Road to Joy: Seattle duo inspired by Boulder waitress

It was a quiet February day in Boulder when Sarah Brunner, Tyler McGinnis and two friends sat down for a meal at the Elkhorn Bistro.

Brunner and McGinnis, Seattle musicians who recently formed The Hipocrats, rented out a cabin at the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine and were enjoying being off the grid. There was no music involved. They were just enjoying time away, toasting Brunner’s birthday and celebrating recent accomplishments. The duo started writing songs together in the fall of 2021 and had recently narrowed down six for an album, which they planned to release in summer 2022 before embarking on a U.S. tour. 

“We felt the magic,” McGinnis said. “It felt super right to go this direction after having our own solo careers.”

What they didn’t have was a name for the album. 

Inspiration, however, can strike in the most unlikely of places, and for The Hipocrats, their muse happened to be Bistro waitress Joy Fleming, a woman who lived up to her name. 

“She was so uplifting, cheerful, honest and transparent,” McGinnis said. 

“The way she opened up and shared so much about herself brought tears to her eyes. It hit us so hard. Her expression was such a cool, unexpected surprise,”  Brunner added. “We went to The Bistro two days in a row, just to see her again.”

A few weeks after this visit, while brainstorming album names, McGinnis and Brunner kept coming back to Joy.

“At first we thought ‘Ode to Joy,’ as a play on the classic, but we decided to go with ‘Road to Joy’ instead. There’s a lot of depth and meaning there that ties into our songs,” McGinnis said.

Hipocrats bandmates Sarah Brunner, far left and Tyler McGinnis (back row, center) take a picture with waitress Joy Fleming (center) while dining at the Elkhorn Bistro in February 2022 with friends Andi Scher and Hailey Magee  (also pictured).

On June 10, 2022, The Hipocrats released “Road to Joy” and immediately took off on a 90-date, 26-state tour, which they said had many highlights, including playing the legendary Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles, the Saxon Pub in Austin, Texas and a songwriters-in-the-round show in Nashville. 

Taking this “Road to Joy” was a big risk for McGinnis and Brunner. They left what they knew and took off on an ambitious project, dedicating themselves full-time to the music they created. It’s not an easy road, McGinnis said, but it’s a tremendously rewarding one.

“I quit my job of 10 years to do this,” he said. “Every single little thing that comes along to remind me I made the right choice is super meaningful for me. I couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out.”

Overcoming hardships and making difficult choices to improve one’s life is what “Road to Joy” is all about. It’s a journey, one that McGinnis said never truly ends. 

“There’s no finish line,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to stop growing. The ‘Road to Joy’ is setting an intention. We are setting our course for a direction moving forward in our lives.”

Such reflections are heard in “The Cuffing Season” and “So Long Together” on “Road to Joy,” and the other four songs also deal with similar themes. The album as a whole is about personal growth and self-exploration, and is crafted with delicate harmonies and melodic fiddle-playing by Ruth Navarre, who joined the duo for several dates on the tour.

The tour, also named “Road to Joy,” intentionally led McGinnis and Brunner back to the waitress whose name became synonymous with this major chapter in their lives.

But their literal road to Joy – just like the road on the album –  was anything but easy.

“We drove through Boulder and stopped at the Elkhorn Bistro, only to find out she wasn’t working there anymore,” Brunner said. “Then we stopped by the Sweet Spot. Through Kayla [Holman] we were able to get contact information for Joy’s husband. We left him a message and then went on to Missoula, where we had a show.”

“We were feeling a little defeated because we weren’t able to see her, but at the show we met [former Boulder Monitor editor] Josh Murdock,” McGinnis added. “He was familiar with Joy and we had a really cool interaction. The next day we heard from Joy’s husband and got her work number.”

When they finally reached her and told her about how she had inspired them, Joy was practically speechless.

“She said ‘you don’t know how much this means to me,’” Brunner said. “She was crying and we were holding back tears, It was so cool. She told us she’d been on her own road to Joy, a road to find herself.”

When reached by The Monitor, Joy said that initial conversation back in February had an impact on her, too, considering them “the highlight of my employment at the Bistro.”

Hipocrats Tyler McGinnis and Sarah Brunner perform at the Silverlake Lounge in L.A. during their “Road to Joy” tour.

“I felt a deep connection to the same spiritual path,” Joy said, “and I felt they were both very driven to stay on that path.”

Naming the album “Road to Joy” is more about that path than it is about her, Joy said, but “it’s all connected.”

