Louie Bond, a speedy and lyrical guitar player, just turned 70. He's been gigging since he was a teenager, a feat that makes him feel lucky, with no small credit to his friends and collaborators.
He can sing, too, and could play solo if he wanted, but he prefers bands like the ones where he cut his teeth here in Missoula.
"There's an osmosis thing that happens with musicians. You don't necessarily have to take a lesson to pick up something from a great player. In the '70s and '80s in Missoula in the house bands, we had a lot of players that were just world-class," he said.
Bond's main gigs now are a duo with vocalist Kimberlee Carlson, playing jazz, swing and country; and Western Union, a Texas swing combo with members of the Big Sky Mudflaps.
He also heads to Yuma, Arizona, once a year now to play.
Down there, he got to meet one of his heroes, the late Nokie Edwards, guitar player for the Ventures, and play with him a bit. He met a friend, Chris Beuhler, who makes guitars. He sold Bond one, and gave him another as an early Christmas gift. They both have a tone that's distinct from the big two manufacturers, a feature that's important to Bond as much as their unique design.
"That's better to me than a Gibson or Fender endorsement. This is one of a kind, there's no other guitar like it," he said.
Carlson, his collaborator and friend, said he has a "very connected, lyrical way of playing that is just mesmerizing." He can play hard or fast when he likes, and is a thoughtful accompanist. Carlson, who worked in Hollywood before moving to Missoula and has met her share of creative people, said music is more about choices than technical ability.
"He strings together a musical conversation that calls to people," she said. She thinks he has a haunting and enticing quality to his playing that can command attention even if he's playing in a noisy bar.
Bond, who was born in Miami, Oklahoma, started in music early. In fourth grade, his teacher brought up key signatures, and he went home and started making his own scale charts. He snuck into unlocked churches to play piano.
"I'd go in and practice on piano and figure it out," he said. "My parents found out I was doing that, and they bought a piano." It was a dusty $20 model, gathering dust in a garage, with missing keys. They found some money inside it. "So it was a $10 piano."
His dad signed him up for guitar lessons when he was 16, and he took to the instrument quickly. His teacher was Charlie Norris, a respected steel guitarist who went on to found the Texas Steel Guitar Association.
Part of his style comes from learning from a steel guitarist, and trying to imitate the evocative, floating sound of the instrument.
"There's something about that steel guitar thing that is imprinted on me because of that. It's just all about sounding pretty," he said.
Within a year, he was playing in his band, and another rock group with Norris' son, Chuck.
"We played at a bar out in the hills where there was no law. It was moonshine country. And no one was checking if there was underage musicians in there," he said.
He enlisted in the Navy, since he didn't want to be in the jungles of Vietnam. He got a second-chair position on guitar and played in Navy bands. After he was done, his teacher Charlie had moved to Mesquite, Texas, and opened a music store. He had a job open, so Bond moved down there.
Through the store, Bond naturally met musicians. He originally thought he'd become a session player for rock and country. The atmosphere in the studio during a paid gig wasn't for him, though. ("I record well when I've got my hand on the on-off switch," he said.)
In January of 1974, he came through Missoula to play. He liked it enough in winter that he came back.
"I was so lucky, I just fell into this place. I had no plans, and within a week I had a $65 a month apartment in Milltown and I had four nights' work with a band within a week of being here," he said.
In Missoula, Bond got plugged into the house band circuit, where a handful of bars booked live music up to seven nights a week.
"If you could make $300, $400 a week playing 25, 30 hours a week, it was a really good job. It kept bands together," he said. They got tight, too, he said. They might learn a song on Tuesday and by the weekend have it down cold for the bigger crowds.
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Typically the gigs ran from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., with a repertoire of traditionals and radio hits.
"You'd learn two or three new songs a week, and in a year you had over a hundred new songs off the radio," he said. Those might make up 75% of the set. The rest was where a band could put their own stamp.
"Part of the individual personality of a band was what they did outside of that. This one band over here might be doing some Commodores and some more R&B kind of stuff," he said.
Not only did they pay well, they were consistent, giving them free time for other pursuits in addition to the rehearsals and coming up with their own arrangements.
One of his long-running groups was the Country Boogie Boys, with guitarist Dave Knight, that later became Haywire. They had a gig for five years straight at the Brass Rail in Hamilton.
He calls the house gig scene a "university or music school" that imparted "bandstand savvy" that no amount of online lessons, guitar magazines or videos can give you.
Sometimes, a touring star would come through town and hire a house band. Bond got to back up Bobby Bare ("Detroit City") at what's now the Sunrise Saloon. They surprised him by accompanying him on a few tunes that weren't on the list he'd sent them.
He told them, "'You know what? I coulda saved me a lot of money.' He said I got a band coming from Nashville to back me in Idaho next week, he said, I woulda took these guys," Bond said.
"Memories like that, you don't necessarily get a Grammy or anything like that, but they're good," he said.
The house band scene declined by the 1990s. Drunken-driving patrols contributed, too. Bond said gambling played a factor: small bars could make money off low-stakes machines. Other bars went for DJs and karaoke. He was against the latter at first, but now sees the fun in it. When they were on the road, they'd hit up a karaoke bar to sing a few songs and plug their gig. He appreciates what DJs do, too, after working sound at the Top Hat for them.
After the house gigs went away, Bond spent some stints outside of Missoula. He played in Nashville and Georgia. He picked up other jobs when need be, but for the most part has been a full-time musician for 50 years.
Carlson, his collaborator and friend, said Bond could easily have done something else, but "sacrificed a stable career many times just to keep on playing," going all the way back to his Navy days.
"It's almost like he doesn't have a choice about it," she said. "He just lives and breathes music more than anyone I ever met."
The city, too, has had a gravitational pull on him.
"The beauty of Missoula just speaks to you. There's just a pool of talent here that's kind of rare," Bond said.
Bond rattles off names of guitar players he admires, like DR Halsell, Ron Meissner, David Horgan.
Ron Wise and the late Ray Riggs. Of the latter, he said, "I never took lessons from him, but just to hear the guy play, he'd make you a better guitar player."
He met Carlson at an open mic and not longer after they won a talent contest in Hot Springs. He started picking up jazz progressions for their duo, which has had a summer gig on Fridays and Saturdays at the River's Edge in Alberton for years now.
Through the Jazzoula festival, they met David Horgan and Beth Lo of the Mudflaps. They talked about the similarities between Western swing and jazz, and formed Western Union.
He talks about playing live in a philosophical way, particularly when a group of players click together and all apply their "whole nervous system" to the act.
"It's like you tune your awareness into the other players and everything going on and you respond to that intuitively in a way that you find parts that are going to be musical and sweet and work with everything else going on," he said.
"It might not be sweet, it might be funky or rocking or whatever, but it's still that listening. I would say listening, the willpower it takes to train yourself to listen, it's not just ears. It's your brain, your heart, your soul. It's like wanting, wanting to merge with everything going on around you in a band. It's a spiritual thing in that sense," he said.