Danny Montana rolled up the sleeves of his Roper shirt and adjusted his Stetson. With a 1971 Gibson acoustic guitar in hand, the cowboy troubadour, alone but for his songs, looked out at the Coast Café and began to strum.
The artists he covered were the ones who mean the most to the 65-year-old singer and father of two, including the forgotten Texan Blaze Foley and Billie Holiday, whose “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” he tenderly reproduced, including the somber trumpet solo that he executed with puffed cheeks and expelled air.
He treated the audience to not one, but two, numbers by Woody Guthrie, whose protest songs he said resonate today. After trading comments about the persistence of racism with a young man at the bar, he drifted to another song, which included the lyrics: “But I’ll stay a cowboy at heart…”
Danny Morrison, the man behind the artist, has lived in Marin for most of his life, playing music on both sides of the hill since high school, but in the last two years he’s become a staple on West Marin stages. As a solo performer, he holds regular gigs at Nick’s Cove, plays two Fridays a month at The Papermill Creek Saloon and often appears at the Coast Café. Alongside his six-piece country band Danny Montana & the Bar Association, he frequently plays at the Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma and 19 Broadway in Fairfax.
Off the stage, Mr. Morrison is congenial—and bears a striking resemblance to his longtime friend Huey Lewis. (He’s also been confused for Kevin Costner and Joe Montana once or twice—“It’s a white guy thing: brown hair and blue eyes,” he quipped). But in song, he often sounds sorrowful and poetically dejected. Though he didn’t write the words for the country and blues songs he covers, he sings them as if he did.
“I was always attracted to the more sentimental and romantic songs. More times than not they’re dripped in sadness, and I’ve always kind of worn my heart on my sleeve,” he said. “When I was really young, I’d dwell on a break-up, and what always brought me around was the blues. I would listen to “Come Back Baby” by Ray Charles 20 times in a row. And singing the blues when you’re blue makes you feel good. Go figure.”
His first guitar only had five strings, but it was enough to get him started. Born in San Francisco in 1952, Mr. Morrison moved to Mill Valley when he was in middle school and soon became inseparable from his guitar. He’d walk the halls of Tam High with his nylon-string acoustic wrapped around him, and he found himself digging into the liner notes of Bob Dylan records and discovering names like Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The bygone brick library in Mill Valley was his source for records.
“I had a lot of overdue fees because I just couldn’t return ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ by Woody Guthrie,” he said. “I wore out that record and my needle.”
He soon found himself swept into the swirling politics of late-1960s San Francisco (hitchhiking into the city to attend the Human Be-In and buying copies of The Guardian newspaper from Tom Hayden in Berkeley) but music remained a framework for his politics.
“Woody was talking about things that stuck with me. He was advocating that we’re all equal and should be free—and they called him communist!” he said. “It sounded really American to me.”
Although his dream was to ride the rails across the county like his folk hero, Mr. Morrison graduated from high school and began playing in a bluegrass group called the Herford Heart Stringers. He met fiddle and banjo player Phil Richardson and the two continue to play together in the Bar Association. They’d busk in Ghirardelli Square alongside Marin rock band Clover, which included future breakouts Huey Lewis on harmonica, Alex Call of 867-5309/Jenny and John McPhee from the Doobie Brothers.
For a year he lived in Virginia City, Montana, and it was upon his return to Marin that Mr. Lewis and Mr. Call began calling him “Montana.”
He worked as a dishwasher and busboy at The Trident in Sausalito and later helped operate a natural food distributor that introduced Nancy’s Yogurt to Marin.
The ’80s would hit him hard (“I thought disco was never going to end and it was over for me,” he said) and his act dried up. Mr. Morrison put down his guitar, got married, had two kids and found himself miserable in Miami, where his then-wife worked for an airline.
“It was horrendous,” he said. “You know how when it’s hot and you’re trying to fall asleep, so you flip the pillow to the cold side? In Florida there was no cool side. I was in hell.”
Within two years he was back in Marin with his children Sean and Daniella, both now in college. It wasn’t until he met his longtime girlfriend Cyndi Cady, a music booker, about 15 years ago that Mr. Morrison brushed the dirt off his guitar and returned to performing.
“I felt like I missed out—because of my age—and that I missed my window, if I ever had one. Not that it was tragic, but it was how I looked at things,” he said. “Cyndi got me playing when we were at a horse camp in Devil’s Gulch. I dragged out my guitar and started playing. She gave me a kick in the ass.”
He recruited his band—pedal steel and dobro player David Phillips, bassist Dan McLaughlin, guitarist Dana Olsen, drummer JT John and multi-instrumentalist Mr. Richardson. Together they’ve opened for the Marshall Tucker Band in Petaluma and raised thousands of dollars for the Lagunitas School, the Canal Alliance and others through benefit shows. (Although they call themselves the Bar Association, they quickly admit that none of them have passed the bar.)
Mr. Morrison lives in Woodacre, where his Nigerian dwarf goats have just reproduced. About a year ago he noticed The Papermill Creek Saloon only offered a few shows a year and he helped usher in a now thriving live music program.
His own music allows him to support his children through college and connects him to villages up and down West Marin, and he smiles wide when considering how it’s also allowed him to remain forever young.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he said. “I’d ride around on stick horses in the streets of San Francisco and I couldn’t wait to watch Westerns every Saturday morning. I don’t think you grow out of it, and I never did. I found something where I could still wear the clothes.”