A Retrospective of Music Culture in Billings, Montana

As I drop down Interstate 90 into the river valley that holds the “Magic City,” I swear: I won’t ever live in Billings, Montana.

The sun glints off a sprawling refinery that dominates the city’s eastern entrance. A sickly sweet smell smacks my face, making my teeth ache and my stomach curl. They’re processing sugar beets on the south side.

Somewhere in this landlocked dustbowl are 100,000 people sprawling west along the Yellowstone River, which winds across the city’s southern belly. Yet all I see as I enter the city are neon signs shouting “liquor” and “casino” amongst the transients curled in doorways. Downtown morphs from a gritty scene to a workingman’s paradise. Bank buildings dominate the landscape and hospitals stretch across the land like arteries, overtaking historic neighborhoods in the city’s core.

Surely this “magic” city has been misnamed.

I’m like many other Wyoming residents—I’ve come for the shopping and lack of sales tax. With my car stocked and the refineries in my rearview mirror, I’m confident. I will never live in Billings, Montana.

Yet in the months that follow, as I plow my way through the doldrums of living in a small Wyoming town without much opportunity, Billings beckons me. It’s small enough for a small town girl to feel at home, yet big enough and far enough away from Wyoming to feel like something progressive could actually happen.

I find myself dropping back into the city in which I swore I’d never reside with a U-Haul full of my belongings. I figure my journalism degree and background in newspaper and photography work will land me a dream job as a reporter or photographer at the largest newspaper in the state, The Billings Gazette. Seven interviews for seven different positions later, I’m in the least glamorous position possible: night-side paginator.

Once again, I question the “magic.”

Yellowstone River from the top of Pompey’s Pillar looking west. MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

It was through the explorations of W. Milnor Roberts, a chief engineer for the Northern Pacific Railroad, that Billings came to be. As Roberts and his crew rode toward the site of present-day Billings, Roberts observed: “We have passed through the finest valley by far that I have seen in Montana” (Lubetkin 2002). Railroad financier Frederick H. Billings founded the city in 1882 and it quickly became a booming railroad town, hence the “Magic City” nickname. From its speedy beginnings, Billings has continued to boom, reaching a population milestone of 100,000 residents in 2006—the only city in Montana to do so (Kemmick 2006). I figure with all these sprawling urbanites, there must be some culturally enlightened folks. Even in Casper, the small Wyoming town where I grew up, there were pockets of culture—small clubs where the sweatiest punk rock music you could imagine rolled through town.

My life has always centered on music, from the early years of sneaking listens to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (my mother found it inappropriate music for children; my father was thrilled I took an interest in music of his generation) to my symphonic music pursuits to my teenage days of foul-mouthed punk rock. I was a symphony in the flautist by day, an elbow thrower in the mosh pits by night, attending concerts in divvy warehouse venues in Casper. When I started college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie I dropped the flute and picked up the bass when I formed a band with my roommate. I screamed, she sang and played guitar. All our songs were three chords. Our favorite compliment: we were a “cuter Bikini Kill” (Besides Green Day, which my roommate listened to incessantly, Kathleen Hanna and her Riot Grrrl movement was our inspiration).

Eighthundred Reasons

In the tiny town of Laramie, Wyoming, we fought to bring musicians through town. This was the late 90s and the early 2000s, when the Internet was just developing into a tool for traveling bands. Musicians still relied heavily on word-of-mouth and moved from city to city based on the good word of other traveling bands. Details in publications such as Book Your Own Fucking Life let this traveling network know where there would be food and gas money.

In Laramie, we handmade flyers for shows and taped them to poles. We held concerts in garages that the police shut down and in warehouses that the fire department condemned. Bands slept on our floor, and we fed them ramen noodles and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon until the sun came up. It was during this time that I worked as entertainment editor for the college newspaper while pursuing my journalism degree.

Music was everywhere; music was my life.

Sarah Stoli and her Beers.

The shift out of college into working life was a shock for me. My roommate formed another band—Stoli and the Beers; I went to intern at a newspaper in Sheridan, Wyoming. She toured the country in a van with smelly boys; I worked just about every day of the week as the paper’s only photographer for a disgustingly small salary. I’d be ambulance chasing one minute, photographing high school football the next. I was even sent to an accident outside of town involving a cow. Within the six-month mark I felt that I knew everyone in town, or at least everyone knew me. The chemistry in Sheridan was strange. It was a small western town that attracted rich residents who built sprawling McMansions for vacation homes, yet it was a poor city in many aspects without well-paying job opportunities. Poverty was high, drugs were easy to find, and life was tough if you weren’t independently wealthy.

