Folk musician follows non-traditional path to playing and creating instruments
By Julia Barton EDITORIAL ASSISTANT
BIG SKY – Wes Urbaniak grew up with limited access to instruments, but his early fascination for music led him to find creative ways of pursuing his passion.
Urbaniak spent winters as a child in the remote far north of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountains, a place he described as strange, both geographically and otherwise. After hunkering down for winters, Urbaniak and his family were somewhat nomadic travelers in the warmer months.
“In the summertime, we were like half-gypsy travelers,” Urbaniak said. “That’s how the people I lived with made their money for the winter.”
These travels were a far cry from the isolation of winter, Urbaniak went on to explain, immersing him fully in many different groups of people and cultures over the course of the summer.
Somewhere along his journey, Urbaniak had a babysitter with a piano in her house. Although this was the first instrument he had access to, he was only allowed to play quiet enough that his sitter couldn’t hear him. Urbaniak taped a stethoscope to the soundboard of the piano, allowing him to hear soft strokes on the keys while keeping the house virtually silent.
“I would play quietly… writing these little songs, and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a songwriter,” Urbaniak said.
The piano was soon replaced in Urbaniak’s world by a guitar that was missing two strings, which he played that way for a year before being able to upgrade to a full, six string guitar.
Now well-versed in an array of stringed instruments—all of which can be played at full volume and possess the proper amount of strings—Urbaniak has settled in Big Sky, making and perfmoning music both as a solo artist and as part of his band, Wes Urbaniak and the Mountain Folk.
Urbaniak’s music is deeply rooted in the mountains, with the folk genre acting as a throughline between the different styles supplied by the variety of instruments he integrates into his body of work. The musician broke his fair share of instruments, and did his best to repair them in whatever way possible, ultimately unveiling the possibility of building them from scratch on his own.
“I probably built seven guitars until I had a functional one,” Urbaniak said. “But I have always been dedicated to this idea of not knowing and doing it anyway.”
When he’s not playing music, Urbaniak now bides his time working as the general manager for ACRE Kitchen in Big Sky or handcrafting stringed instruments. “I always had this weird feeling about using wood and cutting down our forests,” Urbaniak said of making instruments, which ultimately led him to recycling the wood of 100-year-old pianos into his creations.
Urbaniak will be playing around the Big Sky and Bozeman area this summer, including at the Big Sky Farmers Market on July 21, and as part of the Friday Afternoon Club at Blue Buddha on July 2.