(Published in The Butte Weekly)
I sometimes joke that I sing for free, and folks pay me to lug my equipment around, set it up, and tune my guitars. Such is the life of a wandering minstrel. I’ll know I’ve made it when I can hire people to help me with all that. Until then, I pack up my gear, take the scenic route to gigs, set it all up, perform, break it all down, pack up, drive home, and wait for a call to come back and do it all again. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a couple hundred bucks in my pockets at the end of the day, and some new friends and memories.
But, there are places in this amazing state of ours where the labor is less than necessary drudgery. Sometimes I get a call to drive to what I consider to be a kind of Montana Shangri La at the base of the Beartooth Mountains, fittingly known as the Gateway to the Paradise Valley--Livingston, Montana.
In earlier writings, I’ve described Butte and the surrounding area as a vortex, that is, a place where energies meet and mix and result in novel creations and experiences. Livingston, Montana has long been such a place.
In Livingston, the mighty Yellowstone River sweeps around and through the town, it’s fluid-energy is audible as it mixes and mingles with the infamous katabatics that move like so many windy rivers down the steep faces of Montana’s highest Mountains. Livingston is a strange attractor of interesting people who sometimes find themselves caught in the vortexual eddies formed of wind and water. And so they stay and make life and love in this place in space and time.
One of my best friends, Kelly John Dick, has called Livingston home for nearly 20 years. Lovingly known as Mr. Dick to a generation of former students, he’s taught a talented cadre of Park County youth poetry, literature, English, and Psychology. Mr. Dick is a gentle soul, known to his fun-loving and tough-as-nails family as “the human” because of his curious outlook and humane engagement of the world. He student taught in Ireland, was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to live and teach in Bulgaria, spent time perfecting his art and science at Ivy League schools, and always brought his experiences back to Livingston, Montana. He is a poet who looks like Kimbo Slice and walks gently upon the earth like Thich Nat Han. I’m proud to call him friend. It is with the human that I stay while in Livingston trying to catch ride on the winds and waters.
The list of celebrities who call Livingston home is long. They choose this place because they can slip into the scene without a lot of stargazing adoration. The people of Livingston are solid, like us. They are working class folks who, by virtue of the strange experiences that occur here, are oddly cultured and open to newness and novelty. This is what I seek in small towns--open minds. It’s not always the case.
In Livingston, I’ve danced with my love on the banks of the Yellowstone listening to Holly Williams, whispering every lyric, eyes wide open and ecstatic. Here, too, I’ve danced with my baby girl, walked the river trails, and played in Sacajawea Park as gentler winds washed our cares away. I’ve listened to Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill. John Mayer even stopped into the Murray Bar while Chad Ball, Logan Dudding, and I made noise as the afterparty band during the Livingston Hoot.
Montana is a small city with long roads. If you get a chance, stop the next time you’re passing through, grab a craft beer and some sushi at Neptune’s, or snag a table and watch the world pass by down the main street at the Katabatic Brewing Company and take in the sounds of Ashly Holland or Hawthorne Roots. When the breweries close, walk a block to The Murray Bar, a place where every good Butte and Anacondan will feel right at home. Eat dinner at Gills, next door. Listen to Kalyn Beasley or Ian Thomas or our own Heather Lingle as they sing heartfelt songs to sophisticated and appreciative crowds. Breathe in the spirit of this Montana Shangri La, and exhale and contribute your words and breath to this drinky little town with a wind problem.
Livingston by Ben Bullington captures some of the spirit of this town. Give a listen.