Andy Dunnigan took a different path to musical success than his father, John, but all roads lead back to where it started: a Flathead home filled with music and love

Story by Brian D’Ambrosio | Photography by Hunter D’Antuono
John Dunnigan never stage-managed his son’s career or directed his dream. Nor did he foresee Andy’s success with the high-energy, forward-looking Lil Smokies. In fact, it still surprises him, the increasingly wider and glossier spotlight that the five-piece stringed ensemble stands beneath.

“These guys have really carved out a specific niche,” John says. “Really, it stuns me to see where they’ve come from, where they are now, and where it is that they are going. Man, I was in some decent traveling bands in the Pacific Northwest, but never at their level.”

And that’s a reflective microcosm of John’s broader father-son narrative: a dad who is in awe of his son’s accomplishments, awed by the way his son and his bandmates pour their hearts and souls into the craft, a man who unassumingly guffaws at the idea that he had all that much influence on his son’s trajectory.

Then, of course, there is the other side of the saga: a son who has found his footing in an industry that offers little solid ground to stand on. His “specific niche” isn’t quite old-time music; it didn’t come across the plains in a covered wagon. It is more Appalachian traditional, modernly cool, and a little alien, a certain tough gaiety and sometimes rowdy conviviality stamped with a Montana pedigree.

Drifting in for the Music

Born in California, raised in the throes of that culture-altering decade of madras cloth, tie-dye and bellbottoms, John Dunnigan “drifted in,” as he says, to Montana for the music. It was the mid-1970s, and John was playing music mostly in northern California, affiliated with a number of bar bands or standard cover ensembles. The spigot of cash from such work was decent, but far from spectacular. But John kept a smile on his face. After all, he was pursuing his passion while also keeping the lights on.

John’s parents moved to Bigfork in 1976, where his dad, who was an experienced guitar player himself, opened a sporting goods store. At first visit, John was impressed by the high ratio of space to population, and, soon thereafter, he realized that the green trees, silver skies and independent ethos of the Flathead Valley posed an existential gift to what he loved best: playing music. But, initially, music wasn’t a vessel for introspective songwriting or experimental guitar picking. Most local audiences weren’t yet ready to embrace the homespun homilies and playful banter that would later endear John to so many spectators.

“The bars originally were looking for the country-honky-tonk thing, but I’d find some venues geared toward the no-frills and the more sensitive singer-songwriter solo world where people would listen,” Dunnigan says. “Mostly the bars in Kalispell, Whitefish, and Bigfork, and that’s where I honed that, and it took many years. The breakthrough was the humor and being the funny singer-songwriter.”

Indeed, John eventually eschewed conventions in favor of quirky, loosely structured story-songs, and staples of the Dunnigan circuit in the 1980s emerged to include the Blue Moon Nite Club in Columbia Falls, the Wolf Den in Polson, the Diamond Horseshoe south of Kalispell, and the Valley Club in Ronan.

Around this time, John met a beautiful Wisconsinite named Andrea, and the couple had two children, Andy and Jimmy. John never had to tell his sons that he didn’t lead a traditional life. That was clear. Andy Dunnigan, in fact, was partly raised in bar venues, listening to sound check, elbows on countertops, shrewdly stockpiling stacks of salty pretzels and guzzling icy glasses of ginger ale.

“I would go to the Grouse Mountain Lodge in the afternoons and watch him play,” Andy says. “The bartender would leave quarters for the arcade down the hall. For me, it meant free rooms and a night of a hot tub and a sauna. It was like a vacation. But we hadn’t left town.”

Andy Dunnigan of the Lil Smokies at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish.

Several items from this time still jut out in Andy’s memory, such as the way his dad carved out a life without sacrificing his personal principles. He was more attached to the doing and being than the results. On stage, he was funny, engaging, and, above all, interactive and spontaneous. And, generally speaking, he never bad-mouthed people. Andy learned early on that what makes a hero isn’t power or strength but the desire to make people smile.

“Positivity and humility are two of his traits,” Andy says. “He’s exuberant and always emanating joy, and people want to be around him … In the songs he would be changing the lyrics, things like talking about us in the songs. And he was liberated in that moment. That was his domain, his special place and happy zone, where he had control of everything. That’s a magical, high place for all musicians to be.”

But the humor, on occasion, turned fraught for young Andy.

“Dad would do a Bob Dylan impersonation and he’d completely put the harmonica in his mouth and sing at the same time, humorously imitating Dylan’s voice,” Andy recalls.“Apparently, once, I was crying, frantically, because I thought dad was going to choke on the harmonica.”

Wellspring of Music

While he was attending Whitefish High School, baseball was Andy’s prevailing pastime. Alternating between pitcher and shortstop, he once even joined a traveling team in Arizona. Still, he would flirt with chords and mess with instruments and improvise around campfire jams. Occasionally, a friend would ask why he didn’t play music. After all, your dad is the performer guy, right?

Gradually, Andy learned the scaffolding to songs such as “All Along the Watchtower,” and he and his buddies added other familiar tunes to their growing songbooks. Shy, Andy didn’t like to sing. That side of him would develop a few years later. (For the record, Andy’s younger brother Jimmy could negotiate a credible Jimi Hendrix or Roy Orbison guitar lick, but he discovered early in his life that he was more of a fly-rod-tossing than fiddle-sawing genus of guy.)

Over time, the sweet eddy of music’s sound naturally overwhelmed Andy. Perhaps there was a touch of osmosis involved, maybe a little fate. Anatomy, they say, is destiny. In any case, he found his voice.

“I fell head first in love with all of the instruments I had ignored that my dad had lying around,” says Andy.

