“My jaw literally dropped,” says Doug Ruhman, cofounder of the Western Montana Musicians Co-op in Ronan, of his future-son-in-law’s surprise “gift rap” and extra-large Christmas present.
It went down this way: Wade Holland, a self-described “adventure personality” who is engaged to Ruhman’s daughter, Abby, was approached last fall by JAMBAR, a business that makes energy bars and donates half the net profits to community programs that support music and outdoor living.
Holland, a former competitive freestyle skier from Montana, now produces and hosts creative campaigns for social media. His original content has won GoPro Awards, received Emmy nominations and has aired on global networks.
Last fall, JAMBAR approached him about creating a mountain-biking video to promote their organic energy bars. But Holland countered with his own proposal.
“I jumped on a call with the marketing team and switched it up on them and said if you double the rate I’ll donate it all to a music organization in Montana that can use it more than me.”
Ronan’s nonprofit co-op was formed three years ago with an innovative mission to provide a stage, instruments and a sound system for musicians, who pay a modest ($25) monthly fee for access.
The sound system, however, “blew up” last fall after limping along for months, and the price tag for a new digital mixing board and speakers was around $6,000 – money the co-op didn’t have.
“I had just launched a GoFundMe campaign and maybe raised $600 when this happened,” Ruhman says.
The whole transaction came as a complete surprise. The week before, Ruhman had received a small box of JAMBARs from the company’s founder, Jennifer Maxwell, and the two “exchanged niceties” via email about the shared musical aspirations of their organizations.
Maxwell and her late husband created PowerBar – the forerunner of today’s energy bars – and sold that business in 2000. The avid runner and fitness buff is also a drummer, which inspired the name of her new product and her decision to donate half the profits to organizations that promote music and music awareness or outdoor sports.
“I know first-hand the importance of music – it was a huge part of my healing process after my husband Brian’s death,” Maxwell says.
A week after their brief correspondence and just before Christmas, Ruhman and his wife, Andrea, were looking forward to a visit from Abby and her fiancée. The couple flew from Los Angeles to Bozeman, where they picked up the giant JAMBAR check, drove to Ronan, and arrived in time for the co-op’s annual Christmas jam session.
The two sat in the audience and during a lull, Ruhman encouraged Holland to take the stage and perform one of his freestyle raps.
As Holland recounts on Instagram (in a post with more than 10,600 views), “I jumped on stage, did the holiday rap and then surprised him with the big old check.”
“I was dumbfounded,” recalls Ruhman.
“Thanks JAMBAR! We’re worried about keeping the lights on here,” said board president Coy Theobalt in the video clip.
While the money came at a critical time for the organization, it doesn’t solve its long-term existential challenges. With rent and other expenses, the co-op needs about $10,000 a year to stay solvent.
“Raising that in a place like this on $25 memberships is a tall order,” says Ruhman.
The co-op currently has more than 30 members, but probably needs 50 to make ends meet. That’s not completely out of reach. Pre-COVID, the co-op had 45 members.
The nonprofit was birthed in 2019, the brainchild of Ruhman, dean of the Education Division at Salish Kootenai College, and attorney Keith Rennie, former head of the SKC business department. Both musicians, they envisioned a space “where musicians could go to play music together, whenever they needed, and have the gear already there, no set up, no tear down.”
When the Red Poppy became available, the idea came to full fruition and the first jam session was held in October 2019.
While the pandemic took a toll on memberships, it also strengthened the organization. “There’s nothing like playing live music alongside other people and this place kept that going,” Ruhman says. “It was the kind of medicine everybody needed to get through that isolation period.”
Friendships and musical partnerships flourished, and now, the co-op is poised to build on its track record of community support and engagement.
With help from Mission West Community Development Partners, a Montana PBS crew showed up in January to shoot a promo video that will aid fundraising efforts and grant pursuits. Ruhman hopes benefactors will consider sponsorships for young musicians that could give them a place to practice and learn while helping sustain the nonprofit.
Currently the co-op has “more instruments and more equipment than we’ve ever had before,” says Ruhman, including two drum sets, an array of percussion instruments, a baby grand piano, electric keyboards, a Hammond organ, seven guitars, two bass guitars, and multiple amps.
During Saturday night jam sessions, up to 15 musicians congregate on the 40-foot stage, where a smart TV gives players access to tens of thousands of lyrics and chords, making them visible to everyone on stage with the click of a remote.
The process can be both “educative and experiential,” Ruhman says, as younger players or newbies learn to take cues and share the limelight from experienced peers.
The center also hosts a Friday open mic, monthly bluegrass jams, drum circles, jazz jams, workshops, and an upcoming Bluegrass Jam Camp led by Lydia Conway.
“I don’t know of any place like this anywhere in the world – certainly not in western Montana,” says Ruhman.
For Holland, giving this unique co-op a boost made sense. “Being from Montana, it’s important to me that creative resources and music opportunities are available in small towns,” he says.
And for JAMBAR CEO Jennifer Maxwell, “Doug’s co-op falls completely in line with our mission of supporting organizations that share the transformative power of music with their communities.”
For Ruhman, the out-of-the-blue gift from JAMBAR and his future son-in-law left him feeling “this wave of gratitude and disbelief.”
“I’ve poured myself into this place and I’m really proud of it,” he adds. “Now we just need a savior or two or three to help us keep our lights on and our mojo flowing.”
– Kristi Niemeyer