Some of the best country music, whether from classic singers like Connie Smith and Patsy Cline or alt-country artists like Robbie Fulks, deals in transparent denial. Smith popularized the Bill Anderson song "Once A Day," in which she assures listeners that when it comes to her breakup she only cries "once a day, all day long, and once at night, from dusk 'til dawn." Fulks, who always leavens his heartbreak with sarcasm, sings a tune called "Busy Not Crying" in which "not thinkin' 'bout her is a 24-hour affair."
Missoula's Izaak Opatz takes a more nuanced approach to his country, but the incongruous feelings are still in there. In "Lubbock for Love," for instance, a song he wrote for his band The Best Westerns, he takes on the point of view of a man who finds out the woman he loves is moving to Lubbock to chase after another man.
"I tried to sell her on the Rocky Mountains/movin' with me up north," Opatz sings. "There's a town on the river surrounded by mountains a thousand miles from Fort Worth/But she's movin' to Lubbock for love/that I can't understand/You know there's nothin' there, honey/except for that man."
It's a funny song because it's a jab at the strip malls and smokestacks of the Texas town, but it's also about a narrator who is certain that location—not that the woman has fallen in love with someone else—is the problem.
Opatz is just shy of 30, but he's been playing music in Missoula for more than a decade and has established himself as a top-tier songwriter with a penchant for gem-like lyrics. He started Friedrich's Teeth in 2007 with his cousin Franny Opatz, playing melodic folk-songs with titles like "Blood Bath" and "Unhappy Whore." The Best Westerns, which he formed in 2011, gained a wider audience and showcased Opatz's Mark Lanegan-style baritone against a backdrop of yearning pedal-steel and loping Hoyt Axton-like melodies.
The Best Westerns' 2014 album, High Country, isn't entirely full of unreliable and love-blinded narrators. One of its best tunes is opener "Emmylou," an affectionate and slightly regretful song about a singing partner and potential love interest. "Would you be my Emmylou," he sings, and then later, "Would you be my June Carter Cash/I feel so stupid now for never having asked/you're the one that dresses in black/if it gets too heavy I could carry you on my/back when we use to sing, I missed my chance to ask/would you, could you be my June Carter Cash."
On his new solo album, Mariachi Static, Opatz mostly takes an eyes-wide-open approach to songwriting, rather than indulging stories about denial. He's been adrift for some time now, floating between Missoula, Nashville and Los Angeles, and the new songs reflect his contradictory feelings of loving the freedom of living in a sleeping bag on other people's couches and wondering if he might be missing out on a more settled life. In "Not Yet" he sings about the way people cling to youth like it's their "last gasp inside a plastic bag."
Opatz grew up in Whitefish listening to Frankie Valli and Dion and the Belmonts. When he first heard Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," he got a glimpse into the power of lyrics. In high school he got into Wilco, but he didn't become a music connoisseur until his first summer out of high school, cleaning bathrooms in East Glacier for the National Park Service. The only station he could tune in was 107.5 out of Browning, which played country classics—Patsy Cline and Red Sovine—from morning to night.
"That stuff had never really struck a chord before, but it just felt appropriate out there," Opatz says. "I started identifying with it as a Montanan—a really corny feeling I'd never had before. I liked listening to the lyrics. I liked that they had a sense of humor. And then I went through my first really shitty breakup and I started writing country songs automatically. I couldn't help it."
Three years ago, Opatz moved to Nashville and became roommates with musician Jonny Fritz (known as Jonny Corndawg at the time), who helped him set up gigs and get his feet on the ground. When Fritz moved to L.A. a year later, Opatz followed. From time to time he'd travel back to Montana to play with the Best Westerns, but the new songs he was writing didn't have a home. Malachi DeLorenzo, a music producer he met through Fritz, had an old four-track, and one day he invited Opatz to record a song in his living room. Opatz had written "Got to Me Since" as a country song, but in the 10 hours it took to record it, they added a Wurlitzer keyboard that happened to be in the room, and the song morphed. Over the next few weeks, they recorded more of Opatz's songs with the Wurlitzer until he had an album with a 1960s-era garage-rock feel.
"I fell in love with it," he says. "It was a really nice instrument to play really simple lead lines without it sounding too thin. And that's what kind of changed the tone."
Opatz will release Mariachi Static this week with a show at the Palace featuring an all-star cast of backing musicians: DeLorenzo on drums, Gibson Hartwell on guitar, Dave Martens on bass, Nate Biehl on Wurlitzer and Caroline Keys on vocals. Fritz and June West will open the show. This summer Opatz will skip working at Glacier Parka job he's returned to the last 9 years—and tour with the new album. It's a firmer commitment to his music than he's ever made before, and a leap that makes him anxious, but more determined than ever to keep writing songs.
"Any writer will tell you it's not easy," he says. "You can establish routines that help you cut some corners and waste less time, but you can't cut to the quick of writing lyrics. But every once in a while I feel like I've written something good, and with this album I've got something to show for it."
Izaak Opatz plays an album release show at the Palace Sat., Feb. 11, at 10 PM. $8.