Before there was Russ Nasset, the honky-tonk frontman who gigs regularly at the Union Club, there was Russ Nasset, the folk singer.
Back in the winter of 1971, after a couple of years in college at the University of Montana, Nasset headed out to Eugene, Oregon, with aspirations of playing singer-songwriter gigs: coffeeshops, bars, even busking.
You can hear that side on his third solo album, "He Was Singin' This Song," a collection of 16 traditionals, many of which are cowboy or Western songs. The bulk are unaccompanied: just Nasset's weathered, drawling voice that's well-suited to stories of trouble, heartbreak, or wide open landscapes, and his vintage Martin guitar. His son, Sam Nasset, added some twangy electric guitar backing and leads, and there are a few other contributors, but for the most part, it's Nasset solo.
Nasset has "always been interested in traditional folk music," he said, and began collecting them for a loose concept album.
It opens with "Diamond Joe," a traditional he picked up from Ramblin' Jack Elliot way back in Oregon.
"Bob Dylan called him the king of the folk singers, and I have to agree," Nasset said.
Fans of folk music will probably recognize "Crazy Mountains," a traditional that Nasset made his own with some light revisions. Some versions are called "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," and an iteration is sung in the first scene of the Coen brothers film, "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"I came across an old book of cowboy songs and somebody had rewritten it as the Osage mountains," he said. "I think it's in Oklahoma, so I changed it to Crazy Mountains. Which you get to do with folk songs. You adapt them to your own style, your own whatever. I changed a few words and changed the way it came out."
It's a trick that Dylan did all the time, sometimes with 200-year-old ballads, he said. "That's what I love about traditional folk music."
He'd already recorded another traditional, "Shenandoah," before he realized Dylan had done it. Nasset's version has a slightly double-tracked vocal that adds a surprising and otherworldly touch and he doesn't feel at all weird about throwing in some use of modern recording technology, or double-tracking a baritone guitar.
"There are no rules. My late great bass player Ronnie Mason, he always said nobody owns music. Everybody gets to do whatever they want," he said.
Sam, who's been playing with his dad's band for 20 years, said the version of "Shenandoah" made him break out in tears when he first heard it. He said his dad's voice has had its unique character all the way back to decades-old recordings.
He said that tune also has some "cool instrumental interplay" between the acoustic guitar, the Telecaster and the baritone that sounds unique.
Another stand-out track to Sam is "The Sky Above and the Mud Below," by Tom Russell, which is "the spookiest song." A deacon catches two horse thieves and forces them to braid their own rope for a hanging, all relayed through Nasset's ominous delivery.
Dylan makes a direct appearance with "Billy," from his 1973 soundtrack to "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." It has the same dreamlike feel as tunes like "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," with Sam Nasset coloring in the background on guitar the whole tune.
He first heard Tex Ritter's version of "The Streets of Laredo" when he was a kid, and likewise thinks "My Home's in Montana" dates farther back then he's yet been able to find evidence for. His granddaughter, Ella, added back-up harmony vocals on that tune.
Nasset grew up in Shelby on the Hi-line right up against the border with Canada. It was, as now, a small-town, rural upbringing.
His family kept a horse when he was a little kid, and they went to the rodeo in the summer. He and his friends use to ride their horses to town or to a swimming hole.
His mom played piano, with books of gospel and Hank Williams songs. Any other music he heard was on the radio.
"It was actually pretty cool because at that time music was kind of independent. Every station, you could hear different kind of things, it wasn't all a format. Like a radio station could play anything they wanted," he said. It ran the gamut from British Invasion to Stax soul, or late-night blues. (Late in the album, he tackles Leadbelly's "When I Was a Cowboy," a country blues with allusions to racial harassment. Beyond that, it has a "yippie-kay-yay" style vocalizing and half-spoken verses that are suited to Nasset's voice.)
After spending a couple of years at UM, he headed out to Oregon, playing in "old-time Eugene before urban renewal."
"After a couple of years of that, I developed a little bit of reputation and a had a little bit of a following," he said. He was invited to back Rambling Rex, a rootsy rock-and-blues bandleader, who wanted to branch out into some country. They hailed from California, and already had a fan base that could fill a bar.
"I was in Montana for that summer, and there was like a crossroads moment for me. I had a ticket. They were sending me a ticket for a train to Portland to join the band, or I have another friend who was going to Nashville the next morning," he said.
He picked Oregon. He bought his first electric guitar and learned to play in a rock band.
"There's a big difference between those two instruments, even for a rhythm player like me. You can't just sit there and strum when you're playing in a rock 'n' roll band," he said.
Small-town bars would book touring bands for five-night runs.
"It was a way different scene back then. You could go to Moscow, Idaho, for a week, and then come up to Missoula for a week, and go to Grand Forks, North Dakota, for two weeks, whatever," he said
After 15 years, he decided to move back to Missoula where he raised his kids. In the 2000s, he landed a regular solo acoustic gig on Thursdays at the now-shuttered Old Post Pub. More recently, you can catch him at breweries like DraughtWorks in Missoula or Blacksmith in Stevensville.
"Since they took off, so did the amount of folk singers or solo performers," he said.
There's also his full-band gigs at the Union Club, including a regular one with the Revelators for maybe 15 years, usually about once a month.
"The Union's been really good to us. It's the only place the band plays in town," he said.
"You get the young students, you get the old hippies, businesspeople, university people," he said.
He's already recorded the basic tracks for another album out in Oregon with a former bandmate, Junior Manfredo, and his daughter, Veronica Manfredo, and plans to have Sam add guitar for a full-band record in the near future.
The Revelators are a completely different project from a solo record like "He Was Singin' This Song." The band members all contribute arrangements, for instance.
And there are no covers.
"It's all original," he said.