw them performing at Tupelo.
“Good Morning America had a team going out to every state. They were doing ‘silver lining stories’ of the pandemic, and they wanted us to be a part of the Montana story,” Susan said. “We played for them and it was just an awesome experience.”
That segment led to a Big Sky City Lights iHeart Radio channel and airtime on the network’s east coast radio stations, as well as an invitation to the Red Lodge Songwriter Festival this past June and the Sisters Folk Festival in Sisters, Oregon.
“We had so many people come up to us saying we were their favorite thing they saw there,” Nick said about the Sisters festival, “which is amazing because there were amazing songwriters and musicians with full-on bands, and we’re just the two of us.”
“To be seen on that level and to have people respond to us is very validating,” Susan said. “It’s definitely motivating and encouraging to have so many people respond to it, and it’s always kept us going since the very beginning. I’ve always said this: we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the response that we got from that first video that we released.”
As the country returned to some semblance of normalcy, Big Sky City Lights went back to its remote-working roots. Susan flew home to New York, where she got married in October. As the sun rises over the city, she sings Fleetwood Mac—“I climbed a mountain and I turned around. . .”—from her apartment fire escape overlooking Central Park. Later she’ll take the train to midtown Manhattan for rehearsals or auditions, but this is her morning ritual, her sanctuary, singing as the light washes over her in meditation.
Thousands of miles away in Whitefish, Nick sits in his closet studio researching mid-century jazz standards and recovering from a late-night gig playing at The Great Northern with his ’80s tribute band, the New Wave Time Trippers. It’s a weekday, so he’ll need to drop his daughter off at school before heading to Flathead Valley Community College to teach Shakespeare.
Until the next opportunity presents itself—a stint in Nashville or an East Coast tour are both possibilities—Nick and Susan find themselves once again split into Big Sky and City Lights.
Big Sky City Lights performing in front of thousands of fans at Under the Big Sky Festival.
Photo by: William Munoz
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