The Ringling Five, really seven plus a drummer, sang, twanged and joked their way through a fun performance at the Lincoln Center last week.
They were eight men dressed Western, complete with Stetsons, boots and chaps.
The program blurb poked fun at Hollywood’s version of the American cowboy. But this band of kinfolk, (“Everyone in Wilsall is cousins”) whether they ride horses these days or four wheelers, proves yet again that there’s no wrestler, no linebacker, no bullfighter more macho than a Montana rancher. The Big Sky has made these troubadours tough.
But not too tough. Their humor covers the spectrum, from witty to slapstick. But they’re also about self respect, individuality and connection with the past.
They started performing together sometime in the early 1980s, no one’s sure exactly when.
“We just started singing at local events,” said Larry Lovely, publicist, booking agent and lead guitar. “Jimmy Buffet was hitting it big. We were singing ‘Ringling, Ringling’ and ‘Livingston Saturday Night’ from the movie ‘Rancho Deluxe.’ So we just kind of picked Ringling for our name.”
Ken Arthun, the sort of emcee, has another label. “We’re Norwegians from the Twin Cities,” he said. “That’s Wilsall and Clyde Park in the Shields Valley.”
But Montana Norskis didn’t stop off in the Midwest and take up dairy farming. That later bunch of immigrants didn’t even bother with a boat.
“Ole and Lena walked hand in hand together across the ocean,” the audience is told. And they didn’t stop until they hit the mountains.
Montana’s Norwegian bachelor ranchers are more fun than Garrison Keillor’s bachelor farmers. They aren’t “pure, mostly.” One single rancher fellow moonlighted as an insurance salesman, leaving more than policies up and down the valley. You betcha!
Ever wonder what “Oofta” means? The Ringling Five have the definitive answer to that puzzler.
Or not? Maybe? “When I holler oofta, I mean that I love you.” In what context would this Nordic swain be shouting that word? The audience is encouraged to guess.
Another new classic: “If Jesus was Norski.” Jesus is Yeesus, and the saints are also rebaptized accordingly. It’s all original lyrics and melody.
“Everyone’s been involved in the song writing,” said Larry Lovely, the group’s spokesman.
Over the years, they’ve come up with an intriguing mix of parody, gospel and nostalgia, along with a dash of the bawdy for seasoning.
Parodies? They’ve got parodies. “I love, I love, I love my little cow-ow-ow herd” rocks to the tune of “Calendar Girl.” And then there’s “Rainin’ Rainin’ Rainin,’ it just keeps on rainin’” to the theme from “Rawhide.”
All their songs ripple along, sometimes in unison, sometimes in close harmony; a loving musical patter on ranch life as it’s lived at the bottom of America’s food chain.
These are men who can laugh at themselves. As anyone who’s connected with ranching knows, you’d better learn to laugh or you’ll be crying a lot.
“You place your trust in Mother Nature and the Good Lord,” said Larry Lovely. “Looks like Mother Nature’s had PMS lately,” he added with a chuckle.
But don’t despair. All is not work for the modern cowboy. There’s Hooter’s Hardware in Bozeman, “the place where gentlemen prefer to buy.”
Buy what? you may ask. Anything from live chicks and salt licks to Carhartt shirts, all from those cute, perky young ladies at the checkout counter.
From their new gospel album, “Faithful Sinners,” the men sang “Cowboy Church,” a gentle hymn about one of the true blessings of their lives: time alone to worship God surrounded by His creation.
“Living Water” tells about being nothing but a dry blade of grass, and then, by God’s grace, engulfed in living water, returned to community and value.
How talented are these hombres? They’re amazing. They all have some musical training, and they all contribute to the ever-changing repertoire.
Don Oberquell, called Obie by his friends, writes both lyrics and tunes, plays the guitar, the harmonica, the fiddle, you name it. He’s probably the slightest man in the troupe, but for the polka he played a battered 47-pound, 1907 Sousaphone that he’d purchased from Helena High School.
The other Don, Mr. Seifert, plays bass guitar, which he can only play upside down and left-handed. He plays lead guitar right-handed, the banjo, and a beat-up, red accordion he picked up at a thrift store.
He also composes and has a new song out called “Grandpa’s Barn.” It’s about the first building the old man built when he homesteaded. The barn is 70 and grandpa’s 90. It’s a great ballad: a tender mixture of love and memories. Google The Ringling Five and you can hear it on YouTube.
The Ringling Five have played on Long Island, in New Jersey, and as far away as Florida. But mostly they stick around Montana, Wyoming, Alberta and North Dakota. They’re singers, actors and comedians, the ranch version of the Montana Logging and Ballet Company.
Want to set up a gig? “For a good time, call Larry” – Larry Lovely, that is, at (406) 686-4466.