“Finding me, being me…it’s a continual passage,” she said.

McGinnis said he was particularly touched to know the feeling was mutual, that the exchange meant something to Joy, as well. It feels meant to be, he said, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The fact that the moment we were naming the album we met Joy was really the cherry on top of an amazing experience,” McGinnis said. “We are constantly in search of inspiration and meaning, and Joy was kind of our ‘ah ha’ moment. We were blown away by her transparency and warmth. She didn’t have to interact with us the way she did. She’s such a deep person, a well of philosophy. She has such a great outlook on life that most people don’t care to dive into or dwell on.”

McGinnis and Brunner sent an album after their conversation last week. They look forward to hearing from her and staying in touch. Perhaps their paths will cross again.

“She said there’s a stage where she works,” McGinnis said. 

(as published in the Nov. 2 issue of The Boulder Monitor)

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‘Learning to fly’ — and feeling right at home

At a recent gathering in eastern Montana I ran into friend and lead guitar player Mark Iwaniak, who lives in Butte. I’d been looking forward to seeing Mark – with whom I’ve played shows through the years – to tell him I’d taken a job as editor of the Boulder Monitor and was now in the area.

During the visit Iwaniak spoke fondly of Boulder, particularly the Music and Arts Festival, where he played in 2016 with Butte singer/songwriter Heather Lingle. 

“I really enjoyed that gig,” he said. “It’s very laid back, very professional, always pleasant.”

“Well, it’s funny you bring that festival up,” I replied. “I was going to ask if you wanted to play it with me this year.”

Jefferson County Events Coordinator Bruce Binkowski and Boulder Chamber representative Pat Lewis were gracious enough to add my trio as a last-minute opening act, kicking off the festival at 11 a.m. My ensemble also included Helena blues harmonica player John Turner, an old friend from my Lewistown days, who had also performed at the festival before. Like Iwaniak, he was excited for an opportunity to play at Veterans Park again, especially after so much live music was shut down during the pandemic. 

We got there, set up, did a sound-check and kicked off our 30-minute set with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” debuted original material to a new crowd and then closed with Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Iwaniak was right. Everything about the experience was pleasant, especially the weather. It was actually a little chilly in the morning, requiring us to tune our guitars a few extra times, but when 11 a.m. rolled around we were dialed in. 

Iwaniak, Denison and Turner play as the Charlie Denison Trio Sept. 10 in Boulder

The three of us had never played together. In fact, Iwaniak and Turner met on stage. Considering I’d played with both on multiple occasions, however, I’d had a good feeling it’d work out, and I was glad to hear others agree.

“Nice job rolling the dice,” said Lance Handyside, a Jefferson City musician who followed us with an impressive country solo acoustic set. The crowd was just getting warmed up at that point, and more and more people made their way downtown with their lawn chairs. The Ranger Creek Wranglers kept them moving, followed by the remarkably talented old-timey brother-sister duo Brigid Reedy and Johnny Guitar, who received a standing ovation from many in attendance. Wylie and The Wild West followed, bringing their signature rockabilly honky-tonk, which got people dancing. Staples Clint Rieder and  the Longhorn Band kept them dancing, even after a full day of entertainment.

“It was a great Saturday of music,” said Binkowski. “Crowds were the biggest I can remember. I would estimate throughout the day – with people coming and going – we probably had at least 400 attendees.”

This included, Binkowski added, visitors from Washington, Idaho and all around southwestern Montana.

There was a lot to be happy about Saturday. The summer heat escaped us and we were greeted with a taste of autumn. There was no wind, and – miraculously – no smoke. A versatile mix of vendors surrounded the park, all friendly and unique, including the local Kiwanians, who served excellent burgers. After taking it all in, I sat down in my lawn chair, focusing intently on the tasteful harmonies of Reedy and her brother with my wife and good friends by my side. I felt at peace. 

This sense of peace went well beyond the music. What I enjoyed most about it was the welcoming and warm reception I received by the Boulder community. It was a pleasure to introduce my wife to many of the people I’ve been getting acquainted with and also to meet members of the community for the first time. It takes a while to get situated and feel a part of a new place. Such an occasion as the 14th Annual Boulder Area Chamber of Commerce Music and Arts Festival made for a meaningful introduction to a place my wife and I feel grateful to call our new home.

Iwaniak was right. It’s a wonderful event, and I’m happy to say Binkowski gave us the green light to play again next year. I’m already looking forward to it.  

