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All In The BandThe New Big Sky Singers look back at 50 years of musical memories, friendship and a band of brothers that began at UM.
From the passenger seat, Gary Funk watched in alarm as his brand-new bandmates, Don Collins and Don MacDonald, traded punches on the side of the road. Just an hour earlier, the trio had held their very first rehearsal in the UM Music Building.
Now, the Dons were engaged in full-blown fisticuffs in a snowbank on South Sixth Street in Missoula.
“Collins may disagree with me on this, but I was tearin’ him apart,” MacDonald recounts, his bandmates laughing hysterically in the background. “I could see tears forming in his eyes, I was feeling really bad, and I noticed he kind of clipped something on his wrist. He tried this roundhouse right hook on me and his watch went flying into the snow.”
At that point, Collins called for a time out.
“I said, ‘You can’t have timeout in a street fight!’” recalls MacDonald.
“It’s a new watch my mom just got me for Christmas,” said Collins. “I’ve got to find it.”
Together, the pair searched for the watch. They had, after all, been best friends since eighth grade a brotherhood that began all the way back at Missoula’s Roosevelt Grade School. Once the watch was found, the now college freshmen agreed to cool off and get a burger. They asked Funk if he was hungry, and he shook his head no.
“You guys are crazy,” he recalled saying at the time. “I want to go home.”
Amazingly, Funk didn’t quit the band on the spot.
“I had showed up on the UM campus as a new student and didn’t know anybody, so my best friend was my Gibson guitar, which practically went everywhere with me,” Funk says.
Earlier that day, he’d gone to a rehearsal at the opera workshop at the UM School of Music and afterward had taken his trusty guitar downstairs into one of the practice rooms because he’d had nothing better to do.
“Somebody pounds on the door,” recalls Funk, “and I look up and there’s this really ugly mug looking through the window, and I say, ‘Yeah, what’s up?’ And MacDonald says, ‘You wanna be in a group?’ And I say, ‘Sure!’”
That was the start of the New Big Sky Singers in 1966. The trio had a short rehearsal, then jumped in the car. Minutes later, the fistfight broke out.
“It just kinda scared the crap out of me, really,” Funk says, thinking back on it. “I went from a Gibson guitar to two idiots.”
Soon after Funk joined the band, Rob Quist earned a spot with the New Big Sky Singers after impressing them with his successful audition for the famed UM Jubileers – the University’s premier vocal group at the time, which traveled the world, including multiple USO tours.
Joining the New Big Sky Singers was eye-opening for Quist because he has the softest voice in the group.
“Singing with these guys taught me how to open my throat,” he says.
But it did more than that. The foursome could never have known at the time that they’d still be performing together more than 50 years later.
“There is a brotherhood,” Quist says. “I address that in our song ‘50 Years Ago Today’ because we did become like brothers.”
That song, penned by Quist and performed by the group on their newly released album of the same name, chronicles the long and storied history of the New Big Sky Singers (originally the Big Sky Singers). In their rich, finely honed harmonies, the lifelong friends sing about “taking pride in things that last.”
Ask the men about the strong foundation upon which their relationship as musicians was built and they’ll answer with stories about encouraging teachers, especially John Lester. Lester was the head of the voice department of the UM School of Music from 1939 to 1970.
“He was really a world-renowned teacher and had famous students singing all over the world,” Collins recalls. “I remember at one point I went into his studio to just do an extra lesson with him and he talked to me a little bit about singing in the group, and he says, ‘You know, I’m not of the same mind as a lot of teachers.
I think that learning one’s voice is complex, and the more styles you experiment with and try, the better opportunity you’re going to have to really understand your voice. And if you sing well, you’ll sing well in all those styles you experiment with.’ It was a unique philosophy that was helpful to us as we sang.”
Funk was so inspired by their professor that he ultimately wrote Lester’s biography with Robert Hoyem, titled “Secrets for Great Singing: John L. Lester: Pedagogy and Life,” which was published by Amazon during the pandemic quarantine last spring.
“It was a wonderful experience to write that book in homage to a really great teacher,” Funk says. “Lester felt that the teaching of singing was a sacred obligation.”
The encouragement the young men received about experimenting with different styles of music is reflected in their work.
“When you listen to our CD, you hear folk, Celtic, rock, jazz,” Quist says. “We’re definitely a genre-jumping organization, and that’s what I love about it.”
The bandmates agree that singing the music of other cultures and histories teaches them, ultimately, to be better people.
“If there’s an overlying thing that I learned from the group, we were able to become more receptive and more open-minded, partly because when you sing music of other cultures, you get insight into how people think, what their priorities are, and you respect them for that,” Funk says.
Quist, who teaches songwriting, often discusses the origins of words with his students.
“I always bring up in my class that the word ‘universe’ is an interesting word because uni (one) and verse (song),” he says. “To me, the word ‘universe’ is one song.”
The formation of the New Big Sky Singers coincided with the surge in popularity of the Folk Era of music and the singer/songwriter genre, during which time various communitiesaround UM sponsored “hootenannies” – gatherings of musicians wherein members of the community sang together songs of protest, the songs of the times.
“That was an example of bringing in the voice of youth at that time, who were in rebellion against the Vietnam War, into one voice, and we could sing together,” Funk says. “I think that’s one of the things that would be a helpful kind of thing right now in our culture, if we could turn violence into song.”
The New Big Sky Singers performed at campus events and throughout western Montana until graduation in 1968, after which each member went on to create their individual career accomplishments. Funk earned his doctorate in music, taught at Mount Union College in Ohio, then returned to UM in 1995 as choral director.
Quist went on to a career as a professional musician and session player and rose in rank as a respected voice in Montana politics and music (he was the Democratic nominee for Montana’s House seat in the 2017 special election).
Collins co-founded the internationally recognized Missoula Children’s Theatre and later moved to Seattle, where he enjoyed a robust career in opera and theater. MacDonald went on to law school at UM and eventually became a judge.
Despite leading vastly different lives, the group has reunited every year for tours, concerts and recordings since 1995.
On their newest album, “50 Years Ago Today!” released in January 2020, the group performs such diverse classics as “City of Immigrants,” “Going Out of My Head,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Don’t Think Twice”
with signature harmonic fluidity – their voices having “As long as we can continue to sing together and deliver some level of quality of performance, we should continue to do it,” Collins says. “I think [the fact] that our friendship goes back 50 years is palpable when we perform, and the banter that happens between the singers really makes that live performance even more special.”
“A large part of our performance is made up of us criticizing Collins for his many errors,” MacDonald ribs.
All joking aside, the foursome remain reverent about their serendipitous collision at the UM School of Music all those years ago. They are grateful for their ability to generate joy from any situation – even the occasional fistfight – over the course of nearly six decades.
“When we get together to practice, in a very few minutes we are able to change from whatever mindset we were in before we arrived to something very positive,” Funk says. “So at the end of a three- or four-day rehearsal, I always feel really exhilarated and so happy and privileged, really, to be a member of this group, because of the powerful impact that it has on us as human beings.”
“Fifty Years Ago Today!” is available for purchase at the The Bookstore at UM, Rockin Rudy’s and the M Store in Missoula. Orders and CD deliveries are available online at rockinrudys.com/shop. Streaming and downloads can be found at newbigskysingers.bandcamp.com.
Story by : Kristin Knight Pace
Kristin Knight Pace graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2006. She is the author of a memoir, “This Much Country,” and a veteran of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest 1,000 sled dog races. She also plays the banjo, mandolin and piano. She lives with her family in Texas.