What once was a small church fallen out of use has been renovated into an intimate venue for music.
John Parker's project, called Longstaff House, wasn't originally intended to be one.
The Florence resident had retired from teaching and was driving up to Missoula multiple times a week to play music — he's the bass player for Lochwood, among many other groups, going back to Finley Creek in the 1970s and '80s.
He started looking for a house to fix up, and found a former church building on the corner that was a good bargain. A lifelong builder, he redid the basement into living quarters and kept the ground floor as an open plan. He stripped out the carpet and shined the hardwood floors. There's a small stage and an upright piano and a warm sound.
A musician friend asked him if they could play a little house show, an idea that he'd already had in mind. He said yes, and the project grew.
"If you want to hear high quality music in an intimate setting, this is the kind of place to come to," he said. "And if you want to play music in an intimate setting, this is the place to come play, and I think that's what people find out. They certainly count the money they make, but it's more of an experience."
That was in December 2017. Since then, he's hosted more than 40 concerts, mostly acoustic string band combos playing old-time, bluegrass or Americana.
Some of them have nationwide reputations: Fiddler Darol Anger was a member of the David Grisman Quintet. Edda Glass, a jazz-Americana singer, has played at Wilco's curated festival, Solid Sound. Clinton Fearon, a Kingston reggae artist, has played on classic records by Lee "Scratch" Perry and, here in Missoula, headlined the River City Roots Festival. Wood Belly, a Colorado group, won the Telluride Band Contest in 2018. Bill Mize, a part-time Missoula resident, has won national guitar competitions.
It's not just musicians with awards, or decades of experience, or both. He says yes to younger groups just cutting their teeth. Regardless of the phase of their careers, they're hungry for places to play.
"House concerts are getting really popular lately because it's a way for touring bands to fill in spaces," said Parker, who knows people in other towns in Montana who are doing the same thing.
As he knows from tours with his groups, the modern industry isn't any easier on musicians now than it was when he started, and time on the road needs to maximized.
"I've been playing for 50 years and I made more money dollar for dollar 30 or 40 years ago, and the cost of living has doubled since then, so any night you don't play, you lose money," he said.
The bands might be en route from Spokane to Colorado or wherever, and playing a small gig is more money than a night off. He averages around 35 people a show. Some as little as 10.
Technically, these are private parties. He emails his list of friends and music fans to invite them. He doesn't advertise or sell alcohol or serve food.
The band is "hired" to play and keeps all of money. At the first few shows, they collected cash with a box marked with a suggested donation. Attendance started to drop. So he wrote an email and sent it out to his list.
"It said the bands are here because they want to play for a good audience in a nice room. They're not here to make as much money as they possibly can. Don't stay home from a good show because you don't have $25, because you know if it's a five-piece band, that's probably what the sign will say," he said.
He doesn't know, but some people drop $20 and he once saw a set of three one-dollar bills.
He has regulars through that list of contacts he's cultivated.
"I have an email list of about 350 people that have come to a show at one time or another. They're not Facebook friends from Texas or whatever, they're people from around here that have been to shows," he said. He has regulars that have been to almost every one.
One of them is Deb Sostillo. "It's like having a show in your living room," she said. It's a little community where she sees friends and co-workers. She likes how the all-ages crowd is quiet and attentive compared to a bar. One concert that stood out to her was the Carlo Aonzo Trio, an Italian mandolin virtuoso who played the music her Italian father loved growing up.
Parker doesn't book on the weekends — he's usually playing with his bands, and he doesn't want to compete on the busiest nights anyway. Since the beginning, he hasn't solicited groups. A friend just helped him redesign his website. Another friend helps him with MailChimp. He doesn't have any plans to grow larger than it is.
He gets emails every other day from bands. He always tells them how his gigs work and is up front about the number of people that might turn out. Regardless of numbers, they might make connections that will prove valuable.
"Most people have been in the business, and this probably isn't going to be the most money they've ever made at a gig, but it's definitely not going to the be the least. Everybody's played for nobody at one time or another. So as long as people are happy with it, it'll keep happening," he said.