(as published in the Boulder Monitor, Sept. 14, 2022)

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Remembering Jim “Mighty Big” Devine

The passing of Jim Devine has been a tremendously difficult loss for me, as we were brothers in harmony. We were songwriters and performers together. We were kindred spirits. These are the hardest friends to lose. I’m still processing his death, and will be doing so by continuing on our passion. I’ll be finishing the few songs we didn’t complete and will be recording many of the songs that remain unreleased.

On Aug. 16 there was a memorial for Jim at his beloved Gem Theatre in Wibaux, Montana. Below are the words I shared for him at the special gathering:

Jim Devine was many things: a husband, a father, a friend, a businessman, a brewer, a baseball stud, a rock star (I mean, really, when you think about what it means to be a rock star, Jim had it all. You don’t need fame and riches to live the rock star life…and Jim knew that more than anybody. Being a rock star is as much a mentality as anything…plus, of course, you need a band, and Jim definitely had that. Mighty Big Jim and the Tall Boys had a Mighty Big sound and blew minds and melted skulls in eastern Montana, the Black Hills, Sturgis and beyond. 

This is all true, and his bandmates can talk plenty more about Rock Star Jim. I’m here to talk about Jim as a songwriter. I had the good fortune of knowing Jim deeply in this regard, writing with him in countless sessions, sometimes cranking out 7 songs in a weekend. This was intensive, intentional work we took seriously. Of course, as you know Jim, even when you’re getting down to business, you still have a good time. I always looked forward to writing with Jim. We connected and we were honest with each other. We took constructive criticism well and were pleased with the finished products.

Performing Without You Here,” Miles City radio, 2012

It goes beyond this, though. When you’re writing with someone you get to know their true selves. I’m not the only one here who has written songs with Jim, nor am I the only songwriter. You know what I’m talking about. Songwriting, at its best, is truth, and Jim searched for that. So did I. We encouraged and pushed each other to do this. And, yeah, you write 2 or 3 like this, and then you want to take a break and throw something silly together. Jim enjoyed keeping it light, too, and when MBJ got going he loved writing more rockers, and they did exactly that – they rocked. He also loved inserting his sense of humor into songs, which isn’t always such an easy task. It can be hard to write funny, but Jim did it well, and a big part of that is a testament to his sincerity. He wasn’t trying to be someone else. His personality as a songwriter – just as it was in other aspects of his life – was effortlessly likable.

I’m proud of many of the songs Jim and I wrote together, but, more than that, I’m grateful. It’s easy to look back and say we could have had more sessions together. It’s easy to think, man, if only we’d done this trip or that trip. No…I look back now and am glad we were intentional about those times together. I’m glad we reached out to one another, put the miles on our cars and got down to it, taking time away from our busy lives to devote weekends here and there to the craft of song. 


At the premiere of “The Writers’ Ghost” in Billings, which featured our song, “Beaten Down By Love.”

Having this time together morphed our friendship to a brotherhood, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Those times will stay with me, and, as I continue to write songs, his influence will be ever present. Life might go on without Big Jim, but his presence will never leave.

Thanks, big brother, for following your heart and for reminding us of what’s important. Thanks for your emphasis on art and your conviction toward creating – and finishing – so many tunes. I’ll miss you.

Performing at a house concert in Glendive, Oct. 2021
Performing “The Man for You,” a song we co-wrote, at his memorial
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Why I’m returning to journalism

It’s good to be back.

For more than a decade I was a reporter for twice-weekly Montana newspapers in Glendive and Lewistown. Before that, I was regularly contributing to one publication or another. Journalism consumed me.

Looking back, it was a no-brainer for me to pursue this career path. I’d always had a passion for writing and an interest in meeting people from all walks of life – I carried a notebook and pen with me wherever I went – so it came as no surprise when my first reporting job with the University of Louisville’s college newspaper fit so naturally. Journalism became my direction: I transferred to the University of Kentucky, where there was a journalism school, and I moved forward in the direction of my dreams.

But by the summer of 2020, having covered about every beat imaginable for the Lewistown News-Argus, and after stepping up again and again to overcome staff shortages, burn-out started to deplete me. The coronavirus pandemic emerged and I worked from home for a month. In that time the deadly virus took the life of my grandfather. When I returned to the office I felt spent.

That same day, the director of Lewistown’s Chamber of Commerce called. She told me a position was vacant, and I took it, looking for a change, a break. Perhaps some day I could rejuvenate my interest in the field that had once completely captivated me.