Though I left Wyoming for opportunity (and to get the hell out of Sheridan), in Billings I begin to feel disconnected from music. I’m building ads and classified sections, and there is not a smidge of writing or photography opportunities in sight. Night after night, paper after paper, and I was stagnant.

I was withering away in this “magic” city.

Conor Oberst, Billings Shrine Auditorium, 2008. Casey Riffe/Billings Gazette photo

So begins my musical quest. I take a review of a Bright Eyes album to the entertainment section’s editor, and he likes it. He asks if I’ve got more. I start writing album reviews, requesting advanced copies of my favorite artists. Suddenly pagination has meaning, as it led me to my savior—published articles with my byline.

I learn to overlook the oil fields flanking the city’s east and west entrances for the sandstone rimrocks that surround the northern edge of the city. The smell of burning sugar beets becomes the sweet fragrance of home and the deafening rumble of bike gangs a sweet reminder that summer is near. I smile at the homeless and ignore the casinos. I’m not even upset when our gas prices are high—despite the fact that we produce and export the stuff! I treasure spring rain when it comes for the smell it leaves on dirty asphalt, and I cherish the fires of a Montana sunset after a blistering summer day that make a cold microbrew taste better than I could have imagined.

Rim walking.

A few years in the “Magic City” and I begin to take note of the sweet and welcoming sounds of bluegrass drifting out open doors in the summertime. I start gathering with collections of musicians on patios at downtown locales—the upright bass providing a beacon and reassurance that music is not far. At the local alehouses where brews are handcrafted, I’m sure to hear music pouring from doors amid the din of Montana Avenue traffic. Open mic jams also provide me reassurance that live music in Billings is a constant pursuit—each open mic revealing yet another budding talent. As temperatures steadily drop, inside the tiniest tavern a band will be set up in the corner, rolling through a sweaty set of jazz grooves and demonstrating they could care less about the weather.

I’ve been given access to music in a new and exciting way. I have countless moments of musical intensity, festivity, and joy. The musicians of Billings show me that the term “family” is broader than the intended definition. They support and mentor one another, often sharing instruments and the stage. The musical families in town rear their youth in a culture that has inspired the youngest amongst us to pick up guitars, take their voices to the stage, and start their own bands. I’m in through the backdoor, the one that reveals what happens behind the scenes. I spend time with local musicians, prodding them for their stories, finding the angle that will propel readers to come to their shows. I interview traveling bands via phone, working up previews to entice readers to come to the concerts. This time the venues are legal, yet the crowds are small, the musicians are poor, and it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what concerts will pack the house and what concerts will leave the promoter holding the bag.

In conversations, I gather that no one really knows why they stay in Billings. The city has always been perceived to be the “butt hole” of Montana, as a friend and local musician Ron Schuster once told me. To outsiders, our music isn’t cool enough, our restaurants aren’t hip enough, our people aren’t liberal enough, our concerts are the leftovers from other big markets—yet this is a false perception. Billings is what we continue to make of it.

Located on a rolling prairie 600 miles from any city of substantial size, Billings is isolated, shut off from the trends and cultures that sweep big cities. Those of us that value cultural qualities in our town continue to fight for them—even if it appears outwardly that the town’s residents don’t support it. In the coming years Billings could be the city we imagine it to be… the western hub, the must-stop location for bands and artists that we currently drive hundreds of miles to see…

Billings isolation may be the key to its magical properties, as the music that evolves here is distinctly original, inspired, and created from a sense of urgency. Billings is a big city with a small town mentality, yet it’s on the cusp of greatness. I just feel it. Those of us who choose to stay fight for a cultural scene that this city can’t create on its own. That’s why I stay. I want to be part of the story, not just read about it someday.

Magic City Music Awards, 2012

Quitting

Last cigarette. Promise.

A piece I wrote while quitting smoking. Read at Montana Slam, February 2012.

I’ve been smoking for 15 years. I’ve quit so many times you’d think I’d be good at it. You must know the blackness of my insides, the reasons I loathe such a habit.

But cigarettes are like men in my life. I crave them. I consume them. I leave them only to return to them again.

