Sam Platts entertains in a style that echoes the familiar lines of traditional country music. As the leader of Sam Platts & the Plainsmen, 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 a rancher as well.
“I accidentally fell into the ranching career about five years ago,” says Platts, who was raised in Wyoming but is now a 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. But the locals couldn’t get their heads around a guy in his twenties who didn’t do anything all week but who hit the road on the weekends, making music. People 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 gig, 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.
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’s ultimately found a second 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 Platts.
In addition to ranching, Scott was also a nimble-fingered luthier; Sam 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 just sit down and have lessons with him,” Sam recalls. “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, and my grandmother was into classic country. My dad was in bands for as long as I can remember – and he still is. He played in a band called Rimrock in Wyoming for twenty years and now he’s in one in Washington state that’s called Bottom Dollar.”
At age 21, Sam 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. Within three weeks of Sam 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.
Down to Earth
“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.
Sam recorded his first independent and wholly-original studio album “Sundown at Noon” under the name Sam Platts and the Kootenai Three, in 2013. 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.”
Songs in Sam’s repertoire range from self-penned originals to the indispensables of time-honored ballads from icons such as Merle, Waylon, and Willie, sounds that perhaps might not mesh well with contemporary country radio. Despite this, Sam says that the music that he values has a beloved, even optimistic, place in his account and vision of the landscape.
“In the last ten years there has been this resurgence of the true honky-tonk sound. People my age, in 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 many months of 2021, Sam Platts & the Plainsmen broadcast a weekly live-stream variety show from a rehabbed barn outside Norris. (Find archives of these shows here.) A
pivotal piece of the ensemble is Sam’s wife, Lilly; she’s a persuasive fiddler.
“We’ve got weekly guests and special guests and we put them together like the Sixties and Seventies variety shows, like Porter Wagoner’s or Johnny Cash’s. We are the house band, and we have gal singers to give it some variety. We take up about one-third of the show, and the guests (who’ve recently included Kostas and Tessy Lou Williams) take up the rest,” Sam says.
“Right now, I really like the live stream. We are growing our internet following, and it’s great to play for people that are listening. 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.”