Caroline Keys somewhat jokingly says her dream job would be as a backup singer.
The longtime Missoula musician likes finding a space in the music where she doesn't step on anyone's toes.
"It's just fun to figure out what those spots are, where you can just be like ice cream and melt into the cracks," she said.
It's so much fun that you can find the Sussex School music teacher in more bands than you can keep track of: The Shiveries, a chamber-folk group; Glass Spiders, a David Bowie tribute band; Joey Running Crane and the Dirty Birds, a punk-informed country act; The Best Westerns, a shambling country-rock group.
Not that she doesn't write – she publishes poetry and pens her own songs.
You can find the latter in her group Stellarondo, where she does the writing and singing, and plays a small luthier banjo with a Saturn inlay on the pegboard.
In Scrapyard Lullaby, she plays with Nate Biehl and Jeff Turman, who also sing and trade off on bass, guitar and the occasional other instrument.
The name, which Biehl took from a Chris Whitley song, suits the group, she said.
"It's a container for all these songs that don't fit anywhere else," she said.
Sometimes they play tunes that read as country or folk. Sometimes they harmonize like an old-time band, but with drum machines and guitar pedals and keyboards, or she runs her banjo through a delay pedal and a tube amp.
Biehl, who's worked with Keys since 2002, said "Caroline is a really great combination of natural talent and dead-on intuition and somebody who's really thoughtful and consider of their work."
She can contribute something on the fly, he said, or given time, make "fantastic things that are really layered."
How does she keep all those songs straight?
Bandmates have told her, "Your memory is really abnormal," she said.
"And yeah, once something's in there, I usually don't forget it. A blessing and a curse," she said.
Keys grew up mostly in North Carolina and Virginia, raised by parents who loved music.
"They danced in the kitchen every night to 'The Big Chill' soundtrack," she said.
Her dad was always making mix tapes from his vinyl collection, and even after she'd left the house, he'd introduce her to artists like Gillian Welch.
It was in Virginia that her father, an Episcopal clergyman, got his own church. And he wanted a children's choir that sang every Sunday – not just the holidays.
And so Keys has been singing in some capacity from fourth grade on, the vocal instrument being the one she stuck with most.
"Even with all the instruments that my parents wished I played and that I took up and quit, choir was always something I said, 'OK, I'm doing this,' " she said.
Like many young people, she came to the state for a summer job in Glacier National Park.
She ended up working at Many Glacier as a boat captain for many a summer after the first in 1998.
She studied English and creative writing for her bachelor's degree, and creative writing for her MFA, both from the University of Montana.
After finishing her MFA, she tried doing the things a burgeoning writer is supposed to do, including a gig as a submissions reader for a literary magazine.
"I was writing and submitting, writing and submitting, and I was so bored and lonely," she said with a laugh.
And she thought, "Wait a second, 'People already want to pay me to play music.' Why am I sitting in this basement with my head in my hands?" she said.
She still writes poetry, though, and she finds her English background is inseparable from music.
Her motto is "I love words, but no matter how I arrange and rearrange the 26 letters of the alphabet, I cannot get them to tell the whole story. That's where the music comes in."
Biehl said "there's a massive density to her lyrics, and there's few things that are there randomly."
He points to her song "New Gorge River Bridge Blues." It's about a wedding, and being left at the altar, but it has an underlying metaphor about what it's like to grow into an adult, he said.
"Every word in that song counts, and most of them count more than once," he said.
She sometimes uses the N-plus-7 process, an algorithmic technique wherein the author replaces key nouns with the one found seven entries later in the dictionary, and then refines the results into a tune she's happy with.
"It's like a painter standing and looking at it from all sides of the room," Biehl said.
In 2002, she joined Broken Valley Roadshow, a bluegrass band that was ubiquitous around Missoula during its time, and the band she first started working with Biehl in.
"In a way, we learned how to entertain together," Biehl said, and saw they could both read a crowd and use that skill to improvise and make a performance an adventure.
Broken Valley did some cross-country touring, and went up to Canada and also to China.
They backed a folk musician named Chairman George at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where he was the subject of a film, and acted as his local tour guide.
"We made friends with him and kind of adopted him that weekend, and he wouldn't leave us alone until we applied to this festival in China," she said.
They were accepted, flown over and put up in a hotel for two weeks for the 2007 Nanning International Folk Song Arts Festival.
They were the only group from North America there, and spent the time playing with musicians with whom they had no common language.
They also played for their own material for stadium-sized crowds. (One tune can be found on YouTube.)
Keys has accumulated many such unusual stories about gigs – like the time last summer her parked car got totaled while she was playing on the Hi-Line.
"A semitrailer hit five cars going down Second Street and ran over my car and dragged it across the Providence parking lot," she said.
Some time later, she got a call about a gig.
"He said, 'Do you play the banjo?' I said 'Yeah.' 'I found your business card in a tree outside of the Providence Center and I need a banjo player,' " she said.
Unfortunately, she was heading out of town the day of the show, and couldn't make it.
Broken Valley never really broke up, but eventually gave way to other collaborations.
"That was my first band relationship, and probably my only monogamous one," she said.
In 2010, Keys took the RPM Challenge, wherein musicians across the country sign up and write and record an album in a single month.
The musicians she worked with decided to form a band, called Stellarondo, that's been described as "astral folk." Besides their first self-titled record, they provided musical backing for the short stories of an acclaimed author for "Rick Bass and Stellarondo," in 2012. They're planning another collaboration down the line, and
Like any musician, she's considered moving to a bigger city.
"I've thought for a little bit about moving to Portland. I felt like there was a time when I thought maybe it had something to offer," she said.
But she said Missoula is a "sweet spot, sizewise," where collaborations come naturally and opportunities present themselves frequently.
Sometimes she invents them, like the popular Family Friendly Friday event at the Top Hat the she came up with.
To get outside the bubble, she applies to residencies at places like the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where she spent a month this winter recording demos for another album.
"I'm meet French installation artists and musicians from Argentina, and both feel this connection to the outside world and make me appreciate what all is going on around me in Missoula," she said.
"We work hard around here," she said, and she can "bring all that new knowledge and inspiration back."
And all those gigs, and her job teaching at Sussex School and her work in Arlee as a poet in residence, feed back into her own writing, she said, once she sits down to make that record of her own.