Montana super group the Two Bit Franks return to Big Sky Big Grass

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Squeezed into the front room of a bungalow in Bozeman’s Cooper Park Historic District are four of the five Two Bit Franks—a bluegrass super group comprised of guitarist John Lowell, upright bassist Russ Smith, both from Livingston; Bozeman banjoist Jeff Shouse and mandolin player Tom Murphy; and Big Sky’s versatile mando-picker Kevin Fabozzi.

Minus Fabozzi, the band has gathered at Murphy’s on the afternoon of Jan. 24 to practice for the 11th annual Big Sky Big Grass festival at Big Sky Resort Feb. 9-12. Most of the Franks were part of discussions with resort beverage manager Steve Merlino that led to the festival’s inception, and have been performing at it—in some configuration or another—ever since.

Bluegrass, perhaps more so than any other genre, is head-spinningly incestuous. The Two Bit Franks are only one of many combinations in which these seasoned musicians play or have played. Guitarist and front man John Lowell (of critically acclaimed Kane’s River and Growling Old Men) tours internationally as the John Lowell Band with Murphy, and plays regular après gigs as a variable trio with Fabozzi, Murphy and Smith. The band mates have also intermingled in Stormy Creek, Little Jane and the Pistol Whips and The Salty Dogs. And this is just where they’ve overlapped. You get the point.

The Two Bit Franks—a name that evolved out of a package of frozen “skinless franks”—formed five years ago out of Lowell’s desire for a tighter, more polished outfit to play with than the looser jam-style bluegrass groups.

“The bluegrass community is so fun because we can all get together and play music because we have this huge library of tunes to pick from,” Murphy said. “That’s a great thing. The difference with this band is that we’ll take one of John’s original compositions or a bluegrass standard and talk about them, make serious notes, decide how fast we’re going to play it, who’s doing a solo when, work out the harmony arrangements … It’s those little accents and things that really take it to a whole different level.”

The band breaks into a Lowell original called “Skalkaho Road”—a melodic, softly insistent bluegrass number about the treacherous pass over the Sapphire Mountains between Philipsburg and Hamilton, Montana. The song demonstrates Lowell’s gift for timeless songwriting and the group’s familiarity and ease with one another. They know how to sing and play in harmony—not step on each other’s musical toes so to speak—which, it turns out, is what bluegrass music is all about.

“It’s about bringing everybody together to bring the whole sound up,” said stand-up bassist Smith. “There’s kind of a rule book in a way. Because it’s acoustic, there’s a dynamic in how you project. You have to be patient and wait and take your turn. You have to respect the person who’s taking the lead at the time [and] back off or figure out what you can do to support that person. They’re unwritten, but they are rules nonetheless. If you break them you probably won’t be invited back.”

While there is also a fundamental inclusiveness to bluegrass music, Murphy would never presume to jump in before receiving the signal to do so.

“It’s a funny thing, and you learn it early on,” Murphy said. “You wait to be invited. And once you are invited, you wait for someone to tell you to take a solo. It’s all about saying ‘I’m here; I’d like to help, and if you’ll have me, if you give me a nod, I’ll do my best.’”

Smith chimes in by saying that, then, when you are asked, you had better be prepared. “You better know the lyrics; you better know how to share the song and call the solos,” he said. “You’re expected to step up at that point. Now you’re leading the song.”

Discussing bluegrass etiquette segues into a conversation about the much-coveted jam sessions that traditionally crop up in the festival’s hub, the Huntley Lodge, all hours of the day, night and wee-morning over the course of the weekend.

“There’s magic that can happen in the late night jams,” Murphy said.

The Two Bit Franks perform free shows 4-5:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10 at Chet’s Bar and Grill and 3:30-5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11 at Montana Jack. For a full Big Sky Big Grass schedule visit bigskyresort.com.