I live for them, yet I die a little every day for them.

Today is day 1 of my last pack. It’s cigarette 20 of 20. It’s delightful. They all are, especially this one as it carries the weight of finality.

Now it’s day 1 of no cigarettes. Morning reminds me why I‘m quitting, the rasp of a smoker’s cough rattling through my insides. My skin—defined by chemicals.

By afternoon it seems lonely without a cigarette to visit. 4:45 p.m. is skin crawling, programs dragging, computer crashing, crazy woman emerging. A stop to the grocery store after work is maddening. People dive across my path, small children are screaming underfoot. I am lost between butter and blocks of cheese.

Clocks tick every moment that I have existed in this day without nicotine, and I fail.

Pack 1. Cigarette 1. The lighter spurts and the smoke rises. I drag deeply, that lost friend waiting like cancer and I know better and I just don’t care.

Heartbeat slows, blood stops buzzing, pulse quiets, barking dogs become just barking dogs and this is the best moment of calm I could ever buy.

Dropping the cigarette’s end to the cement, I am not guilty. I feel empowered, satisfied. I light a second cigarette. Its pull is subtle now, like waking up with a familiar lover. I feel the blood lingering in my veins, decaying with each inhalation. I hear autumn approach with subtle humor, twitch my toes against the cooling cement.

Today is day one of my last pack. It’s cigarette 3 of 20. It’s delightful.

For reading opportunities, visit Montana Slam online.

The passing loss of lonely

You’re just like a dream

There seems to be no ice cream as sweet, no cocktail as strong, no Mexican wrestling-themed restaurant as kitschy as in Seattle. It’s a city filled with irony and urban decay, cupcake shops and anchor tattoos. Record stores are on every corner, pulling audiophiles from the streets with the smell of vinyl records left alone in muggy basements 15 years too long. In every coffee shop the Pixies blast on repeat, a reminder that music can be simple and delightful and just truly good. Seattle is laced fingers and dirty socks, heartbeats and tiptoes, whispers in the rain.

I exit the city amongst surly passengers and seatbelt signs, drenched in salt from the sea and covered in strange bruises. My toes are soggy; my tummy is full. Happiness is a bag of Dicks—Seattle’s famously cheap cheeseburgers. The dim sum and piroshkies, pinball and flaming cocktails are long gone. A restless city ebbs in my bones yet the bustle of Seattle’s streets is not echoed at home; no gutter punks or salty sailors cross my path.

In measured days, Seattle dissolves from my consciousness like sea salts in bathwater, lingering unseen. Its death is slow in my memory, like tulips mourning spring—their heads hung, their petals dry—drifting across summer winds. In the stench of time that unfolds, I hear the echoes in my silo, feel the wind at my opening, discover a scared girl behind a wall of graying skin.

I’m quite certain one does not stumble upon redemption, or find it like a lost dog. It must be earned. And love? Products of timing, do we stumble upon it when we’re most vulnerable? When we’re least expecting? Like seeping fumes from vamps nestled up to the bar, love lures me with false pretenses as if it was just around the corner. Before I could know love I had to abuse it, watch it squirm under my grasp. For love to return I must find patience and await its homecoming as if it were migrant fowl that slink at first sign of frost, only to return and trumpet the spring.

For now, Seattle remains a custodian of my heart. Like a tattooist, the city crashed into my life for just a moment, marking my body as I pressed myself to its streets. Starless and silver-grey, Seattle represents a passing loss of lonely. It’s a carried photo, a recollection lost in the transient shuffle. It’s the sweet taste of forgetting, an indication of anew. It’s a 4 a.m. walk along compact streets where views of the Space Needle float between miles of dimly lit pavement and tightly parked cars. Like a dream, I’m never quite sure it was real.

For the love of pets The role of pets in human lives

We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan. Irving Townsend, The Once Again Prince

Animal companions provide us joy and heartache, love and heartbreak, and in many homes they are loved as family. We enter into relationships with animals in most cases knowing we will outlive our beloved animals, and yet we give fully of our lives, our time, and our hearts. While it seems at times animals are too fragile for this earth, our time together is repaid tenfold in the unequivocal love they give.

Dr. Jean Albright, DVM, has been in the vet profession for more than 35 years. She equates the relationship between pet and owner to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, “The Little Prince.”

