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Unique nonprofit music co-op celebrates growth

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On any given Saturday night at the Red Poppy in Ronan, you might see the spirited 84-year-old Diane Torres, pounding out some boogie-woogie on the keyboard, while a young headbanger jams on one guitar, a bluegrass player plucks another, and a jazz aficionado strums standup bass. 

While it might sound like a recipe for cacophony, harmony usually ensues from this freewheeling jam session, hosted by the Western Montana Musicians Cooperative. 

“They don’t know each other from anything but none of that matters when they come here,” says Doug Ruhman, who cofounded the co-op nearly two years ago with Keith Rennie. “They just all play together … It’s like painting a beautiful picture and everybody is holding a brush.”

Ruhman and Rennie officially launched the nonprofit co-op in October 2019, but it was an idea that had been fermenting for years. Rennie is a harmonica player and lawyer, while Ruhman is a veteran guitarist and vocalist who performed with the popular Mission Valley band Gladys Friday for a decade. A teacher by trade, he now serves as dean of the Division of Education at Salish Kootenai College. 

The two long-time friends and colleagues hatched the idea of a musicians’ cooperative while setting up instruments in Ruhman’s living room for a practice session. 

“We thought wouldn’t it be cool to have a place where you could walk in and everything would be set up and you could just play? And when you were done, you’d just turn off the switches and go home,” recalls Ruhman. 

At first, it seemed “like a silly idea,” but it wouldn’t leave them alone. Rennie understands nonprofits and business law, while Ruhman knows a slew of musicians and had gear to contribute. They started looking for venues, but most were “too small or too expensive.” 

The Red Poppy, with its 20-by-40 foot stage, seemed ideal for the pair’s endeavor. The former arts center was on the market, but the owner agreed to rent them the space until it sold. 

The co-op took off immediately and quickly accrued 45 members and a lively following for Friday night open-mic sessions and Saturday jams. “We were really flying high,” says Ruhman, until COVID struck. Abruptly, musicians stopped playing, singers quit singing. The co-op, like almost everything else, went dark. 

A small group of musicians began to gather again in July, strictly adhering to local, state and federal guidelines to curb the spread of COVID-19. Musicians were masked and socially distanced on stage, and continually wiped down surfaces including drumsticks, microphones and keyboards. 

“We erred on the side of caution,” recalls Ruhman. “We didn’t want to get shutdown and we didn’t want anybody to get hurt.”

Those gatherings proved to be an important lifeline during such uncertain times. “There were people who were very distinctly different from each other, musically and politically and socio-economically,” Ruhman says. But during those jam sessions, “none of that mattered. We were just gathering around the music – it was that common passion that superseded everything else.”

“Humbling and gratifying” 

As the number of COVID cases dropped and guidelines loosened, the co-op has resumed its schedule with an open mic at 7 p.m. Fridays and the jam session at 7 p.m. Saturdays (both are open to members and nonmembers, to perform and listen). 

Membership has inched up again too, from the 16 members who kept it afloat during the pandemic to the current roster of around 25. It costs $25 a month to belong, which gives members access to the performance space and its flock of instruments every evening and all day Saturday and Sunday (two-hour blocks may be reserved via an online sign-up). Bands with three members or more can enlist for $15 apiece, and several are using the Red Poppy as a rehearsal space. 

The stage is currently equipped with seven guitars, two basses, two drumsets and four keyboards (including a baby grand piano and a Hammond organ), plus a sound system. And donations keep arriving. A few weeks ago, Ruhman says, someone dropped off three violins, another keyboard and a suitcase full of gear, while another supporter donated an entire PA system, which the co-op can rent out for income. 

They’ve also added some innovative features. A Bluetooth system connects to the soundboard so musicians can use phones or tablets to play recorded background tracks. A new Smart TV, hung above the stage, allows musicians to cue up a song, and have chords and lyrics scroll on screen as they play.  

A women’s choral group is practicing there on a regular basis, and members hope to encourage more youth involvement and offer lessons. Ruhman also envisions expanding the organization to live up to its name, Western Montana Musicians Cooperative, by launching satellites in Thompson Falls (where community members have already expressed interest) and the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys. 

True to its foundation as a cooperative, all members have a voice in the organization, which meets every other month. 

On Memorial Day weekend, the co-op celebrated its many successes with a long postponed open house that included a food truck, beer from the Ronan Cooperative Brewery and, of course, loads of live music. “All of the musicians who performed were part of this family of people,” says Ruhman. “It’s so humbling and gratifying.”

In just 20 months, what seemed like a “silly idea” envisioned by two friends has evolved into a dream come true. “But what we didn’t think about then was what an amazing thing it is for the community,” says Ruhman. “We were looking for convenience – we never imagined it would be such an anchor for people.” 

“Most of us like to be able to create something beautiful with others and music gives you a way to do that,” he adds. “And when you have half a dozen or two dozen people in the room all taking it in and loving it and showing their appreciation when you’re done, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

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