At Home with Pink Floyd, Jimmy Buffet, Bryan Adams, and at the Pine Creek Cafe
BY PAT HILL
Bill Payne is well-known to rock and roll enthusiasts as a founding member of the band Little Feat, but these days you can find him more often than not in the Paradise Valley region of southwest Montana where he has found a place he’s glad to call home.
The 62-year-old Payne is the last living member of the original Little Feat four-man ensemble, having joined Lowell George in forming the band in Los Angeles in 1969. His songwriting credits with Little Feat include Oh, Atlanta and Time Loves a Hero, to name a few. Regarded as one of the best on piano and Hammond B3 organ in the music world, over the years Payne has worked with a stunning array of artists—Jimmy Buffet, Pink Floyd, Bryan Adams, Jackson Browne, James Taylor. Owing to his artistry and musical prowess, the list continues in a way that might seem tedious were it not so impressive—the Doobie Brothers, J. J. Cale, Emmylou Harris, Bob Seger, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks.
Payne performs with Little Feat though to this day, and locally, including an upcoming show at Targhee Fest in Wyoming in mid-July. He can also be found playing keyboard with local bands like the Hooligans at venues such as the Pine Creek Cafe in Paradise Valley, and at an April 1 benefit at Bozeman’s Emerson. Payne counts many of those locals he plays music with as friends, and the sense of a close-knit neighborhood (though encompass-ing many square miles) is something Payne said he feels very fortunate to have.
Within ten years after Little Feat got rolling, Payne paid his first visit to Montana. He told the Pioneer the band had never toured in the Treasure State, and while on a trip to Yellowstone Park, he decided to “cross the border” into Big Sky Country.
“That was in ’78 or ’79…probably even earlier,” Payne told the Pio-neer. “I thought it would be nice…to say that, at least, I’d been there.” Payne said with a chuckle that he “made it into Gardiner, maybe a little bit farther, and then I turned around and went back into the Park.” But Payne said that a read through a National Geographic book featuring scenic places in the United States was what really got him back to the upper Yellowstone River country. The section that caught his eye was the beautiful Highway 89 corridor from Livingston to Gardiner.
“I said to myself, ‘Gosh, I was down in Gardiner once,’” Payne recalled. “So I really wanted to check that out. I’d been looking for property for about three years. In 1980, when I finally got here, and Montanans can certainly understand this, I was scheduled to fly into Missoula, but because of bad weather, the flight was re-routed to Helena. So I found myself over the next few days driving down towards Bozeman, because I wanted to see that place in the National Geographic book.” Payne said that he arrived in Bozeman on March 17, 1980, only to have to delay his trip into the Paradise Valley another day, because the Bozeman Pass was closed due to heavy snow in the mountains. He said that was his first hint “that Montana was probably a pretty weather-oriented place.”
After the Pass had opened back up, Payne made it over the hill to meet with a realtor, Duane Lindeman. Payne had told Lindeman what he was looking for: a south-facing view, rocks, water…even a little cactus was okay. Lindeman said “I know where to take you.” It turned out Lindeman was dead-on.
“And so we went to where my house is today…the Tom Miner Basin,” said Payne. He said he checked out the flood plain first, then the water.
“I wanted to be out of the flood plain…as a Californian, I’d seen houses washed away during flood season…usually in five- to seven-year increments,” Payne said. “As a Westerner, I was concerned with and knew about water. It’s nice to have the river down there, but is there any access to water…that you can drink, that you can wash the dishes with?” He said Lindeman cut a limb off of a tree, “witched” for water, and found it.
He’s a big guy, and it actually drove him to his knees,” said Payne. “He said, ‘Right there’s your water,’ and I made a mental note of it.” Payne said that a year later, when he built his house, he was informed, “Mr. Payne, we’re having a tough time finding water out here.” Payne said he showed the drillers where Lindeman had witched the water, and Lindeman was right. Payne said the drillers had to go a little deeper, but the water was there.
“I’ve been here for 30 years now, and one thing I haven’t had to do is re-do my well,” Payne said of his home, which is tucked away in a natural amphitheater of rocks.
“People tell me, ‘Gee, I never knew there was a house there,’ and I say ‘Well, yeah, that’s the idea,’” Payne said with a laugh.