Citing a passage from the story, Dr. Albright explains her go-to reference for why people love their pets. The fox says to the Little Prince, “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…

“‘I am beginning to understand,’ said the little prince. ‘There is a flower…I think that she has tamed me…’”

“When the little prince talks to the fox about his rose, it is so profound,” Dr. Albright said. “We value what we nurture. Where my cat to someone else is just a cat, to me it’s really special.”

Animals offer safety to children because they don’t judge, because they’re always there. Dr. Jean Albright

Dr. Albright grew up on a ranch near Custer, Mont., surrounded by animals. “When I was young and was upset, I always went to where the animals were. Animals offer safety to children because they don’t judge, because they’re always there.”

From the barnyard to the home front, historically pets and their owners have strong bonds. From these ties, pet ownership is thought to provide therapeutic and health benefits to the caregiver. Owning pets is theorized to hold a multitude of benefits, from lowering blood pressure to preventing heart disease and helping individuals fight depression. In studies, people who own pets have also been found to laugh more and have lower levels of stress than those who do not have pets.

Dr. Albright maintains there is a reason for every animal in our lives. “My needy little Australian Shepherd is there to teach me patience,” she said. “My ‘Steady Eddie,’ a greyhound mix, is like the rock in my life.”

For the love of dog

For the love of dog

Billings resident Amy Brown has opened her heart and home to many rescued dogs, and said the relationship is mutually beneficial.

“Animals reward our need to love, and you know that you’ve made their life better for the time that they’ve been with you,” Brown said.

Brown and her husband Bill have adopted or rescued eight dogs since becoming married, starting with their respective dogs.

“They were very happy we got married because they were best friends,” Brown said. When her dog passed away, she said Bill’s lab was so distraught she wouldn’t even go out by herself.

“She would just wait for him,” Brown described. They got a puppy and named him Jetson. This pup turned out to be a “nasty little dog,” Brown describes. “The ‘grateful dog syndrome’ (a term Brown uses to describe a rescued animal’s gratitude toward its savior) doesn’t apply when they are still puppies,” she said. Despite all the dog’s quirks, the reciprocal love made it all worthwhile.

“Love won’t conquer all, but love and training do help with most everything,” Brown maintains.

Brown grew up on a farm in Basin, Wyoming. Her desire to rescue dogs stems from her belief that animals need human companions as much as humans need them. “We had some great dogs,” she recalls. Her father—an animal lover—helped instill in her a compassion and love of animals. “My earliest memory is a dog that was always at my side. Sometimes I don’t know that she particularly liked me until I got older, but she was always there protecting me.”

Brown raised her children around dogs and had a Labrador that would lie beneath their bassinets, alerting Brown when the children would wake. As her children grew up around dogs, she found the pet/caregiver relationship taught them empathy. Brown does caution that “children are very curious, and dogs are dogs, and you don’t know when some ancient instinct is going to flip the switch, so you must protect them from each other.”

The Browns currently have three dogs, an old English sheep dog named Lexy, an Airedale mix named Dixie (after the children’s book of the same name), and a feisty and aging Bichon Frise named “Macho” Max.
“The only bad thing is that they aren’t with us long enough,” she said.

Saying goodbye

When animals pass on, they leave a vacuum in our hearts and small ghosts in our memories. “Another dog never fills that void,” Brown said. “They fill the space and the time, but not the hole.”

Brown lost two of her dogs at the sixth birthday mark. “Once I get past that, I feel like I’m on borrowed time,” she said. In the last months of one of her dog’s lives, Brown said she worked so hard to keep him alive. “When we finally had to let go, just what you do with yourself after it’s been that intense?”

As a vet, Dr. Albright is often asked when it’s time to let go, and she replies, “When you look at them and it hurts more to watch them than to let them go. Then it’s time.” She has “been around the block quite a few times with animals,” but said she still has a very hard time letting them go. “It’s like saying goodbye to a little kid because animals are little kids their whole life.”

Dr. Albright carried one of her arthritis dogs up and down the stairs, holding onto it longer that most people thought she should. “For everyone it’s different,” she said. “That’s one area that I am pretty nonjudgmental. Some hang onto them longer than others.”

Despite the heartbreak of losing pets, Brown can’t imagine her life without dogs. “I wish they would stay with me longer, but I have to believe that it is as worth it for them as it is for me.”

Originally published in Magic City Magazine