Now, I’ve returned to journalism as editor of the Boulder Monitor, a decision that took time, consideration and a little persuasion. Keith Hammonds, the Monitor’s publisher, shared with me the paper’s mission — to hold power to account by “demanding transparency, investigating wrongdoing and revealing how what’s broken could be fixed” — and the philosophy behind solutions-based journalism. I was reminded that journalism isn’t just a job – it’s a responsibility. The conversation was refreshing and intoxicating. It inspired me to get back into the ring. 

I’m returning to journalism because I still very much believe in its importance, especially when it comes to community news. We are all here to serve the same purpose: to help the place we love succeed. That’s what the Monitor’s mission is all about, and it’s what I hope to help accomplish during my time here. Joseph Pulitzer perhaps said it best: “The newspaper that is true to its highest mission will concern itself with the things that ought to happen tomorrow, or next month, or next year, and will seek to make what ought to become to pass.”

Celebrating with Kari at Glendive’s Montana Newspaper Association Awards Ceremony June 18

In retrospect, this was obvious well before my conversation with Keith. I found myself consulting regularly with friends still in the field, brainstorming freelance stories, watching (and blogging about) journalism-related films and coming up with a variety of journalism-related projects with colleagues. I was a repressed news junkie.

All these extracurricular activities got me wondering: why am I not working in journalism again?

Sometimes you just need a change of scenery, and an opportunity to pursue your career of choice in a place that interests you. As David McCumber, former editor of the Montana Standard said, “there’s no end to great stories in a place I want to live.”

For me, Boulder is that place. My wife and I have been coming here for years, soaking in the hot springs and seeking solace in the Free Enterprise radon room. We’d dined at the River and the Elkhorn Bistro and pictured ourselves living here. 

I look at this opportunity as a long-term venture, and I look forward to getting to know all of you. I’m eager to become part of this community and to celebrate it with you. I don’t expect this to happen right away, but with each week, with each publication, it is my desire to learn more about you and your community, and to share a truthful image of Jefferson County. 

Getting started has had its difficulties. I’m a little rusty, and I’m a first-time editor in unfamiliar territory. Mistakes have been made, and I appreciate hearing from the community when they occur. Thanks for understanding that “I’m new here” and that I’ll work hard to make sure I get it right next time. 

There’s a lot to take in, and a lot of education required. The task of determining the news and informing the public won’t be easy, but it’s a challenge I embrace and one I’m honored to take on with Keith, the Monitor’s hard-working news staff and you, the readers of Jefferson County. I look forward to hearing from each and every one of you.

(as published in the July 6 Boulder Monitor)

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Distraction? Try this surprisingly sentimental Netflix romcom

I know it’s late (or way early depending on how you want to look at it) to talk about holiday movies, but who doesn’t want a distraction right now? Why not revisit “the most wonderful time of the year” and escape briefly from the darkness and depravity we see on our phones. Retreat with me to Hernán Jiménez’s 2021 romcom “Love Hard.” Written by Danny Mackey and Rebecca Ewing, this silly, delightful film has stayed with me, and not just for its memorable Meatloaf karaoke scene. “Love Hard” has a lot of simple yet poignant truths that are relatable in most romantic relationship.

Natalie Bauer (Nina Dobrev) is an attractive, shallow L.A. girl looking for love and having no luck using dating apps. It’s one flop after another – until she finds Josh in Lake Placid, New York. He’s handsome, funny, clever, romantic, sweet…everything she’s been looking for. 


Is it too good to be true?

Unfortunately, yes. Josh catfished her. Who she thought was a good-looking, athletic, bearded Caucasian turned out to be a short 30-year-old Asian guy with long hair and absurdly wide-framed glasses. Natalie, whose job is blogging about disaster dates, does not take this well. The attractive guy she was hoping for happens to be Josh’s friend, Tag (Darren Barnet), so she goes for him, and Josh helps as long as she promises to be his girlfriend until after Christmas. You can imagine how this gets complicated.  

There are some real Hallmark moments, and the ending is pretty predictable, but “Love Hard” drives home an important message of how critical it is in a relationship to be true to yourself and to your partner.

“Love doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be honest,” Josh says.