John recalls returning home from gigs to see a couple of cars in the driveway, a telltale sign that Andy and his buddies were jamming with their stringed instruments in his bedroom. While unwinding with an overdue dinner or late-night snack in his lap, invariably, John would be summoned after Andy hit a stumbling block.

“Hey, dad, come on up and show us something!” John remembers Andy saying. “I’d go upstairs and there were three boys with dobros and guitars, and I’d show them something. The very next night, the questions were more like, hey, should I try this in E-flat? What do you think about doing the drop-D thing?”

Andy, a musical mop so to speak, reveled in the learning curve.

“What could be better than having your own personal guitar instructor who lived at your house?” Andy says.

Andy and John Dunnigan at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish on Dec. 27, 2019.

The melodic bluegrass of The Lil Smokies can, in part, be traced to the influence of John’s recordings that found their way into Andy’s universe.

“When I was in high school, I listened to rap music and punk and anything but the stuff I listen to now,” Andy says. “Somehow, it’s like he knew down the line what I was going to eventually get into. He would leave CDs and albums around the room. Some would hit and some wouldn’t.”

While the banjo mesmerized Andy from the onset — one of the records that deeply impacted him was the Deliverance soundtrack — the dobro has become his primary instrument. It was John who believed in its magic and moreover understood its demand, and he instilled those lessons in his teenage son.

“Dad always said, ‘You get gigs if you play dobro or slide,’” Andy says. “That’s before I even knew what a gig was! He said it’d make you stand out. No one plays dobro or lap steel, he’d say. Those little nuggets of wisdom paid off.”

“Andy took up to that (the dobro) big time,” John says. “He played lap steel and pedal steel. But with the dobro, he climbed the ladder, and right away, he got into these nice solos and some bizarre tuning. He understood it.”

Music Stakes Out Its Place

To Andy Dunnigan, the music was constantly alluding to itself, staking out its own place, with inspiration but not pressure from his well-known musician father. As far as seminal origin moments go, here is one: it was the night, in 2012, that the increasingly confident Andy called the Great Northern, one of John’s anchors as a live performer, attempting to land a gig, sight unseen, sound unheard.

“Now, this is before the bluegrass thing had hit in Whitefish,” John says.

At this point, John hadn’t heard all that much of the group that Andy and his buddies formed while jamming and carousing in Missoula and dubbed The Lil Smokies, and he wasn’t especially sold on Andy’s idea to use a venue such as the Great Northern experimentally.

Besides, the Great Northern was a popular spot for rock n’ roll and AC/DC cover bands, not so much contemporary bluegrass. Nonetheless, the owners brought the boys in on a slow night, loved what they heard, and the rest is all roots-music and renegade-rambling history.

Fast forward to winter 2019, and The Lil Smokies sold out three consecutive nights at the Great Northern. One of those times, John joined the crew and played harp on a couple songs. Within minutes of exiting the stage, he was heading home in his car.

“Wall to wall people — it was too crazy,” John says.

John has outlived the patience to withstand such boisterous conditions, as well as heavy traveling and unpredictable variables. He is content sticking close to home, the quintessential and reliable local guy, crooning a few down-to-earth originals mixed in with a James Taylor or Willie Nelson classic.

Stickers adorn Dunnigan’s gear case at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish.

About five years ago, John’s longstanding love of tequila culminated in a bout of acute pancreatitis, a diagnosis and prognosis that instigated major changes in his life, not the least of which was an immediate separation from Patron. Opening up about his hospitalization, John sounds like an artist who has finally cleared his mind and found complete solace in the richness of his resources.

“I thought that I was super healthy otherwise, but tequila cut through all of that,” John says. “Now, almost 30 years after I started to do that solo gig, I’m doing it all the time. I moved to Whitefish so I could do stuff like that. ‘American Pie.’ Sing-alongs. I just want to play good guitar, and play to the crowd, and do the James Taylor thing. The Flathead Valley right now, it’s such a tourist draw, so I set up camp, and I let people ride through my camp. I have a little following and they help draw the tourists into it.”

Ascending and Aspiring

By the look of things, The Lil Smokies are ascending in every aspect, and seeing Andy’s band perform outside of Montana has been one of John’s most vivid reality checks, providing a barometer of their progress. While on vacation in San Diego in the spring of 2019, John and Andrea learned that Andy would be performing about 30 miles away from their hotel. And a few years earlier, while John was in San Francisco visiting family, he heard that the band had a sold-out show at the Independent.

“They said, ‘Hey, get the old man out to play some harmonica!’” John says. “People were singing along. It was phenomenal.”

The musician and fan in John is excited to follow his son’s songs into the future.

“These guys have managers, producers, and sound guys, and some money behind them,” John says. “And they have a purpose. When I played in bands, at our peak, we had an agent in Missoula, and, he said, ‘Well, we’ve got you guys five nights in Lethbridge or a two-week run in Billings.’”

John has often emphasized to Andy that the autonomy of an artist’s life is powerful, while also stressing a message that perhaps isn’t always easy to assimilate in the throes of success.

“Lately, I have had to remind myself to stay present and that we have made it,” Andy says. “I don’t always want to be chasing the dream, when the dream is here.”

In so many ways, Andy’s ruminations bear his father’s hallmark, revealing windows into the uniquely colorful, engaging, and respectful love of the Dunnigan clan.

“We are all striving to please our fathers in some way or another,” Andy says.“My dad has always been a hero of mine. He’s a great player and he taught me so well. He loves doing it, and that’s incredible to me. I aspire to be like him in so many ways.