Sometimes Tim Ryan Rouillier’s dreams bloom like Montana wildflowers. They draw from his roots, and when one blossoms in its bright colors, it usually begets another.
The Montana-native-turned-Nashville star’s grandest dream yet – a musical memoir called “Play Me Montana” – will open at the University of Montana’s Dennison Theatre on June 17. His magnum opus, featuring a sprawling cast, sprouted in his mind in 2010 after another dream he carried with him since his teenage years finally came true: He was asked to join one of his all-time favorite musical groups, Montana’s fabled Mission Mountain Wood Band.
“I get to fulfill a dream of playing with the Wood Band,” Ryan says. “But soon I’m thinking, ‘I want to do something different.’”
That’s when the next dream began to grow.
When he toured with the Mission Mountain Wood Band in 2011, he drove across the state alone to play many of the band’s shows. As his radials beat rhythms on highways, and Montana’s grand geologic melodies played across his windshield, something stirred in his heart. For a reason he could not yet articulate, he began to film scenes of evergreen forests swooping, mountain peaks crescendoing and prairies trilling with blue grasses blown by wild winds.
“He bought a really nice video camera and started recording images of Big Sky Country – some of the incredible sunsets and vistas and dancers at Crow Fair,” says Rob Quist, answering a few nonpolitical questions as he campaigned for the May 25 special election for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House. “He gradually developed this idea about doing this musical, and I think it’s going to be the most incredible show that anybody’s ever seen.”
When the tour pulled Ryan north through the Flathead Indian Reservation, under the majestic Mission peaks that inspired the band’s name, the same mountains that had witnessed his own birth in St. Ignatius in 1964, he realized he was being moved by the memory of the man who introduced him to the land: the old Native American fiddle player who drove him across Montana when he was a small boy with a big, flat-top guitar, because their duo could entertain the regulars of any ranch town, reservation village or roadside tavern.
It was his grandfather, Vic Cordier – a tough logger, a tougher judge, a freewheeling fiddler and ace teller of a blue joke. As the miles beat by, Ryan began to dream about how he could honor his grandfather’s spirit. He wanted to do it in front of an audience that spanned the world and while attempting the most ambitious performance of his distinguished career.
“I think, ‘I want to write about our journey together, and I want to write about it at the highest level,’” he says. “And in my mind, the highest level is symphony.”
There is a peek into the relationship at the heart of “Play Me Montana” in the first music video by Tim Ryan. (That’s his stage name – a producer couldn’t pronounce Rouillier correctly, so they went with his middle name.) It’s a song called “Dance in Circles,” and the 1990 video is now on YouTube. Vic Cordier starred in it, at his grandson’s insistence. He’s the old fiddle player in the little country band, dressed sharply in a cowboy hat, Coke-bottle glasses and a Kentucky colonel tie. Ryan picks a blonde Telecaster and grins wide. The way the grandson and grandfather relate to each other hints at their deep bond.
“He always explained that his grandpa was his greatest influence – that his grandpa loved music and loved life,” country artist Phil Vassar says from Tennessee. Vassar had a smash hit in 2006 with a song he co-wrote with Ryan called “Last Day of My Life.” Prior to that, both George Strait and Randy Travis released songs co-written by Ryan.
When Tim Ryan Rouillier turned 7, his grandpa took him on the road. Cordier was half Salish and a quarter each Lakota Sioux and French. He was a descendant of Jocko Finley, for whom Montana’s Jocko Valley is named. His grandmother marched with Chief Charlo from the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Indian Reservation in 1891. After Cordier bore witness to the opening of the Flathead Reservation to settlement by nontribal members in the early 1900s, he worked by turns as a logger, a tribal judge and a town judge in St. Ignatius.
But his passion was entertaining. He taught his grandson the craft the same way he had taught himself: by sticking to what wowed a crowd.
“My grandpa had his own rhythm and tempo,” Ryan says. “He played that fiddle, man, it sounded just like two cats fighting. I wanted in on that fun. He was one of those guys who could walk into a Mormon church and tell an off-color joke, and they’d love him.”
Ryan came of age in the 1970s, riding in his grandpa’s car on long highways to gigs at small-town dances on the Hi-Line, or weddings, family reunions and senior center parties in the Flathead Valley, listening to his grandfather rehearse. Not music, but jokes.
“When I was finally able to make chord structures on guitar, I asked him, ‘How come we play every song in the key of C?’” Ryan says. “He just kind of nonchalantly said, ‘Why should I make life so difficult for us?’ That was kind of his mantra.”
