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Bitterroot original – Big Sky Mudflaps celebrate 40 years

The 2015 edition of the Mudflaps features Maureen Powell, Chuck Florence, David Horgan, and Beth Lo, seated, with Jim Rogers and Rich Brinkman, standing.

The 2015 edition of the Mudflaps features Maureen Powell, Chuck Florence, David Horgan, and Beth Lo, seated, with Jim Rogers and Rich Brinkman, standing.

By Russ Lawrence

The Big Sky Mudflaps, one of Montana’s best-known musical ensembles, will celebrate their fortieth anniversary of music-making with a pair of concerts in their erstwhile hometown, on Friday, July 24, and Sunday, August 16 [see below].
The band coalesced in Hamilton in 1975, and whimsically chose the name that Paul Stanton suggested, taking advantage of the free advertising offered on pickup trucks throughout the Big Sky state.
Their musical path has been equally opportunistic, blossoming from local favorites into a regional sensation, ultimately gaining a national following.
After gaining local notoriety, they began touring roadhouses, clubs, and dance halls throughout the Northwest, playing a joyful mix of classic American styles, including swing, rock & roll, and rhythm & blues, that got audiences up on their feet.
The founding members included David Horgan on guitar and vocals, Steve Orner on drums/vocals (soon replaced by Michael Lea), Beth Lo and Maureen Powell sharing duties on bass and vocals, Dexter Payne on saxophone, and Steve Powell on piano/vocals.
The critical success of their first album, “Armchair Cabaret,” released in 1979, launched them onto the national scene. They made live appearances on NBC’s “Today Show” in 1981 and 1982, and were irregular guests on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Their second album, “Sensible Shoes,” was released in 1983 and was selected by Billboard magazine as one of its notable albums for that year. They’ve shared concert billing with such notables as Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and Riders in the Sky, at jazz and folk festivals from coast to coast, including the Newport Jazz Festival.
In the 90’s, family and professional obligations caused the group to dial back their touring, though they still produced a fourth album.
“There was never any ambition to relocate and go for it,” Horgan recalled. “We really felt like we could do everything we wanted to do from here.” Touring has always been an option, but never moving away from western Montana.
“What kept us together was the spirit that the band was founded on, and that was based here. It always felt right to come home and recharge, and to live as normal a life as we could,” Horgan said. “We feel really lucky.”
As the individual members have explored other musical genres, playing with a variety of local groups, so have the Mudflaps continued to grow musically. In performance, the Big Sky Mudflaps enjoy presenting the full range of their stylistic repertoire, which now ranges from Kansas City swing to Havana cha-cha-cha.
Audiences know to bring their dancing shoes. “We always really prefer to have people dancing,” Horgan said. “Most of the music we play is dance music; we’re more comfortable, and we get more energy back.”
They’re not above playing a musical prank on occasion, either. Celebrating their “one millionth night at the Top Hat bar” in Missoula, Horgan recalled, they returned from their break and decided to pull a fast one on the crowd.
“The only rule was that everybody had to play an instrument they don’t know how to play,” Horgan recalled. He picked up a violin, Lo sat down at the drum kit, while Paul Stanton got up to sing Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.”
“The crowd froze and stared, stunned,” Horgan said. “We always had a good time.”
The roster of former Mudflaps has grown throughout the years as musicians rotated through the group. Alumni include Dexter Payne, Judy Roderick, Leon Slater, Liz Slater, Tom Wogsland, Cody Hollow, and Bob Packwood. Huey Lewis has joined them onstage more than once, as well.
The group suffered a major setback with the death, in 2013, of Steve Powell, whose musicianship and positive spirit defined the band from the start. Maureen Powell was determined, however, that the Mudflaps continue, and the rest of the band took their cue from her, Horgan said.
The band now includes founding members Horgan, Lo, and Powell, with Rich Brinkman on percussion/vocals, Chuck Florence on saxophone and clarinet, and Jim Rogers on keyboard/vocals.
Their first three albums were produced originally in vinyl, but all five of their albums are now available on CD.
In the band’s tradition of “once a Mudflap, always a Mudflap,” they’ll be welcoming back drummer Michael Lea and Rob Sanders on violin, and Bob Packwood on keyboards, for a concert at Sapphire Lutheran Homes, 501 N. 10th St. in Hamilton, on Friday, July 24. The free concert starts at 7 p.m., outdoors on the lawn, with blankets and lawn chairs welcome.
Sapphire Lutheran Homes will offer a $5 barbecue, starting at 6 p.m., and will have free ice cream bars for attendees. Call 363-2800 for more information on that concert.
The Big Sky Mudflaps will perform their “official” 40th Anniversary Concert on Sunday, August 16, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Bitter Root Brewery, 101 Marcus Street in Hamilton. Again, the concert is free to the public but, in keeping with their roots, tips will be appreciated.
And . . . bring your dancing shoes!

The Big Sky Mudflaps at Missoula’s Top Hat Bar in 1975 featured (l to r) Dexter Payne, David Horgan, Steve Orner, Beth Lo, Maureen Powell, and Steve Powell.

The Big Sky Mudflaps at Missoula’s Top Hat Bar in 1975 featured (l to r) Dexter Payne, David Horgan, Steve Orner, Beth Lo, Maureen Powell, and Steve Powell.

One Response to Bitterroot original – Big Sky Mudflaps celebrate 40 years
  1. John McGlothlin
    July 9, 2017 | 8:02 pm

    Congratulations on the upcoming celebration. I used to hear y’all at the Top Hat all the time back in the day (U. of M. ’76) and worked two summers with Paul Stanton. Wish I could be there but I now live in southern Oregon. However, I at least own some sensible shoes.

    My best,

    JWM

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