The wait is over for those waiting to view and listen to Flathead Indian Reservation homeboy Tim Ryan’s musical opus “My Grandpa’s Fiddle/Play Me Montana.” That’s the name of the video version of the concert “Play Me Montana” that Ryan performed at The University of Montana’s Dennison Theater in June 2017. It is scheduled for broadcast on Montana PBS, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4. The video is an edited version of the concert that will be viewed by more than 100 million people worldwide including the Flathead Indian Reservation.
It is a story as beautiful as the majestic snow-draped Mission Mountains: a grandfather and a grandson bound by blood, love, respect, home and music.
“The story is basically about growing up alongside of Grandpa Cordier,” Ryan said of his musical sojourn with his rough-cut muse, grandfather Vic Cordier. The journey started on the Flathead Indian Reservation and is presently off-ramped in Country Music, USA — Nashville, Tennessee. “I always thought I had a unique story to tell growing up on the reservation, playing music at every event imaginable with my grandpa, and capping it all off with a world wide hit record sharing the video with my grandpa and then of course, our incredible last performance together.”
Their last appearance was romantically sad and spiritually uplifting.
Grandpa Vic Cordier, a self-taught musician, was, of course, Ryan’s musical teacher and guide whose lesson number-one to a young Ryan was, “Keep it simple, stick to the three notes.” That meant not going beyond the three major chords — C, F and G — when playing. “Grandpa was a genius,” Ryan said. “There is a magic in those three chords.”
Ryan said his musical sojourn began when he was four years old when he remembers listening to his mother sing and the records she played. He shifted gears a year later when his Grandpa Vic told him that if he learned to play the guitar well, the pair would perform in public. He became proficient on guitar by the time he was six years old.
“That’s really when my musical life began, when I got good enough to play with him,” Rouillier said. “One of the first things I noticed that every song he played was in the key of C. When I asked him why, that’s when he told me, ‘Let’s not complicate things; let’s keep it simple, stick to the three notes.’”
After another year of honing his guitar-playing skills, Grandpa Vic told him he needed to get just a bit better then they’d play together. A few months later the pair finally took the stage together at the National Bison Range in a snowstorm. “I remember it well. It was April, the stage was the bed of a truck,” Ryan said, adding, in typical performer fashion, that despite the April snowfall the show went on. “We got up there and played and had a blast. From then on Grandpa and I played together throughout his life.”
The pair played together at various venues on and off the reservation. Their last show together was July 13, 1992 at the Mule Palace in Evaro. The performance was part of Ryan’s annual scholarship fundraiser on the reservation.
“He was all dressed up, and he got on stage and told a dirty joke, which got him a standing ovation,” Ryan said. “Then he played my grandmother’s favorite song, “The Kentucky Waltz.”
After playing the song Grandpa Vic had a heart attack and died on stage in front of an audience of more than 2,000 people.
“We had a long journey together and I think he would savor the thought of the last song he played was with his grandson,” Ryan said, adding that there were thoughts of halting the concert but added that once again the “show must go on” adage came to fore.
Nashville musician and lyricist Alex Harvey told Rouillier that his Grandpa Vic would never want the show to stop because of him.
“Alex grabbed his guitar and went to the mic and told the folks not to leave,” Ryan said. “He said that we were going to make the concert a celebration of Grandpa Vic’s life. The music started up as grandpa was being carted away.
“I learned afterwards that Grandpa’s friend who brought him to the concert said Grandpa was having chest pains on the way to Evaro,” he said about the bittersweet end of his Grandpa Vic’s life, which could be a country western tearjerker. “His friend said he wanted to take him to the hospital but Grandpa said ‘No, I got a show to play.’”
Ryan’s show continues and through his performances so does his Grandpa’s show.