This is a simple statement packed with truth that goes far beyond dating apps. First, we have to be honest about what we’re wanting, and, when we get into a relationship, we have to be truthful about who we are. We need to be honest about who we’ve been and have to work on our flaws. It’s not easy to be in a relationship. It’s not easy to be with someone and share all our imperfections. It’s not easy to agree on things, to compromise, to make it all work, but it’s worth the battle. And, if we’re honest with ourselves and honest with our partners, we can make it through. There must be trust. When it’s lost it’s hard to regain, but it can be done. The partner who was not trustworthy must prove themselves worthy. This takes time and intention. It takes practice, but if the love is true, the love can survive.

Be honest to yourself and your partner, and add “Love Hard” to your Netflix watchlist. 

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Show stoppers

“You pretend I’m Laura and I’ll pretend you’re Christian,” Jamie said, putting her hand on my thigh and leaning into me as we watched a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at an outdoor theater on the coast of St. Ives, England.

The Atlantic was calm, but brought with it a cool breeze perfect for an evening in mid-June. It was even chilly. Coming from hot and humid Indianapolis, I didn’t mind. Jamie from Jersey welcomed it, too.

We were in and out of the dialogue, only picking up a few aphorisms here and there. Mostly we were cuddling. A blanket was wrapped around our torsos. I hadn’t been this comfortable the whole trip, maybe even the whole summer.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Lysander said, embracing Hermia by the gazebo, overlooking the ocean. 

The waves were frequent, but not frantic. They were friendly, almost welcoming. 

Hermia blushed and smiled, flattered.

“O cross! Too high to be enthrall’d too low,” she said.

“Hey, look,” Jamie interrupted, louder than a whisper. Others took heed and followed her outstretched arm, including our families: my mom, dad and sister; her mom, dad and brother. 

Four or five dolphins were swimming close to the shore behind the stage, dancing through the water, and leaping, facing our direction, as if saying hello. The way they acted made me think they knew they had an audience and took pleasure in upstaging the thespians. 

People in the crowd started paying attention to the porpoises instead of the story – some more subtly than others. It didn’t take long for the actors to pick up on it.

“O spite! Too old to be engaged too young,” Hermia said, but as she said it, she noticed her Lysander was distracted.

“Alas, Hermia, it appears we have some friends gathering near the shore. Porpoises seizing a moment.”

This got a big laugh out of the crowd of 60-plus. Playfully, Lysander bowed to the dolphins and shared a smile with his partner, who added her own one-liner.

“A delightful disruption,” she said. “Clearly they have found their porpoise.”

The improv brought the crowd back to the actors, who remained in character after asking the crowd to give the scene-stealers a round of applause. We got the impression this wasn’t the first time marine mammals had interrupted.

As the dolphins swam away, giddily hopping in and out of sight, Jamie rested her head on my shoulder, shutting her eyes for a moment. I leaned my head into hers, trying to pretend she was someone else.

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Moving In

She got off her bike and looked in the direction of the U-Haul. When we locked eyes everything escaped me, the past a distant memory. The moment I saw her I stopped caring about it all. 

Stepping off her bike, she walked my way and gave me a smile, a kind, welcome-to-the-neighborhood expression, her dirty blond hair tied in a ponytail, making it easy to see her brown eyes. 

I was about to start my junior year of high school – not old but not too young to recognize this as a moment. I wanted to know everything about her. I wanted to go wherever she’d take me. I started daydreaming then and there. “Pet Sounds” started playing in my head. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” I was so entranced by her confident, welcoming stride I almost dropped the Packard Bell monitor in my hands. 

I nodded to her, grinned. 

Now I have to say something, but what? Easy, Andy…a little at a time. Not too strong.

“Hi,” I said, wanting to say more, wanting to break the ice.

“Hi, she said, stopping about a yard in front of the U-Haul. 

Stop what you’re doing, I thought. So I set down the computer and casually walked down the ramp to greet her, thinking of lines the whole time. 

No pick-up lines. Be cordial…cordial.

“I’m Andy,” I said, sticking out my hand, hoping it wasn’t sweaty. Colorado in August. Hot but not humid, not unbearable like Louisiana. Didn’t miss it.

“Alex,” she said, taking my hand. Her skin was soft…and electric.

Or maybe the electricity was coming from me. My body could have gone into cardiac arrest then and there, and I feared she knew it. She was blushing already.

Be confident. She knows you’re attracted to her and she’s not walking away. She’s curious about you. 

“Welcome to Sandstone,” she said, letting out a small laugh.

Is she nervous, too? Oh, man, if she’s nervous, you’ve got this…just be yourself and let the chips fall where they may.

