Tester and Ament: Flattops, grunge brothers and that “Big Sandy vibe”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, left, and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, both from Big Sandy, engage in a casual conversation emceed by Missoula Mayor John Engen at the Wilma on Sunday in downtown Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

From the “Big Sandy vibe” to haircuts, farming and social justice, Sen. Jon Tester and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament indulged in a live chat Sunday emceed by Mayor John Engen.

While the 30-minute conversations before a crowd of 800 people saw the mayor take up the guitar and sing a three-key ode to “flattop” and “six more years,” the discourse steered clear of politics.

Rather, it landed on the lighter issues ranging from Pearl Jam’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame to how Tester ended up with a flattop haircut. Along with his shortage of fingers, it’s become one of his trademarks.

As for the hair, Tester said, it came courtesy of Ament’s father, George.

“George is the guy who first patented this haircut on my head,” Tester said. “One time I walked in and said I wanted curly hair, so he gave me curly hair. I walked into a school board meeting and had this fluffy hair all over, and that didn’t work too good. So we decided to go with the low maintenance version, which was the high and tight flattop.”

Tester said he was due for a fresh haircut, to which Engen agreed.

“You’re starting to look a little Missoula hippy,” Engen said. “I have Birkenstocks your size, just so you’re aware.”

Tester and Ament said they met in Big Sandy back in their school days, with Tester refereeing several of Ament’s fifth-grade basketball games. They both attended the University of Montana, and both held a fascination with music.

Ament would later make a career of it.

“He was this bass player who was doing pretty well for himself, but everyone thought, ‘no way in hell, it’s not going to happen,’ ” Tester said. “But guess what, it did happen. What’s it been now, 28 years this guy has been hitting it out of the park?”

With Ament on the bass, Pearl Jam was recently inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. While the years have flown by, Ament didn’t expect to still be playing in a band at the age of 55.

The group endured hard times, he said, but emerged as better friends and better musicians.

“The early years were tough for the band,” Ament said. “Second or third record, I think we maybe thought that was going to be it. Somehow, someway we navigated our way through that.”

Other lessons came with it, Ament added.

“That’s really formed who we are and it’s taught us a lot about being open minded, tolerant and good listeners,” Ament said. “It took 28 yeas to allow us to get to that. It’s like a marriage. If you can navigate the rough waters and get 30 years in, there’s some really special stuff happening, and that’s where we’re at.”

Roughly 800 people packed the Wilma on Sunday night to listen as Sen. Jon Tester, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and Missoula Mayor John Engen chatted on issues ranging from the “Big Sandy vibe” to social justice. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While Ament pursued a career in music, Tester went into politics. He started on the Big Sandy School Board and was first elected to the Montana Legislature in 1998. In 2006, he topped incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and is now seeking his third term in office this November.

Serving in Washington, he said, is his way of giving back.

“It’s about what my grandparents and parents did for me,” Tester said. “We wouldn’t be where we are if not for the preceding generation. They sacrificed a lot, stuck it out and went through tough times. What they did for me says we need to make opportunities for the next generation and the one after that. That’s why I serve.”

Tester and Ament both stated a desire to represent the voiceless. Ament said playing in a world-renowned band has put Pearl Jam in touch with the struggles and desperation some face in their everyday lives.

Their music, he said, reflects that.

“It makes you want to be their voice,” he said. “A lot of those people don’t have a voice. We’ve built this platform that allows us to comment and have an opinion. It’s what makes the band great. It’s what I love about it.”

Tester said he, too, works for the people.

“My favorite part about Montana is the people,” he said. “The people are the best, whether they agree with you or disagree with you, it doesn’t matter. They’re the best. There’s no other place like Montana.”

The full 33 minute live stream can be viewed on the Missoula Current’s Facebook page.