After six years of living in his car and on couches, Dan Dubuque has a roof over his head, yet the highway still beckons
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Lido VizzuttiDan Dubuque gives detailed directions to his house, sprinkled with landmark references, even though an address would suffice. It’s right in town, easy to find. Then again, this is the first time he’s had an address in six years. He’s still getting the hang of it.
Dubuque recently moved into a house in Whitefish. Before then, from the ages of 26 to 32, he lived on the road as a traveling musician, sleeping in his car or on couches, sometimes with friends, other times with strangers he met at his gigs.
“I have a good sense for people,” he says as a way of preempting questions about the safety of such a lifestyle. “I can tell if they’re creepy.”
But Dubuque still plays gigs more days out of the year than not, all across Montana, making the house more of a base camp than a permanent residence. He puts 60,000 miles a year on his Honda Civic.
That’s the life of a working musician, which is all he ever wanted to be since the first time he picked up a guitar as an awkward teenager on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
In a way, his newly acquired address is the culmination of two decades of chasing that dream. The relentless pursuit can be exhausting, and even Dubuque will admit that it’s nice to have a place to call home.
“It’s a comfort,” he says. “I sleep more now. I like to just relax sometimes, go for a walk. It’s like I was running from something before. You can’t run forever.”
Dubuque may be one of the more recognizable musicians in Montana by virtue of his blue-collar approach to the craft. During the summer, he plays seven to 10 shows a week, in venues ranging from city streets to crowded bars to art galleries. It’s possible to encounter him multiple times in different places on the same day, as if his music is a background soundtrack to your life.
Furthermore, Dubuque stands out, as much for his talent as his choice of instruments. He plays the Weissenborn, a lap steel guitar popularized by Ben Harper, and the charango, a type of lute originating from native cultures in the South American Andes.
While he’s also adept on the acoustic and electric guitars, he figures that to make a name for himself he needs to carve out a niche. There are a lot of dudes with guitars.
Dubuque was born in Washington D.C., where his father, Leonard, who’s originally from Billings, worked for the U.S. Postal Service. After Leonard retired, he wanted to move the family to his native Montana and decided on Polson. Dan was 10.
As a shy, socially anxious kid, Dubuque struggled to rise above “new kid” status. It’s hard to be an outsider anywhere, but on the rez it can be brutal.
“Naturally I’m awkward,” he says. “It sets people off. I was a target everyday. That changed me.”
Already prone to, as he puts it, living inside his own mind, he grew more detached from his peers. Then one day, when he was 14, he went to a friend’s house and started plucking a guitar. He knew instantly that he’d found his avenue for communication – the conduit between his restless inner life and the outside world.
“I could just hear the notes,” he said. “I could understand them. But I didn’t know how to play.”
So he began practicing, thumping away on a cheap Ibanez until his fingers bled, all by ear.
“I was so hungry for it, I couldn’t stop,” he says.
To this day, he doesn’t read music or tablature. He listens, internalizes, then releases. He’s been known to learn a new song by listening to it on repeat while driving to a gig, where he then plays it for the first time.
“I tried tablature but I couldn’t understand how all these things on the page explained music,” he says. “Those books just collected dust.”
“To me, music is magic,” he adds. “It’s real life magic. Magicians are illusions. Musicians are magic.”
As much as music is a shared experience, Dubuque goes it alone, though he cherishes the relationship he has with audiences. He just doesn’t play with other people, which he attributes more to his own anxieties and nit-pickiness than distaste for partners. He has a sound in his head that only he can reconstruct. He concedes that the combination of his temperament and sophisticated ear can be both a blessing and a curse.
“I don’t think I could do what I do if I wasn’t a little off,” he says. “That’s the whole blessing, curse thing, but I embrace it.”
After high school, Dubuque attended the University of Montana’s Missoula College of Technology and earned his certification to be a motorcycle mechanic. Voices from his upbringing kept telling him that he needed to pursue a “useful” career, not music. But it didn’t take him long to figure out that he was, unavoidably, a musician, not a mechanic. A stint as a firefighter didn’t fulfill him, either.