“It’s good to be here, Alex,” I said, and, for the first time, I meant it. “How do you like it here?”

“Well, I’ve lived here all my life. There are some things – and some people – that drive me crazy. But it’s getting better all the time. I’m actually excited about junior year!”

She was pretty and positive. What a breath of fresh air.

“Me too!” I said, perhaps with too much enthusiasm. “I mean I’m a junior too. 

She blushed again, let out a giggle I couldn’t believe how cute she was.

“You’ve lived here your whole life and we’re classmates. Want to show me around? Give me the grand tour? I want to know all about where I’ve landed.”

“Sure,” she said, giving me her biggest smile yet.

“Where’d you come from?” she added.

Whoa, I kind of blacked out there for a minute. How long was she waiting for me to say something?

“All over,” I answered, finally. “My dad’s military. He was in Baton Rouge last. Great food, great music, hot as hell. Felt like I was in a swamp half the time. I like being in the mountains, but it’s gonna take me a while to get used to suburban life.

“It can get a little redundant. You just have to create your own fun. I’m good at that. Are you?” she asked, a glimmer of mischief in her eye.

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Remembering (and celebrating) Kobe’s greatness

On May 15, 2021, Kobe Bryant was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Below is an entry I wrote in my journal shortly before the coronavirus changed all our lives. Here is updated version of a journal entry I wrote on Kobe, one of the best we’ll ever see. 

It was a few days after January 22, 2006. I was at home in Louisville, spending some time with my parents, taking a break from the University of Kentucky, where I was more into the Wildcats, playing music, getting wasted and studying journalism than I was the NBA.

But during that visit something happened that would reignite my passion for The Association. I picked up the paper and flipped to the Sports section: Bryant scores 81, second highest total.

“It just happened,” Kobe told reporters after shocking the Toronto Raptors…and the sports world. “It’s tough to explain. It’s just one of those things.”

I was standing when I started reading and had to sit down. I wanted highlights immediately, but this was before the days of YouTube, Twitter or the Score App (which I recommend), so it was harder to access. Visiting my parents at that moment made it extra nostalgic. It brought me back to the days I’d pick up the Indianapolis Star, flip to the Sports page and check out the standings. 

Reading about Kobe’s 81 reminded me why I love the game, the game I’d been distant from since November 2004, when my hometown Pacers got in a melee with Detroit Pistons fans in the Palace at Auburn Hills. I was devastated, disappointed and disillusioned. I lost my love for the league in the aftermath, love that was sparked in May of 1995 when Reggie Miller score eight points in nine seconds against Pat Riley’s Knicks at Madison Square Garden. 

That’s what legends do. And, when you’re rooting for them, there’s nothing like it. 

On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven of their friends were killed in a helicopter crash in California. 

The sports world stood still. The sports world and beyond. A dark cloud of grief hovered over Los Angeles, and the nation as a whole. 

Even those disinterested in the NBA felt the loss.

Kobe with his family leaving a Lakers home win against the Spurs in 2008. The game was filmed by Spike Lee and featured in the documentary “Kobe: Doin’ Work.”

For those of us who were NBA enthusiasts, Kobe’s loss was a gut punch.

I respected him, I admired him, I hated him, I feared him and I was amazed by him more times than I can recount. 

When the Lakers met the Pacers in the 2000 Finals I couldn’t help but pull for Kobe. Game Four of that series was perhaps his breakout performance. He scored 28 points and – with Shaq fouled out – led L.A. to an overtime victory, giving them a decisive 3-1 lead.

I wasn’t even mad. Kobe was rising just like he said he would. He was becoming a star, and I wanted to witness it. So did Reggie, although Reggie really wanted that championship. Whenever he was close Shaq was there to stomp his dreams. Shaq or Michael Jordan. And now Kobe, the kid from Philly he mentored when he came into the league. Reggie saw a kindred spirit in Kobe. The fire. The will to work. The drive. The outright obsession for the game.

Kobe was a polarizing figure. He took his alpha status to a level that drove some great players and coaches away. He was relentless, uncompromising, cutthroat and vicious.  That ferocity is one of the elements that made him a 5-time champion and the ultimate competitor who defined basketball – who defined greatness – for a generation. He’s the closest to Jordan there’s been and the closest there will ever be. That’s why MJ called him a little brother in his eulogy.

