Sam Platts & the Great Plainsmen bring outlaw country music to Tips Up Jan. 8
By Brian D’Ambrosio EBS CONTRIBUTOR
SILVER STAR – Sam Platts entertains in a style that echoes the familiar lines of traditional country music. As the leader of Sam Platts & the Great Plainsmen, however, he clings to a honky-tonking mode steeped in rustic elements. Lately, not only has he been singing the songs of the country crooner, but he’s been living the life of the rancher, as well.
“I accidentally fell into the ranching career about five years ago,” says Platts, a Wyoming native now resident near Silver Star, Montana, between White Hall and Twin Bridges.
“I was playing music full-time while living in Pony, in Southwest Montana, a few years ago,” he says. “But the locals couldn’t get their heads around a guy in his 20s, who didn’t do anything all week, but who hit the road on the weekends, made music, and who was living on the weekends. The people of Pony and Harrison thought that I should do something more productive with my days and the Jackson Ranch outside of Harrison was looking for someone to feed cows for a winter and to help them calve. Ranching is not the most financially fruitful, but it’s a satisfying job. I get plenty of material out of the ranching lifestyle.”
On this particular evening, Platts has just returned from his day job, feeding cows, carrying out pedestrian ranch chores, finishing whatever tasks need to be done.
“Right now, it is calving season and all of the cows are having babies. Knock on wood we haven’t had to pull calves so far this year.”
Considering the category of music that Sam chooses to play— a straightforward, non-showy 1950s style of traditional country typified by the prime cuts of Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard—perhaps it’s not too surprising that he ultimately found another occupation as a rancher. Platts grew up in southern Wyoming, where he heard plenty of classic country (and scores of polka jams, too) while driving around on his great-grandmother’s ranch alongside his father, Scott.
In addition to ranching, Scott was also a nimble-fingered luthier; Sam had worked at his father’s shop in Saratoga, Wyoming, building stringed instruments. After school, the teenager would spend a few hours laboring at things such as filing frets or sanding guitar bodies. An experienced traveling musician, Scott himself had also gotten plenty of mentorship.
“It wasn’t as if I would sit down and have lessons with him,” Platts says. “I would go off in my direction and I would get hung up and he was always there to show me where to go. . .My dad was way into listening to polka on the way to do the haying. My grandmother was into classic country. My dad was in bands for as long as I could remember— and he still is.”
Ten years ago, then 21-year-old Platts answered an advertisement on Craigslist seeking the services of a steel and lead guitar player. Noted yodeler Wylie Gustafson of Conrad, Montana, was the posting party in need of a supporting musician and within three weeks of Platts acing his audition, he was on tour with Wylie & The Wild West in, of all places, Russia.
It was from Wylie that Sam learned the models of showmanship and professionalism as well as the rhythm, eloquence, pace, progress, timing and minimalism of a style of music that he considered authentic.
“You’ve got to keep it simple,” explains Sam. “It’s the less-is-more sort of mindset. Like a conversation, there are people who are quiet and to the point yet come through loud and clear, like a guitar player like Don Rich or Buck Owens. Being flashy is not always the right thing to do, especially if you want to have that good backbone of traditional country Western swing, with good shuffles, and something that’s danceable. . .Songwriting is like that, too. When you break down a Kostas song, they are simple but they are perfect. He could break your heart in three and a half minutes.”
Sam recorded his first independent and wholly-original studio album “Sundown at Noon” under the name Sam Platts and the Kootenai Three in 2013. Arrangements mirror the style of songs that he heard many years ago while he was riding in the pickup truck on the family ranch. He even added the accordion—his grandfather’s favorite instrument—to parts of the band’s music.
“We started in Idaho in Kootenai County and recorded the first album at Jereco Studios (in Bozeman) and that eventually led us to moving to Montana in 2014 full-time,” Platts recounts. “My bass player and I moved to Pony and we found a place reasonably priced that had a great small town atmosphere. We played a lot of gigs at the Pony Bar. Like most small bars in Montana, the Pony Bar was very supportive.”
Songs in Platts’ repertoire range from self-penned originals to the indispensables of time-honored ballads from icons such as Merle, Waylon, and Willie Nelson, sounds that perhaps might not mesh well with contemporary country radio. Despite this, Platts says the music he values has a beloved, even optimistic, place in his account and vision of the landscape.
“In the last 10 years there has been this resurgence of the true honky-tonk sound,” he says. “People my age—from their 20s through their late 30s—there are a lot of reformed rock and rollers who have been in punk bands and whatnot, and now who have started playing country.”
For the past few months, the four-piece group Sam Platts & the Great Plainsmen have been broadcasting a weekly live stream variety show from a rehabbed barn outside Norris. A pivotal piece of the ensemble, Sam’s wife, Lilly, is a persuasive fiddler.
“We’ve got weekly guests and special guests and we put them together like the 60s, 70s variety shows, like Porter Wagoner’s or Johnny Cash’s,” Platts says. “We are the house band and we have gal singers to give it some variety. About one-third of the show we take up and the guests (which have recently included Kostas and Tessy Lou Williams) take up the rest.”
Platts says he enjoys the live streams, where the band is growing their internet following and “playing for people that are listening,” he says.
“What started as an idea as how not to slip into obscurity because there were no live songs to sing, has turned into something that we are really proud of,” Platts says.
As it has played out, his love of ranching now contends with his other great affection to play music.
“I work at the ranch seven days a week and I cut out early one day a week to rehearse for the show,” he says. “Sunday morning, I go check cows and feed cows and then I get out my ranching clothes and do our live stream. This accidental agricultural career has been a big source of inspiration and has gotten me in touch with a different lifestyle, and in touch with the country itself.”
Sam Platts & the Great Plainsmen will perform on Saturday, Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. at Tips Up in Big Sky.