Dubuque tried to make a go of it in New York and Los Angeles, busking for change on subways and street corners or the Venice Beach boardwalk, maybe playing a gig here and there at a Santa Monica club. He worked side jobs, including at a bookstore and as a stagehand, but he found that it was hard to concentrate when notes and melodies were constantly jangling through his brain.
“I really tried to be a good worker – I meant well – but I just couldn’t pay attention,” he said. “I had music in my head all the time.”
He went broke and headed back to Montana, moving in with a girlfriend in Missoula. He quickly discovered that living inside his own musical worlds had the same consequences for relationships as it did for jobs.
Newly single and deeply unhappy with his music career, Dubuque decided to go all in. He started applying for gigs everywhere in Montana, no matter how shabby or distant the venue. He narrowed down his instrument repertoire to the Weissenborn and charango. He grew comfortable spending long stretches of his life in a car.
Six years later, he can pay rent without a side job. He’s booked year round, and he has a roof over his head.
Many people associate lap steel guitars, in their various forms, with country and blues. The instruments are played with a slide, as opposed to fingers pressing the strings against the fret, rendering sharp twangs and a tinny resonance naturally befitting of those genres.
But Dubuque, now 33, has honed a style all his own by infusing his music with a controlled ferocity that, to appropriate the trade lingo, rocks. He does pitch-perfect renditions of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” He often simultaneously plays a song’s percussion and guitar or bass parts, or transitions between them. A YouTube video of him playing Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” is hypnotic.
“It’s not a gimmick,” he says, explaining that he tries to channel the original artist’s true spirit, not merely mimic the song’s structure and sound. “When I play, I’m trying to get into the soul of somebody.”
Onstage, it often looks like he fulfills those soul-entering aspirations. Since he doesn’t sing, his face contorts not with vocal annunciations but with unfettered feeling. He closes his eyes and sticks out his tongue, like Michael Jordan midflight. His head bobs and weaves. Some people might call it a trance. It’s as if the audience isn’t there, which has led to complaints, though he says it’s not an affront to listeners; it’s the only way he can play.
While Dubuque acknowledges music’s math, he strives for a realm beyond numbers and notations. When he hears interviews with heroes like Hendrix and Keith Richards, he says they don’t sound like mathematicians or music teachers, but more like Picasso or van Gogh.
“You hear stories about van Gogh cutting his ear off,” he says. “No wonder he was sensitive. He felt every bit of life.”
Dubuque made one demo CD years ago, which remains the extent of his recording career. Audience members occasionally record videos and post them on YouTube, but Dubuque’s Internet presence is minimal. He doesn’t have a website, just a Facebook page, and in general he’s skeptical of the digital revolution. He doesn’t do iTunes or the like; he prefers to listen to CDs.
“I’m working on being good enough to make an album,” he says. “People tell me I’m already good enough, but I’m really hard on myself. I want to be great.”
Dubuque draws inspiration from his parents, who fought distinct battles in finding their places in the world. His father is a Vietnam veteran who coped with the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder. His mother, Nieves, is an Aymara Indian from the Bolivian Andes who escaped systemic oppression and destitute poverty by getting a job as housekeeper for an ambassador. When the ambassador brought her along on a trip to Miami, she begged to stay. She never returned home except to visit.
Dubuque went to Bolivia with his mother in high school and gained an appreciation not only for her struggles but a clearer perspective on his own. Though he was struck by the universal love of singing and dancing there, he couldn’t get over the rampant deprivation.
“I get it when I see all those Mexicans coming over,” he says. “They’re desperate poor.”
It was his mother who mailed him a charango when he was dejected in California. The instrument is widely used among her ancestral Aymara Indians, and it offered Dubuque yet another pathway into his essential being, as well as another release valve for that being to escape once tapped.
For Dubuque, music has always been the clearest means of both self-understanding and self-expression. It’s not a gimmick. Those notes inside his head are as real as the blood in his veins and the asphalt on that highway, and just as permanent. The only thing fleeting is Dubuque himself.
“I’m comfortable here,” he says, sitting on a couch in his living room. “But I can’t stay in one place too long.”