And Kobe spent 20 years with the same team, commitment practically unheard of in today’s NBA. But Kobe always wanted to be a Laker… the ultimate Laker. Many considered this overly ambitious, especially when he was young. But reflecting now, just a few days after he was posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame by MJ and his wife, Vanessa, it’s safe to say he accomplished what to so many seemed out of reach.

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Christmas Eve at the South Side Tavern

Torrin finished his second Evan Williams and Coke and signaled Seth for another as he and a few other evening bar dwellers took in Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” from the jukebox.

“This song makes me think of shopping,” Seth said, taking Torrin’s generous tip.

“Reminds me I’m gonna have to make a late-night K-Mart run. Second year in a row. It’s becoming tradition. Hopefully it won’t be a ‘Jingle All the Way’ situation. If it comes down to it I have no problem taking out Sinbad for a toy. Santa always delivers at the Swanson house.”

Seth scratched at the corner of his thick black mustache as Torrin started laughing. It was a distinctive, contagious laugh, one stand-up comics either love or hate depending on whether “distinctive laugh” thought their joke was funny.

Multi-colored Christmas lights hung behind the bar, just over the unimpressive top shelf. A few were flashing, and some didn’t have any light left for this year. Harry, a disabled vet and a South Side Tavern regular, sat a few stools down, one of the only other people at the bar. 

His light had also faded. Those who knew him before Vietnam also knew him sober. 

But Torrin wasn’t thinking about Harry. He’d just broken a heart, maybe his own, as well. He wasn’t sure. He felt shattered. 

Shattered, he thought. I never really liked that Stones song, but I’m feeling it now. 

Seth handed Torrin his third drink, the one he’d promised himself he wouldn’t have. He didn’t want to brace the cold. The three-minute walk home felt like an eternity in zero degree weather. 

There are more excuses to drink in the winter, he thought. 

This was his first Montana winter, and it was starting to get to him.

“You alright?” Seth asked. 

“I’m OK, I guess. I don’t know. I left Megan and I feel like shit about it. No one wants to be all alone on Christmas, right?”

“Well, I’m not the best at comforting people in these situations, but weren’t you just in here last week talking about how concerned you were about the relationship?”

On “Thirst Thursday” last week Torrin was having drinks with Wes, the new assistant volleyball coach for the community college, and one of the few Black men in town. He enjoyed being the “token,” as he said, especially when he’d go “cougar hunting,” as he called it.

“If you want out, you gotta get out before the holidays, dog,” Wes told Torrin, his voice smooth and sharp from his days as a radio DJ in Vegas. “They trap you after the holidays. Ain’t no gettin’ out, man. Shit…I’ve been there.”

And here Torrin was on Christmas Eve, no longer “trapped” and unsure how to feel about it.

“Megan is kind,” he told Seth, “but she wants a family of her own, and she’s ready for it now. No hesitation.”

“Nah, that’s not it. Sounds to me like you’re just not into her.” 

Seth gave Torrin a liberal pour of well whiskey with a few squirts of Diet Coke, a $4 double in a plastic cup. When Torrin moved here he didn’t think it was possible to get a stiff drink so cheap. Not in 2009, at least. Clearly he’d never been to Glendive, Montana, a small railroad town on the eastern side of the state surrounded by the rustic beauty of the Badlands. Torrin had never seen anything like it. He often felt like he was living in the Land of the Lost.

“Hey, don’t worry,” said a young Native woman who had taken a seat next to him. She must have been around 22, just a few years younger than Torrin. 

He hadn’t noticed her. 

Had she been there for a while? Had she heard the conversation? 

“Excuse me?” Torrin said politely, turning his attention toward the girl. She wore a tattered blue and white coat and had jet black hair down past her shoulders.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said, sliding a free drink token to Seth, who nodded and flirtatiously lifted an eyebrow. She took it as her cue. “A Sea Breeze, please.”

“Torrin, right?”

“Yes, and…”

“Jasmine. We met here a few weeks ago, actually, by the jukebox?”

“Oh yeah, Jasmine…”

He realized he didn’t recognize her because she was smiling this time, even had a glow about her. A few weeks ago she was morose. He kept trying to cheer her up by playing something upbeat and positive, but she just wanted to listen to Mazzy Star’s “I’ve Been Let Down.”

“I don’t mean to pry, man, but, seriously, I was just where you were. I was agonizing over what I did wrong and blaming myself for not being able to make it work, but, you know what? Maybe it just wasn’t the right person? Maybe you’ve been killing yourself to make something work that won’t, and it’s not good or bad. It’s fine. You’re not right for each other. So let it go, learn from it and move on.”