Livingston had nudged at Payne in another way. He said that although he’d planned the Highway 89 corridor trip mentally, business got in the way. Payne said he was called to do some performances with Jackson Browne “on some Indian reservations in North and South Dakota,” and somewhere on the Dakota tour he picked up a People magazine containing a story about the Living-ston area.
“I said ‘Wait a minute…this is the place I want to go,’” Payne told the Pioneer. As he delved into the story, Payne said he saw that other artists had also been drawn to the area: Warren Oates, Sam Peckin-pah, Richard Brautigan, Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda, and more. The list of names brought about some concerns for Payne initially.
“I see that they’re all up in this area,” said Payne, “but I’m trying to get away from Hollywood…I don’t want to go to Hollywood…it was like Hollywood goes to Montana.” But when he was first driving down the Highway 89 corridor with Duane Lindeman to go see the property that he would one day own, Payne said to himself, “I will never see these people… this is a big place.”
“It’s ironic, you know,” said Payne. “I just recently met Jeff Bridges for the first time. He’s been here over 30 years, and I’ve been here for 30, yet it’s the first time I’ve ever run across him. Jeff is a really private person and a great guy.” And Payne has made lots of other friends in those 30 years.
“Everyone has that romantic notion of the West, and I had that going, too…but I gotta admit, in the beginning, I didn’t think I’d be spending that much time here, especially in the winter,” said Payne, who had grown up in balmy Califor-nia. But he soon took up cross-country skiing and other winter activities, and Payne said his notion of the winter soon changed as well.
“I think the winters are what keeps it honest,” he said. “You’ve got to have a really good head on your shoulders and a pretty good heart to withstand that stuff. And I’ve got to say that the community up there, in that particular valley [Paradise Valley] is extraordinary.” He said his swath of friends and neighbors ranges from farmers and ranchers to restaurateurs, writers and other performers.
“It’s a very eclectic group of folks,” Payne said. “All highly intelligent…you could be in New York, London, anywhere…and meet a crowd like that. But you’re not in those places…you’re in Livingston, Montana. We’ve all thought, ‘What is the magnet…?’”
Payne said “just getting away from the norm” is part of the magnet for him.
“Big cities are interesting,” Payne said, “I enjoy going to them. But when I want to land someplace, and I mean that in a spiritual as well as a physical aspect, I want to be in a place that feels like home to me. I’ve always been a carpetbagger wherever I go…I was born in Waco, Texas, raised in California, I’ve lived up in Michigan, and I’ve had a place in Montana since 1980. I’ve been in a band since I was 15 years old…I’ve been in Little Feat since I was 20…I just turned 62. So there’s certain institutions that I’ve been involved in, but I’ve also floated around a great deal…working with Jimmy Buffett, Bob Seger, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, to name a few. You want a place that has a feeling of permanence.”
Payne said after 30 years he thinks he’s starting to get a sense of his community in the Paradise Valley. He said he wants to share the experiences he’s had along the way with the people he’s now come to know as friends. He’s added photography to his repertoire of skills, and he’s still playing music, releasing a solo album, Cielo Norte, in 2005.
“I don’t have an exact timetable, but I want to introduce some people to what I do, too,” Payne said, “to my piano playing, to my photogra-phy, to what I’ve lived, to what I’ve experienced. I think it’s the perfect community to do that, and I’m very excited about the prospect of it.”
But you never know when you might run across Payne performing magically with his keyboards. Payne and Rodney Crowell sat in on a recent impromptu performance with the Hooligans at the Pine Creek Cafe, and Payne performs again with the Hooligans on April 1 at Bozeman’s Emerson Theatre. That show also includes locals Pinky and the Floyd, and is a fundraising event for KGLT radio in Bozeman.
“He’s very happy to do it for us,” said Tom Garnsey of Vootie Productions. Garnsey is also a member of the Hooligans band, and will be performing with Payne on April 1.
“He will also be at Targhee Fest with Little Feat [in mid-July],” said Garnsey. “We’re proud to have him…both as a person and as a pro. He’s highly regarded…Bill’s one of the top five rockers there are.”
“Sitting in with Tom Garnsey’s band is always a treat,” said Payne, who counts Garnsey among his many Montana friends. “I feel good about where I live…in fact, I feel proud of it, after so many years of just running around…I feel like I’m actually starting to become of something, which I never felt in LA. That’s a hard place to feel connected to, to be honest. I feel very connected in this [Paradise] Valley, and I thank my friends for it.”