Izaak Opatz jokes that he wrote and lost his best songs on the trail.
Ideas would occur to the 29-year-old Whitefish native as he worked on trail crews in Glacier National Park's backcountry the past 10 years.
"I came up with a lot of melodies and whistled a lot of songs that I thought were going to be awesome and then lost 'em. I didn't have an iPhone or any way to record them," he said.
The ones he's written in the off-season, though, have proven memorable to others.
With his country-rock band, the Best Westerns, he's earned a following among both rock and roots fans, playing everything from bars in small towns like Coram to a gig at the Wilma. Where they often had the energy of a party band, his new solo album, "Mariachi Static," foregrounds the words and vocals, courtesy of an L.A. collaborator.
Opatz's tunes, lovelorn songs with evenly paced melodies and surprising twists, sound as they did with the Best Westerns. Producer Malachi DeLorenzo's playing and production adds a brighter feel, friendlier to indie-pop without straying too far from Opatz's roots.
"It was a new take on my songs," he said. DeLorenzo helped set the momentum, and ensure that the arrangements gradually evolved over the course of the tune.
"Arm's Length Away," a tune about being grateful there's no way to reach out to an ex, is one he's particularly proud of, one that he could see something else covering.
The melody reads as folk, but the Wurlitzer adds an inflection of old R&B or spirituals. He lays out plain-spoken lyrics of disconnection with a quiet resignation appropriate to the song's 2 a.m. setting:
"Oh thank God, the internet's down,
I get home from the bar,
I was gonna send you an email,
About making a brand new start,
I guess I'll drag it to the trash instead,
Where it can't do any harm
Oh thank God, the internet's down,
I get home from the bar."
Some of the songs on "Mariachi" date back several years and will be familiar to anyone who's caught a Best Westerns set. Others were written as he camped in the Mojave Desert on his way back to Los Angeles, his current home base, roughly completing one a day for four days straight.
He recorded the 10-song album on a four-track with DeLorenzo, a drummer for country songwriter Jonny Fritz, at DeLorenzo's home studio in L.A. Opatz played rhythm guitar and a little lead, plus Wurlitzer keyboard and harmony vocals. DeLorenzo played the rest: drums, bass, percussion, plus background vocals and harmonies. During one session, a guitar pedal was picking up a Spanish radio station, hence the title. The two sound like a full band, particularly on "Pilot Light" and "Read Between Your Lines," the latter of which has a tricky guitar-keyboard line that stair-steps and swings through an ascending arpeggio.
Opatz likes to say he was "born in a little blue hut by Whitefish Lake on a couch." he said. "That's what I always used to tell people. I was so proud of it when I was a kid."
It was a home-birth at a modest house above City Beach. His parents, then in their 20s, were out-of-staters who met during a summer they both worked in Glacier National Park. Opatz said he'd always hoped the same would happen to him.
He started playing and writing with a friend for fun in high school. He learned simple bluegrass chords and runs on guitar. It's not too obvious to others, but he can still hear that rhythm in the way he writes and plays guitar. "I can't get the' boom-chick' out of my head when I play the guitar," he said.
He came to Missoula to study English, and ended up with a double major in creative writing and forestry.
He's spent the last 10 seasons working trail crew in Glacier, heading into the backcountry for up to 10 days at a time to clear trail and repair bridges and retaining walls.
"It's like summer camp. It's the best job in the world," he said.
It's not much for writing, though. He said he often feels like he came up with his best songs out there but didn't have any means to record them. The season generally runs from May to October, so it does afford seven months to spend on music.
He said they're largely autobiographical and can't even really be considered abstractions from his own experiences, only embellishments.
"I don't think I could ever get away with taking that position at all to anybody who's ever had a song of mine," he said.
He likes both the expectations of a country song, and the way audiences respond to variations on a trope.
Around 2011, Opatz formed the Best Westerns, the main vehicle for his songwriting since.
They've recorded two albums, one never officially released, and one they put out on vinyl, 2014's "High Country."
The band members are now scattered across Montana and play when they can, often in Missoula or in small towns near Glacier.
Several years ago, Opatz got in touch in Jonny Fritz, a Nashville songwriter who was born in Missoula, and the two became friends and have toured in Montana.
Both he and Fritz share an affinity for the traditions of country songwriting, but can't help but embellish with their own contemporary quirks. Opatz moved to Tennessee in the off-season, and has spent time the past two years in L.A., where Fritz made his new home base.
Last year, Fritz released an album, "Sweet Creep," produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket. It got positive reviews on Rolling Stone Country. AllMusic's reviewer called him a "first-rate songwriter."
Fritz said he looks up to Opatz as a craftsman, particularly the way he spends a long time refining a song.
"I can see him sitting on a mountain somewhere with a pot of boiling coffee bubbling over a campfire and stroking his chin," Fritz said in a phone interview. "When the song is finished, it's impossible to improve upon any of his lines."
They sound natural, playful and not too serious, he said. A particular favorite of Fritz's, which he sang from memory, is "Limited Liability." Over a bed of vintage '70s minor-key Wurlitzer chords, Opatz makes up a word in the midst of a come-on:
"She gave me love/under the table,
I was hard-pressed into thinking straight,
I been so long/dreaming of her ankles,
unsocked and locked across the back of my waist."
There's also the appeal of normal life and plain language.
The album opener, "Got to Me Since," has the sort of bright, casual melody that feels as though he's making it up on the spot. Like so many of his songs, it's about a relationship that went south:
"I wouldn't do this if it could be helped,
I'd rather never see you again,
I miss loving someone an' you're the only one,
who's ever really had my heart in your hands,
And no one's really got to me since."
Asked whether the trail-crew job has influenced his work, Opatz said, "Only in the subject matter is about relationships that didn't work out as a result of living in remote or temporary places. And being emotionally immature and whatever," he tagged on with a laugh. He guesses the longest he's stayed in one place in the last 10 years was a nine-month stint in Nashville three years ago.
He recorded "Mariachi" as a solo album in part because he was in L.A. at the time, and partly because he wanted something to promote himself.
He's not going back to the trail crew this summer in order the push the album. In March, he's playing Treefort, the indie-rock festival in Boise, and is looking for more gigs through the year.
"I'll just keep writing songs, recording them. One way or another," he said.