In 1981, Ryan spent his freshman year of college on a football scholarship at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He soothed his homesickness by strumming guitar along to the Mission Mountain Wood Band’s debut record. Then he transferred home to Montana. He played for the Grizzlies’ 1982 Big Sky Conference championship team. But by that time he was focused on his dream of becoming a professional musician. He began to write songs. And he fronted a band called Sugarfoot that played almost every night in front of a full house at a bygone south Missoula bar called Duelin’ Dalton’s Saloon. It was a halcyon era for live country music in western Montana. A special guest at many Sugarfoot shows was Vic Cordier. He kept his habit of upstaging his grandson with a well-timed lewd joke. Thrilled with his local success, Ryan dreamed of taking his talent to a national stage.
In 1987, Ryan married his childhood friend Peggy Jo Burtch, and the next day the newlyweds set off for another verdant river city with a notable country music scene: Nashville. Like a storybook, within months he signed with CBS Records. By the early 1990s, he had multiple hits on the country charts.
He wanted to take a bow back in Montana and show his home state how his dreamshad come true. In August 1994, he set up a concert at Joe’s Smoke Ring on Evaro Hill,almost equidistant between Missoula and St. Ignatius. The guest of honor would behis grandfather, Cordier, who was about to turn 92.
The day was warm, and the big crowd in the rodeo grounds was primed. Cordier wore shiny cowboy boots and a bolo tie. He brought people to their feet by steppingto the mic and telling a dirty joke. He lifted his fiddle and sawed the beginning of thesong, “The Old Kentucky Waltz,” but a note went sour. He collapsed. By the timeRyan knelt beside him, Cordier was dead.
This dramatic scene was witnessed by another onstage musician, Alex Harvey, co-writer of the classic country song “Delta Dawn.”
He went out easy as pie, like, ‘I’m going to play one more song with my grandsonand see you later,’” Harvey says.
Ryan remembers weeping and cradling his grandfather’s face in his hands onstage.Members of his large extended family stood around him, and they told him that Cordier would want the show go on. Before he stood to sing again, Ryan said onelast thing to his grandfather.
“I whispered in his ear,” he says, “‘You had to steal the show from me once again.’”
But the story didn’t end there.
As Ryan composed “Play Me Montana” in Nashville, his wife, Peggy, a 1987 UMfinance graduate, insisted that he bring it back where it belonged.
“He really wanted to go back to Montana,” Peggy says, “and give back.”
Ryan reached out to Tom Webster, director of UM’s Dennison Theatre. He askedabout working with UM students, giving them the artistic apprenticeship of bringingto life a new show about their state.
“I just thought it was a great idea,” Webster says. “Especially making it UM- and Montana-centric.”
John Driscoll, executive director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, also signedon. Ryan played Driscoll some songs he wrote, complete symphonicaccompaniments and some of the video he had filmed while on tour with theMission Mountain Wood Band.
“I was almost in tears at the end,” Driscoll says. “I’m born and raised in Montana,and it just felt like this is the telling of the story of who we are and what Montana isall about.”
The show will take more than 100 people to put on, including the MissoulaSymphony Orchestra, the Durglo Salish Drum and Dance Group, choreographers anddancers from Missoula’s Showtime Dance Academy, the N’kwusm children’s choirfrom Arlee, a Dixieland jazz ensemble, special guests from Nashville, a full stagecrew, a camera team and Ryan himself in the role of narrator. The first time everybody will be in the same room together will be five days beforecurtain, says Mike Morelli, executive director of UM’s Entertainment Managementprogram.
“That’s a heck of a thing,” he says. “But the students are going to get a real idea ofwhat it’s like to create something from scratch.”
As Ryan’s dream rolls ever closer to reality, he already has begun dreaming anew:about broadcasting “Play Me Montana” across the nation on PBS, then perhapshaving a theater troupe take the show on a tour of Europe.
But first must come the premiere. Ryan can’t wait to see many of his former Grizzly teammates, plus coaches, teachers and other cherished friends and family, packed inthe theater’s 1,100 seats.
More than that, though, he is excited to spend one more evening making music withone person who will not be there in the flesh, but will be everywhere in spirit.
“He’s going to come to life on that night,” Ryan says. “Everybody’s going to know who he is.”
Tim Ryan Rouillier is ready for his grandfather Vic Cordier to steal the show again.
Nate Schweber is a freelance journalist who graduated from UM’s School of Journalism in 2001 and lives in Brooklyn. His work appears regularly in The New York Times. He has written for Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera America, Anthony Bourdain’s Explore Parts Unknown, Narratively and Trout. He is the author of “Fly Fishing Yellowstone National Park: An Insider’s Guide to the 50 Best Places.” He sings in a band called the New Heathens.