The Ringling 5
Ranching is a common way of life when it comes to many native Montanans. From the Bitterroot Mountains all the way to the badlands of eastern Montana, the economy thrives on agriculture and hard work. With all of the hours of tedious work that Montanans put in, occasionally they need to let loose and have a little fun. Whether this be a backyard barbecue, a day at the lake, or an evening concert, Montanans are always up for a good time.
Located in Wilsall, Montana, is a group of six musicians (Ken Arthun, Les Arthun, Chuck Dallas, Don Seifert, Larry Lovely, and Don “Obie” Oberquell) who know how to get the good times rolling. They found a way to perfectly depict the lifestyle of Montana’s ranchers and outdoorsmen through song. Their experiences as ranchers themselves give them insight and understanding to relate to the agricultural community. The band adds a humorous spin to the serious events and challenges that Montana’s rural community is faced with. They call themselves The Ringling 5.
The band got their name from the small town of Ringling, just west of Wilsall. When asked about the origin of their name, Ken says that originally they were going to call themselves the “Norwegian Studs of Rhythm.” After much consideration though, they decided that every town needs something named after it, and since they grew up around that area, it was only fitting to use the name Ringling. In the band’s early years, the group started out with only five members, which is how they came to be the Ringling 5.
The band members all developed an adoration of music from a young age. Individually, most of them acquired their appreciation for music from their high school music teacher, Mrs. Blin. Ken tells of her: “She had very high standards, so the high school music program always got really good ratings. She was something else.” He says that she was the reason he learned to love music. They also had other influences as well though. Obie informs me that his father had been a musician, so growing up around his father and his friends, he naturally picked up a passion for music. I think it’s safe to say that the band’s love affair with music that started from a young age hasn’t changed since.
Following high school, most of the band members went away to college, where Larry and Don started their own band back in 1968. “It was the Sixties, so we were playing a lot of rock ‘n’ roll,” Larry says. “The first song I learned was ‘Eve of Destruction.’” Upon graduation though, they came back to their small town of Wilsall and started playing music together, which is when the Ringling 5 was born.
At first, they admit, it was hard. They didn’t book very many shows, and when they did, they were paying out of their own pockets to get to them. Most of the shows they booked in the beginning were weddings or small parties. As time went on though, they started making money. “We got $50,” Larry says of their first paid show, playing ‘60s music in Bozeman. “And I think we spent $100 on pizza and beer to celebrate.” The more shows they played though, the more popular they became, and the more money they made. Eventually they were earning enough money to start recording their music, and they were able to start selling CDs and DVDs of themselves performing. They recorded their first record in 1988 with five original songs on it, one of which was their most popular number, “Pantyhose.” They set merchandise tables up to sell their music, and they would advertise them on stage. Larry tells me a punchline the band used to promote their CDs; “We have CDs and DVDs for sale tonight. They make really good gifts it there’s anyone you don’t particularly care for.”
Today the Ringling 5 have traveled all over the country to perform. They have been everywhere from New York to Florida and even Canada, including many concerts right here in Montana. They told me about a festival they have played for the last sixteen years in North Dakota. It typically brings in crowds of up to 90,000 people.
The group started out singing songs that had been made famous by other bands, like the Beatles, the Monkeys, and the Rolling Stones, who were some of Larry’s biggest musical influences. He says that in college, every lunch hour, he would play along with the songbook to the latest Monkeys album. Chuck says that some of his biggest musical influences were the Eagles and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Kenny concurs, adding Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash. As time went on though, and they grew together as a band, the group started writing their own music. They wrote about what they knew best, mostly ranching and their Norwegian roots. They like to add their own comical spin to the show as well. Ken says, “We’ve had shows where I look out in the crowd and everyone’s laughing, and then a couple minutes later, the same people are crying. That’s when you know it was a successful show.” Although the band focuses a lot on comedy, they do have some serious songs as well that are very relatable to the audience. Ken describes their style as “down home realism.”
