Austin Amestoy: Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I’m your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We’ll answer questions, big or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans for Montana, this is the Big Why.
Reporter Edward O’Brien joins us today. Hey, Ed.
Edward O’Brien: It is great to be back. Austin, thanks so much for the invite.
Austin Amestoy: For this episode, we’re stepping back from the frenetic hustle and bustle of modern life, yeah?
Edward O’Brien: Yeah, to find a momentary refuge in that old romantic trope of the American West. Cattle drives and sleeping under the stars. For this Big Why question, a listener was curious about the song you’re hearing right now. Montana’s official state lullaby.
[Ken Overcast singing Montana Lullaby] … sun sinkin’ low in the west and I know another day on the range has gone by …
Austin Amestoy: Wait, Montana has an official state lullaby?
Edward O’Brien: It sure does. And what’s more, we’re the only state in the nation to have one.
Austin Amestoy: Okay, well, consider my curiosity piqued. What prompted our listener to ask about it?
Edward O’Brien: Well, the question comes from Helena’s Carol Ann Dagenais. She’s a retired teacher and a fourth-generation Montanan.
Carol Ann Dagenais: We’ve just always been very proud of our Montana roots and our Montana heritage.
Edward O’Brien: A while back, Carol Ann, while researching a report for a group she belongs to, discovered Montana has that official state lullaby.
Carol Ann Dagenais: So what was it? Who wrote it? How long has it been an official lullaby?
Austin Amestoy: All excellent questions. And I’m betting you went right to the source, Ed.
Edward O’Brien: I did. I reached out to the 75-year-old rancher and musician who helped create and perform the Montana Lullaby.
Ken Overcast: Hi, this is Ken Overcast, and we live in Chinook, Montana.
Austin Amestoy: Chinook, northern Montana, right?
Edward O’Brien: Smack dab between Havre and Harlem and beautiful Hi-Line country.
Ken Overcast: My dad used to say, there’s nothing between us and the North Pole except a three-wire barbed-wire fence.
Edward O’Brien: Ken tells me his ranching family has seen it all, boom, bust and everything in between. In addition to being a working rancher, Overcast is a singing cowboy who wears a patch over his right eye. He lost it in a ranching accident involving the old worn stirrups of a saddle and a pair of needle-nose pliers.
Austin Amestoy: Ow! That hurts just thinking about it.
Ken Overcast: Well, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing, but the good Lord knew how stupid I was. So he gave me two eyes.
Austin Amestoy: And a minute ago, you described Ken as a singing cowboy?
Edward O’Brien: Yup. He’s had a love affair with music since the 1960s, when he’d play high school dances.
Ken Overcast: And then when times get tough on the ranch in the ’70s and the ’80s, I was playing in a dance band and we were playing a couple of nights a week. And that was the only way I had of feeding my kids.
Edward O’Brien: Ken is an accomplished and talented yodeler and his musical passions lie in gospel and old school western ballads about wide-open spaces and riding the range.
Austin Amestoy: So, like the state lullaby.
Edward O’Brien: Mmhmm. So a lullaby is generally defined as a gentle song designed to soothe a child. And the Montana lullaby, I think, certainly fits that bill.
[Ken Overcast singing Montana Lullaby] … Jenny’s at home, waitin’ alone …
Edward O’Brien: It’s basically about a lonesome cowboy out on the range, missing Jenny, his sweetie. It’s uncomplicated, old school and just as sweet as molasses.
[Ken Overcast singing Montana Lullaby] … The wind in the pines, whispers she’s mine …
Austin Amestoy: Well, how did this song become the country’s first and only state lullaby?
Edward O’Brien: It wasn’t by design. The original tune was written in the ’90s by Ken’s pal and fellow cowboy singer Wylie Gustafson from Conrad. Back then, it was just a cowboy ditty with no lyrics. A yodel called the Big Sky Lullaby. Well, Ken really liked what he heard, and the guys tweaked it until it became what it is today.