“Here’s your free Breeze,” Seth said playfully, sliding the drink into Jasmine’s hand. He nodded over at Torrin. 

“I was just going to tell that sad bastard the same thing, Jazzy.”

The one-liner was just enough to get Torrin laughing again. Seth had a knack for it.

“There’s some truth there,” Torrin said, looking over at Jasmine. “I just feel guilty, you know? Like I was being selfish.”

“Guilt is a useless emotion,” she replied, getting animated with hand gestures. “Get that shit out of your head, man. Think positive and look ahead. Dismiss all that’s behind you. Everything is in front of you. Stay positive and stay in the moment and you won’t lose what good thing might be right in front of you. I almost missed an opportunity last week. Justin kept asking, and I was apprehensive, but I took a chance and I’m glad I did. We had our first date last night and you know what he did? He took me to ‘The Squeakquel’ and even brought flowers! I couldn’t believe it. Who brings flowers to a movie? I didn’t know where to put them, but it was wonderful. No one had been so sweet to me before.”

“The Squeakquel?” Torrin asked.

“The Squeakquel,” Seth interrupted, his tone cheerful and exaggerated, and he emphasized each syllable with jazz hands.

“Shut up,” Jasmine said, laughing slightly, a bright smile on her face. “It was cute.”

“I’m sure it was, Jazzy,” said Seth. “Justin Long voices Alvin. How bad could it be? Fun for the whole family, really. Chipmunks versus Chipettes. An absurd David Cross performance. It might be forgettable years from now, but my son loved it, and I could bear it. The Squeakquel!”

“Yeah, see, Torrin? Don’t mock it until you try it! Anyway, this is about more than the Squeakquel. It’s about lightening up and being open to getting swept away. There’s someone else out there. Trust it.”

“Yeah, Torrin, trust it. You’ll find your Squeakquel,” Seth added.

Torrin burst into laughter again and looked over at Jasmine, her joyful presence brightening the whole bar. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of those burnt out Christmas lights started to flicker again. He looked over at Henry, who had been listening in. He too looked cheerful.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” Torrin said, raising his glass.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” said Jasmine.

Seth handed his two friends drink tokens and let out a laugh so boisterous he almost snorted.

“I’ll drink to that every Goddam day,” he said. “I found my Squeakquel eight years ago, and we made a little squeakquel of our own. You’ll find your Squeakquel, Torrin, or, better yet, she’ll find you.”

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All aboard the “Zhu Choo”

During the pandemic, ZHU, an electronic dance musician and Grammy-nominated recording artist, has made it a mission to “bring people to a place where they’ve never been.” He’s streamed from the mountains of western Japan, the sand dunes of southwestern Utah, and now Central Montana’s Charlie Russell Chew Choo. 

In the 49-minute video called “Billings Locomotive” – part of the Tito’s Vodka Made to Order virtual concert series – ZHU turned the Chew Choo into an electrifying backdrop for a high-energy concert. It was a vision come to life.

According to ZHU executive assistant Kristin Schaeffer, renting out the Charlie Russell Chew Choo was a concept that came completely from the artist. He found it online and wanted to jump on the opportunity.

“He loves Montana and he loves trains,” she said.

ZHU checking out the central Montana scenery while preparing for the shoot

On September 30, ZHU and his crew arrived at the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, where director Joey Vitalari, drone operators, a full band and others got set up for a four-hour ride to and from Denton. This was no typical ride, as the band recorded a 10-song set along the way, which included remixes of some of ZHU’s standout tunes such as “Faded” and “My Life.” It also included a yet-to-be-released track.

 This modern Western was more than just an escape from L.A. for ZHU and company. It also served a higher purpose: to bring attention and drive donations to the non-profit World Central Kitchen, an organization focused on creating smart solutions to hunger and poverty. It particularly emphasizes helping those affected by natural disasters.

Although ZHU is the focus of the video, the stream is also packed with incredible drone footage of the Charlie Russell train, breathtaking scenery and a gorgeous sunset, providing many unfamiliar with the area with an excellent introduction to Russell country.

ZHU and his crew certainly felt that way, as many expressed gratitude for the chance to travel during the pandemic, to perform on a moving train and to be part of this out-of-the-ordinary experience. It was a pleasure for ZHU, as well, who looks forward to performing in more off-the-grid locations.

“We’ve got to keep live music going somehow,” he said.

Check out the video here.

(As published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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