• Montana Press

John Dendy: Jack of all Montana Musical Genres

Tex-Mex? He takes pleasure in it. Gypsy jazz? He’s got that genre covered. Soulful Americana? Well, he is also in a band that reaches audiences with flair in that musical field too.


Indeed, at last tally John Dendy is a part of seven diverse Helena-area bands, and he doesn’t suffer even the tiniest urge to cast off any of these commitments anytime soon.


“I hang out with some dear people and some outstanding people,” says Dendy. “Music becomes your social life. Especially with bands playing originals, you arrange the songs and figure out how to begin them and end them, and figure who plays where, and that’s all a collaborative process. It’s a social life, with a set of rules and a defined goal – whether stated, or unstated. It’s not an open-ended interaction; you are trying to make something move in the right direction. There is some overlap in membership among most of these bands.”


Dendy is perhaps most recognized as the upright bass player in the sultry Cottonwood Club jazz band in Helena, a snazzy club ensemble in which he accompanies his wife Claire Pichette on a vast repertoire of originals and standards. But his involvement includes a number of other projects, including backing up “the killer voice” of Lanie White with guitar and violin work and an eponymously-named entity which finds Dendy and His Originals supported by a violinist, a trumpet player, and a drummer.


Music to Dendy is a circle. There is no beginning to its action, no end; everything, he realizes, is a circle. But as all circles have centers, Dendy reflects on what his might be – his core, his origin.


Around the time that he was attending college in Mississippi, he was enthralled with the groans of blues mavens such as Robert Johnson. But a most pivotal moment came at a bluegrass jam: six bulky, bearded Southerners pulled into the parking area in a Pontiac station wagon, upright bass strapped to the roof. That instrument would later become his darling.


Dendy has lived in Montana continuously since 2007, though he first arrived here a few years earlier to work for the Montana Wilderness Association. It took him a while but he slowly gravitated toward the cycle of the musician, and in recent years, his life has been an endless repeat of rehearsal and recital. For many years, Dendy covered the saloon scene exclusively as a solo artist, harmonica blowing liberally around his neck, feet tapping, blending his originals with John Prine and Bob Dylan gems. Dendy notes one of his nicest successes as a musician was the time he opened for Martha Scanlan at Free Ceramics a few years ago.


“Music is my art, though I don’t know why or where it came from,” says Dendy. “I have periods of high and low productivity, and I don’t have a process. It starts with the first line, and then there’s a melody in my head just waiting to be finished.”


Dendy thinks that, while the local live music has declined since the time he first arrived in Montana, the scene is showing signs of rebounding. “Some of struggles often has to do with the changing of the management of the venues. Right now, at the Rathskellar, people consistently expect music on the weekends. With the vibe of the room, you don’t have to draw even a single person for it to be worthwhile.”


The instrumentalist in Dendy discovered long ago that the upright bass well suited his personality. “It has a presence. I’ve never liked a lot of notes. I’ve never wanted to play fast. I care mostly about rhythm. I care mostly about rhythm and groove.”


While Dendy (who works full-time at the Helena Food Share) experiences these curious spurts of enthusiasm when he is willing and eager to drive far across the state to a brewery and bellow for tip money, by and large he is fond of the provincial benefits of sticking close to town.


“If you travel around Montana playing music, you have to do one thing or play an awful lot. I choose to stay in town and to be in a lot of bands. I have had the opportunity to try to do just music, but I was never any good at waking every day and booking shows. Plus, I like the physical work at Helena Food Share.”


Other musical roles which Dendy is affiliated with include being the bassist and harmonist in the “Latin-Motown” hybrid Los Marvelitos, a quirky association in which he gets to sing in Spanish even though he doesn’t speak even a syllable of the language, and working as the bassist for a country cover band called Copper Queen.


Dendy, 48, explains that two of the biggest advantages of performing in so many disparate projects is that he is always sharpening his talents; he need not worry about diluting any one of the acts. “It’s an advantage to play every single week and not overplay the same band,” said Dendy. “I’m in two bands with my wife, and that helps with scheduling.”


On the flip side, he has to uphold a memory akin to a machine and must always be absorbing new lyrics, new notes, and new techniques.


“The disadvantage is that I have to know the full set list for all of those bands, and we are always adding, writing, or developing tunes, and that’s a lot of rehearsal. I think that my mental set list with the Cottonwood Club holds about 50 to 60 tunes, and I use lead sheets. Among the seven bands, maybe there are 15 tunes that more than one entity plays. The trick is that you can tape notes if you need to do so to the side of the bass and the audience doesn’t see it.”


Perhaps the most humbling aspects of music are that it continuously allows for Dendy to socialize and smile. Yet maybe even more importantly, music provides him with the chance to share those special aspects of his character. “There are people in town who like my songwriting, and they will ask me when I am going to play my own original music. I tell them that I’m not sure. I guess I’m in too many good things.”


—Brian D’Ambrosio


For more information on the artist, check out his web page at johndendy.com.