Tom Carney swung the guitar off his shoulder and set it softly to the floor. Playing in a Missoula art gallery on First Friday – a laid-back affair where citizens wander the streets sipping wine or beer without fear of an open-container citation – doesn't bring the raucous crowds likely to appear toward midnight.

It's only after 6 p.m. and civility is still in order. The art adorning the walls of the Dana Gallery is brilliant with color and class. Carney, leader of the band Barnaby Wilde, slips away like a shadow to socialize with the gallery's female patrons while members of his band sip water and catch their breath.

On night's like this, everyone has a story and no two are alike.

“I started playing guitar when I was 16,” said guitarist Louie Bond, who's now pushing a vibrant 67. “I played a little bit in the Navy. It wasn't the official U.S. Navy Band. It was a Navy-sponsored band.”

Bond's musical education in said Navy-sponsored band began at the Memphis Naval Air Station in Millington, Tennessee. But then he injured his leg, which made marching something of a chore. Always looking to make good use of its sailors, the Navy placed Bond in a separate jazz band, where he was tutored by a jazz pianist.

Bond traces the makings of his musical career back to the jazz band, though it was later aided by a job he landed working at a Dallas music store. There, he met other musicians before setting off on tour as an inspiring professional – a trip that eventually brought him to Missoula.

The story involves a drummer and a January road trip. While he doesn't elaborate on his first winter night in the Garden City, he does recall his simple reasoning: If he could tolerate his first Montana winter, he could easily endure the summer. And so he stuck around. The seasons passed and the years flew by – 41 to be exact. The mathematics place him here on a Friday night, “jamming” Americana with his pals.

“You see a lot of friends out and everything like that,” said Bond. “Bars are all about alcohol, the bottom line and the till. Playing here, you get all that pressure off your back and play for your friends and the enjoyment of it. It's a lot different.”

Carney – his father really was a “carnie,” the band says – is still out mixing it up with the art crowd while Kimberlee Carlson, the band's occasional singer, cools her vocal cords with a swig of bottled water.

Decked out in a finely shaped cowboy hat with denim tucked into her boots, she too reflects on the path that placed a guitar in her hand while standing before a giant yellow painting rendered by artist Robert Moore.

Carlson grew up in the greater Los Angeles area and got her start as a dancer. While she's fearful her story won't bridge what she perceives to be a generation gap, I too remember MTV's early music videos and the hip-hop dancers to which Carlson once belonged.

“I was around at the time when music videos were starting,” Carlson said. “I was in a dance group called The LA Knockers. We saw ourselves as the female version of The Lockers.”

Barnaby Wilde2
Base player Johnny Johnson, left, rounds out Barnaby Wilde at a recent performance in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Carlson describes The Lockers as the 1970s Soul Train dancers who pioneered street dance. The all-male group went on to perform on Saturday Night Live, the Dick Van Dyke Show, the Carroll Burnett Show, and The Tonight Show Staring Johnny Carson.

As Carlson tells it, the LA Knockers represented the female version of The Lockers. Not to be outdone by The Lockers, the LA Knockers also toured nationally, playing the Playboy Club and dancing to the Village People and other classics, including “It ain't the meat, it's the motion.”

“As all good dancers do, one becomes a waitress,” Carlson joked. “I got into a really good restaurant and really got into food at the beginning of that California food craze, and I started doing comedy cooking.”

In another pop-culture flashback, Carlson appeared as a dancer in “Back to School” starring Rodney Dangerfield. A few years later, she produced TBS Superstation's popular “Dinner and A Movie” show on Friday nights, and co-authored several books by the same title.

More recently, Carlson founded the Kimberlee Carlson Jazz Trio. She and Bond jump in when Carney calls on behalf of Barnaby Wilde. Yes, Carlson says, it's spelled like “Barnaby Jones” for those who remember the show.

As the for the band, it also includes Susie Wall and bass player Johnny Johnson.

“Bond and I play in a Western swing band together, and we love to come play with the others,” Carlson said. “The fellowship is really great and we love the repertoire. (Carney) describes it as hillbilly jazz.”

Carney returns from his wanderings, though he's in no mood for a serious interview. He calls himself a Muslim by inclination and says the women in Barnaby Wilde are his wives.

As for the group's music, Bond applies a more serious description.

“They came up with the term Americana, but so much music that comes out of America jumps boundaries,” Bond said. “We're doing swing and traditional country, but you might here the Beatles or Neal Young. It's just a party band. It's just good-timing music.”