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A mandolin revival creates 'The Montana Sound'

Strumming up the past in the Rockies – a 1902 photo inspired a revival of an instrument that used to rival the cowboy’s campfire guitar.

By Corinne GarciaContributor / March 11, 2009

Strumming away: This photo of the Bozeman Mandolin and Guitar Club circa 1902 inspired so much interest that local musician Dennis White formed the Montana Mandolin Society.

Courtesy of the Montana Mandolin Society


Bozeman, Mont.

The Wild West of the early 1900s conjures up images of dusty saloons, hardened pioneers, and cowboys plucking twangy guitars around a campfire. Few envision well-dressed musicians performing classical music at formal venues to townsfolk dressed in their Sunday best. But a group of Montana musicians has revealed a nugget of state history that until recently was tucked away in a drawer of old photographs. And instead of the cowboy guitar, this history revolves around the mandolin.

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“Not many people can say a photo changed the course of their life,” says Dennis White, professional musician and director of the Bozeman-based Montana Mandolin Society, “but that’s just what happened.”

Mr. White spent much of his childhood sitting at the knees of old-time fiddlers and banjo pickers while growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where he caught the music bug. In 1997, he moved from Nashville, Tenn., the capital of country music where he worked as a road musician and in music publishing, to the “cow town” of Bozeman to work for Gibson Guitar. His goal was to help the company reintroduce mandolins into the schools. But right after he arrived, Gibson moved their mandolin department back to Nashville.

“I put all that on hold,” White says.

He opened a studio, teaching the banjo and mandolin. “People would come in from all walks of life,” he says. “One of my banjo students came into my studio one day with this photograph.”

It was a faded, black-and-white photo of the 1902 Bozeman Mandolin and Guitar Club. The staid, well-dressed musicians were holding their instruments: a variety of mandolins, some guitars, and a few banjos.

“I hung it up in my studio, and when people came in they would always ask me about this picture,” White says.

Some digging revealed the group comprised an eclectic mix of local business owners, college students, cowboys, government officials, and some city founders. From different walks of life, they shared a love of music, performing together at the Bozeman Opera House and smaller venues and social gatherings from 1902 until 1906.

On “Valentine’s Day 1902, the renowned mandolin virtuoso Samuel Siegel came to Bozeman and played with these gentlemen,” White says. “And when he did, they inspired all the mandolin playing in this state.”

Mandolin orchestras were “in” all over the country from 1894 until 1924, eventually fizzling as jazz gained popularity. But Montana was a hotbed of mandolin history, White says.

“One of the reasons is that they’re little instruments and could be easily carried out West by the pioneers,” suggests Lori Brockway, Montana Mandolin Society business manager. A native Montanan, Ms. Brockway has a mandolin from the early 1900s from her homesteader grandfather, the case worn from being strapped to his horse. “It’s a paradox that such beautiful, bright-sounding instruments came here strapped onto big animals and through the roughness that was the Wild West,” she says. “I love picturing these big, tough men trekking through the mud holes on Main Street in Bozeman wearing fancy leather boots, formal clothing, and starched white collars, carrying these funny little instruments.”

Mandolin clubs formed in many small Montana towns at that time, including one all-female, Native American basketball team and mandolin club in Fort Shaw. These women would change during halftime and put on a brief mandolin concert before changing back into their sport clothes to finish the game.