Editor’s Note: The Montana Standard reporter who wrote this story was assigned as the artist buddy, or folk festival guide, for David Davis and the Warrior River Boys band. This article is based off of that experience.
On Friday evening, just an hour before they were to kick off the 12th annual Montana Folk Festival on the Original Stage in Uptown Butte, David Davis and the Warrior River Boys went live.
“We are sitting right smack on the Richest Hill on Earth. That’s where this stage is. Butte, Montana at the Montana Folk Festival. We’re glad to be here,” said longtime bluegrass artist, renowned mandolin player, and band leader David Davis to the group’s Facebook following. “We’ll try to keep you involved in what’s happening in beautiful Butte, Montana.”
After Davis’s social media speech, he and his four bandmates did a sound check then huddled in the large backstage tent to pick a few warm-up melodies. Each band member wore dress pants, a button-down dress shirt, and a vintage tie to match.
As they played together in this small backstage circle and then on the stage in front of the thousands of people that Friday night, their fingers moved incomprehensibly fast.
And over the next five shows and two workshops, they didn’t seem to slow one bit.
Davis and the six other musicians who drove over 35 hours from either Alabama or Virginia to be at the Montana Folk Festival have been playing and performing this music since they were boys.
Davis was brought up in a rich atmosphere of old-time music from gospel at church to Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, he said.
His uncle was the first musician, or "boy," selected by Bill Monroe, known as the “Father of Bluegrass,” to make the Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys band in 1938. Davis said traditional music ran thick within his entire family.
Robert Montgomery, the banjo piece of the Warrior River Boys, said he started playing guitar but also taught himself banjo after he saw his grandfather’s lying around his Alabama home.
Billy Hurt Jr., who filled in for the band’s usual fiddle player over the folk fest weekend, said he’s been performing on the road since he was 13 years old. Marty Hays, bass player and vocalist, has been involved in music since he was 9 years old and has played with Davis for over 20 years. And Stan Wilemon, guitar player and vocalist with Davis, has over 30 years of experience with various bands under his belt.
On stage, the depth of the band’s expertise and skill showed. From saucy picking to smooth vocal harmonies, the five-piece band showed off the talents of each individual at every single performance — both through small solos and by how well they played together, often cuing each other’s parts with just a look or a nod.
When asked if the Warrior River Boys rehearsed and how often, they said they only practiced together when they were learning or recording new material. Montgomery, who said he lives just 30 miles from Davis, said he hardly ever sees him except for gigs and weekends like this past one.
Most of the men hinted at the fact that after so many years playing the same style and traditional tunes, each performance becomes a sort of live jam or rehearsal session where they listen and vibe off of each other in the moment.
“I’ve been rehearsing for 40 years,” said Hurt. He went on to say sometimes it’s difficult to remember which version of a song he’s playing, as each band has their own style and ways of playing some of the traditional bluegrass tunes, but said otherwise it’s been easy for him to jump in with Davis' group.
Hurt has a band of his own but said he and many of the other Warrior River Boys play with whomever, whenever they can.
Many professional musicians try to get in at least 75 performances a year, Hurt said, describing the lifestyle as like having a sort of disease — Hurt said he often feels better when he’s playing music for people in places like Butte than when he isn’t.
Two of Hurt’s Five Mile Mountain Road bandmates seemed to have this "disease," too, as they traveled with Hurt from Virginia just to listen to the Warrior River Boys, other festival music and experience Montana for the first time.
One of those bandmates and the youngest man traveling with the bluegrass boys over the weekend was Caleb Erickson, 20. He said he’s drawn to bands like Davis’s because of their traditional, old-time roots.
As Erickson listened to some of the bluegrass tunes from the 1920's and 1930's the band played for the Butte crowds over the weekend, he listened intently and commented on how well the men supported each other in each song.
“There aren’t many bands that play bluegrass like this anymore. That’s part of why I like it so much,” Erickson said.
But off stage and in between sets is where David Davis and the Warrior River Boys really came to life.
They told old jokes about horses with long faces, young preachers, and people being stranded on a farm. They listened to other folk fest performers like Eddie Cotton Jr., exchanging looks and smiles with each other when they heard something they liked. They acted like brothers.
And most of all, they never stopped their music, whether that meant singing with each other, talking about their recent performances, or about the other musicians who inspired them.
On Sunday, the Warrior River Boys arguably performed their best. Davis and Montgomery spent the morning jamming with other string instrument musicians from around the world, and the band as a whole finished out the festival with two performances at the Original Stage and the Granite Street stage.
During their last set, Davis talked with the crowd about how he and his band were just a layer of the folk fest fabric, one ingredient to the stew of sound and culture each musician brought to the streets of Uptown Butte over the weekend.
Davis said he learned that although each band claims a different hometown on the map or holds different instruments or plays within a different genre, each musician is more akin than he had realized.
And with those words and a few final old bluegrass tunes, Davis and his Warrior Boys packed up their cars again and made the hours-long trip back home, most definitely taking a piece of the Mining City with them.