“The first two days of rehearsals were rough. I wasn’t sure if I bit off more than I could chew. On the third day, I was upstairs in the (Dennison) theater and thought I would ask Stephan (SmallSalmon) to bless the stage,” Ryan said. “I sat there for awhile, then I heard people down stairs starting rehearsal. I looked upward and spoke to Grandpa. I said ‘Grandpa, I need your help.’ He said everything would be okay. Then the people rehearsing put on the video “Let’s Dance In Circles” featuring Ryan and Grandpa Vic. I knew then things would come together because I now had the spiritual guidance of Grandpa Vic and Clarence Woodcock that brought me full circle.”
The late Salish elder Clarence Woodcock had given Ryan an eagle feather when he left the reservation as a young man to chase his musical dream. Woodcock told Ryan that the eagle feather would always keep him connected to the homeland and would always guide him back home.
It was not an easy short journey to fruition of a dream.
Ryan initially pitched his musical project to numerous Nashville music industry executives. His pitch didn’t fall on plugged ears but on empty wallets. They all expressed their love of the story line but told Ryan it would cost $2 to 3 million dollars to produce the large ensemble show. It was an amount that was too much for them to back. That amount was also too huge for Ryan to raise and pay personally. However, instead of deterring Ryan from his dream it charged his batteries, energizing him to prove them wrong.
“I bought my own video camera and for the next five years I filmed everything in Montana I could imagine that would relate to my story,” he said. “I then worked in my basement for nine straight months editing and building the media that would eventually be the backdrop for the entire production.”
He then pitched his project again, showing his progress to the same Nashville executives, that once again responded with the same production costs issues. Ryan was now supercharged to prove them wrong, that his project could be produced for less - much less - money.
He approached video producers who gave him quotes of $300,000 to $500,000 for one night of filming the concert in the Nashville area. It was another, albeit lower, hurdle that required a full wallet to clear. It was head scratching time for Ryan and wife Peggy Jo on how to keep the dream alive with a slim wallet.
“My wife Peggy Jo and I decided that there was only one way to finish this giant dream,” Ryan said. “Peggy looked at me and said, “We are taking this show home, to the place it belongs.”
Ryan reached out to David King of Polson, an independent film producer with a reputation for quality work. “I basically told David that I was living in the back of my truck and I was on my last breath,” Ryan said jokingly. “I guess he bought it because David instantly agreed to film the show and work within my budget.”
He said King was a Godsend and the best film producer he has ever worked with.
On June 17, 2017, Ryan’s dream came true when his musical, ‘Play Me Montana’ premiered in front of a sold out crowd at the Dennison Theater. And with the assistance of Mike Morelli from the UM Entertainment Management Program, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra and several musical guests from Nashville and the Flathead Indian Reservation, the show went on.
Since then Ryan worked hard to get the concert broadcast on PBS. That eventually worked out after PBS’ suggested edits were done to meet broadcast time constraints.
“I had a friend from Montana who lived in Los Angeles who happened to be a very successful booking agent. I got approval to email him my musical and within a few days he called me back. He had the president of PBS from Washington D.C. included on the phone call. The president of PBS informed me that he truly thought my musical had a good chance to become a national pledge show for PBS but he suggested that I finish a list of requested edits to meet his specifics and that he would decide the fate of the production soon after,” he said. “There are no words to describe the elation I felt when I heard the president of PBS congratulate me with approval for my musical to become the National Pledge show for this iconic network. After thirty years in Nashville, fighting for my place at the table in the music industry, I finally get to tell my story. This is as high as I get to go with my music career. But it’s not only for me, it’s for my incredible family, it’s for my home, the Mission Valley, the Flathead Reservation and for my Montana.”
Ryan has dedicated the concert video to his best homeboy buddy Francis Durgeloh and Nashville singer songwriter Lari White. Both performed at the concert.
White died as the result of cancer about six months after her performance in Dennison Theater, and Durgeloh recently passed away.
“Francis said he as so happy, so proud to be in the show,” Ryan said about his recent discussions with Durgeloh who knew his time on earth was limited. “I had told him that I wanted him in it and now I told him that I wanted him to hang around long enough to view the show on PBS. I said, ‘By god we did it Francis, us Rez boys proved them all wrong. He said he would find a way to be there. He will, in spirit. Lari will too and so will Grandpa Vic.”