Ken Overcast: I recorded it and then I sent the CD around to people who I thought would play it on the radio. And lo and behold, one of them wound up in Billings at KGHL.
Edward O’Brien: So that’s a classic country music station. DJ Lonnie Bell and former Yellowstone County Museum Director Maurice Deverill, both of whom have since passed on, came up with the idea to promote it as Montana’s official lullaby. So they reached out to Saco area rancher and former state legislator Wayne Stahl for help during the 2007 session.
Wayne Stahl: And everybody kind of laughed and said, well, you’ll never get that passed. And I said, ‘oh, that’s a piece of cake. Don’t worry about that.’
Austin Amestoy: Well, I’ve seen the Legislature at work, so that confidence is kind of surprising to me. Where did it come from?
Edward O’Brien: He simply thought it was a terrific song and an easy sale to fellow lawmakers. Stahl even arranged to have Ken perform acappella several times at the Capitol. He tells me that when Ken finished each performance, his audience was in …
Wayne Stahl: Total awe. There was a pause of silence. They were all like, holy camoly.
Austin Amestoy: So why did he agree to sponsor the bill for a state lullaby?
Edward O’Brien: Well, again, Stahl just liked it. But what’s more, he says it’s not unusual for lawmakers to have plenty of time on their hands before all the big-ticket bills take shape and suck all the air out of the room later in the session.
Austin Amestoy: Meaning state budget, taxes, social issues, things like that?
Edward O’Brien: Exactly. You know, Austin, if I could take a brief detour here. The Montana Lullaby is hardly the first bill designating an official state something or another to wend its way through the Legislature. Back in 1931, state lawmakers adopted the Western Meadowlark as Montana’s state bird. Agate and the Yogo sapphire were both adopted as Montana’s official state geological symbols in 1969. Thirteen years later, the mighty grizzly bear would be named our official state animal.
Austin Amestoy: And what about even more recently, the state lullaby was back in 2007.
Edward O’Brien: Well, we can look back just earlier this year, this past legislative session; as lawmakers were scrapping over some pretty serious issues, the huckleberry quietly became Montana’s official state fruit. Vaughan Elementary School students in Cascade County worked with Representative Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls to bring the measure to the Legislature, and she in turn brought in a bunch of really bright kids to testify for the cause.
Caleb Broaddus: I believe huckleberry should be the state fruit because they are almost entirely undomesticated.
Edward O’Brien: One by one this spring, the Vaughn fourth graders bravely stood before the State House Administration Committee and presented some really cool huckleberry-related facts to make their case. At the end of the surprisingly comprehensive and thoroughly charming and wholesome real world civics lesson at the Montana State Capitol, the committee voted.
State House Administration Committee chair: All those in favor say huckleberry.
State House Administration Committee members: Huckleberry.
State House Administration Committee chair: Any opposed, say no. I think the huckleberries have it.
Edward O’Brien: The bill to designate the huckleberry as Montana’s state fruit eventually landed on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk, and by gosh, he signed it into law right there at Vaughn Elementary.
Austin Amestoy: What a cool story. But with all those big issues lawmakers have to contend with every session piling up, why add to that pile with stuff like this? Don’t some people find it all kind of frivolous?
Edward O’Brien: Some do, sure. Plenty of others, however, believe they serve a purpose and help weave the tapestry of Montana life and culture. Here’s former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who signed the lullaby bill into law back in ’07.
Brian Schweitzer: This is a story about Montana. If they don’t cost you any money, why not?
Edward O’Brien: And I suspect Carol Ann Dagenais, who asked The Big Why gang about Montana’s official state lullaby, would agree. She tells me she got a kick out of learning about the song’s origin story.
Carol Ann Dagenais: How wonderful. It should be part of the music curriculum. Our grade school students especially, would like to learn about this.
Austin Amestoy: Well, thanks for sharing your reporting with us, Ed.
Edward O’Brien: You bet.
Austin Amestoy: Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. Submit your questions below. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving a review. Lets see what we can discover together!