The band has written many songs over the years, and they enjoy playing all of them. They do have some favorites though when it comes to the songs they enjoy performing most. One song that came up multiple times when asked about their favorite song to perform was a comical number called “Pantyhose.” This is a song that encompasses a lot of humor. The song starts out talking about trying on their wives’ pantyhose, so you can only imagine how the rest of it turns out. Another song that the band says they like to play is “If Jesus was a Norwegian.” This is another comical song about just what the title sounds like. One line of the song is written, “Walking on the water would not be a trick, because the ice in Norway is always awful thick.” Although the band has a lot of fun performing humorous acts, Obie says his favorite song to perform was actually a more serious piece off of their gospel CD. It is called “Living Water.” Don also has a more serious pick. He says his favorite song to play is called “Grandpa’s Barn.” This song was written about an actual barn that was built by one of the band member’s grandpas shortly after homesteading in Montana. It contains a deeper meaning about how, although it may look just like a worn out old barn, his grandpa’s whole life was in there. It was a place for family to hang out and grandkids to play. The song expresses many fond memories that were formed under that caved in roof. It is filled with real emotion behind the words, and it is evident how important that barn is to the family. At the end of the song, the band ends by reminding us that the next time we see an old, worn out barn, to take a closer look, because there is no doubt, it has greater meaning to someone somewhere. Ken says though that regardless of the song they are performing, “it is always a pretty cool feeling when the audience is there to enjoy you,” and Don concurs, adding “Being able to go out and play music with your good friends is pretty cool.”
The Ringling 5 is very unique, not only in the songs they sing, but also in the instruments that they play. They don’t stick to the typical guitar, bass, and drums. Although they do incorporate these instruments in their act, they also add some much more unconventional instruments into the mix. They play things like harmonica, mandolin, sousaphone, banjo, and accordion, and many of the band members play more than one instrument. Don says that he has been playing bass, guitar, banjo, and accordion since he was eleven years old. Obie also plays a unique mix of instruments. He plays harmonica, base, lead guitar, and a very unique 1907 four-valve sousaphone. They all have a very extensive history consisting of multiple instruments along with vocals. Their wide range of experience is part of what makes them great musicians.
Over the years of playing together, the group recalls many unforgettable memories. When asked about the most exciting event they have experienced at one of their concerts, Larry, Les, and Don all three have the same occurrence come to mind. They say they saw a man in a wheelchair sitting in the front row at one of their concerts in Big Timber. After the show, they started talking to him and his wife. The couple was from Oregon. In the recent past, the man had been in a coma for quite some time. During the time he was in the hospital, his wife attended a Ringling 5 concert and bought one of their CDs. She took it back home with her to Oregon and played it for her husband in the hospital. While the CD was playing, the man awoke from his coma. The couple said that this miraculous event compelled them to come back and see another show. The entire band agrees that it is a blessing to be able to touch peoples’ lives in such an intimate way, all while doing what they love.
The band members individually all stay very busy. Aside from music they all have full time jobs. The majority of them are ranchers, with a couple of exceptions. When he is not performing, Obie stays plenty busy by driving a school bus. He is retired now, but he used to be a band and choir director as well. Don also stays very busy in Bozeman. He owns a livestock feed business along with being a Gallatin County Commissioner. For this reason, the band doesn’t have much time to practice together. Obie says that the majority of their rehearsals and practices take place an hour or two prior to their shows. The band says that due to their crazy schedules, a large part of their performances consist of impromptu jokes, which always leads to a lot of laughter and fun interaction with the audience. Larry says that the band “never knows for sure what is going to happen on stage.” Obie chimes in that by the end of the show, his “cheeks always hurt from laughing so hard.”
The Ringling 5 is a band unlike any other. The laid-back nature of these six musicians makes them truly unique and sets them apart from other bands. They agree that one thing that makes them different than a lot of other bands is that there has never been much drama between the group. “We’ve had little disagreements here and there, but nothing big,” Les says. “Maybe it’s because we all have busy lives, so when we are together, we just have fun.” Ken emphasizes, “We never let egos get in the way of friendship,” and Obie adds, “Even after all these years, when we’re on stage, we can still laugh at each other.” He says he feels “truly blessed to be a part of this group.” I like to think this comes from their Montana roots and their passion for doing what they love. While pursuing their shared love of music, they never let themselves get too far away from their ranching lifestyles, which they agree has kept them humble and focused through the years.