Montana State University

MSU standouts part of Absarokee family band that performed on MontanaPBS

May 18, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

The Oltrogge Family Band, consisting of Hannah, Luke and David (from left), performed on the season finale of "11th and Grant with Eric Funk." (Photo by Aaron Pruitt/Scott Sterling)   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- David Oltrogge was OK with the idea of the Oltrogge Family Band performing on "11th and Grant" when he thought the program was an obscure Sunday morning show on local access public television.

But when the father of Luke and Hannah Oltrogge learned that the show airs on MontanaPBS, has won an Emmy and features some of the top musicians in Montana, he was sure they didn't belong.

Sure, the Absarokee family band has entertained crowds as big as 2,000, inspiring audiences to sway and sing along to the music of 1960s folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary. And anyone who hires the band agrees to pay Luke's way home from California where he's a doctoral student at Stanford University. Luke is a Montana State University graduate who received some of the most prestigious awards given to an undergraduate student: the Goldwater Scholarship, Beckman Scholarship and Presidential Scholarship. Hannah is an MSU senior in the Honors Program and majoring in cell biology and neuroscience.

David is also part of another group that recently entertained at a large nondenominational gathering in Billings. He belongs to yet another group that wowed a Bozeman crowd with Simon and Garfunkel songs.

But the Oltrogges don't make their living from music, David Oltrogge said.

"Music has long been my passion, but never my vocation," he said.

David owns a heavy construction business so he spends more time on roads and excavation projects than in recording studios. He is a fifth-generation Montanan whose family homesteaded in territorial Montana. His wife, Jane (Sharp) Oltrogge graduated from MSU in 1979, and her father, E.L. Sharp, was founding head of the MSU Department of Plant Pathology.

Hannah is home for another summer as a whitewater river guide, then she'll spend the fall semester at MSU's sister university in Morocco for her minor in global studies. After graduating from MSU, she plans to attend physicians assistants school and pursue a career in global aid. Luke, who researched nanomaterials in Trevor Douglas' lab at MSU, spends most of his time at Stanford University where he has three fellowships to study chemistry. He researches fluorescent proteins and plans to pursue a career in academia.

Yet here the Oltrogges were, counting down the days before the Oltrogge Family Band performed "Blowin' in the Wind" on "11th and Grant with Eric Funk." Chosen because they represent an important genre in Montana music -- the family band -- they gave the final show of the fifth season. The program aired May 20 and May 22 on MontanaPBS.

"Every town has some sort of band or two or three or four," said Funk, artistic director for 11th and Grant. "There are all different types of music going on. It's part of the American landscape to have all this music."

The Oltrogges recorded their show last July in the KUSM studio at MSU. All three sang the songs of Peter, Paul and Mary, but Hannah also played the guitar. By playing an instrument, she broke the mold of Mary Travers, a member of the original trio, Funk said. Travers only sang.

Spending the day in a recording studio was "a really cool thing ... an awesome experience," Hannah said. It was also surreal, she added, with people powdering her nose between takes and handing her bottles of water.

Luke said he felt like a member of a Podunk family that wandered wide-eyed into a world occupied by actual musicians who make their living at music. Despite the fact that he has performed with other Stanford students and plays a variety of instruments, he's almost embarrassed when he tells people that he's flying to Montana to give a concert.

"I'm in a big metropolitan area where there's a pretty well-established music scene," he said, laughing. "To say I'm a professional musician seems like a bit much."

The group expected another surreal experience when some 50 friends, neighbors and crew members gathered at their home for the show's premiere.

"It's pretty rare to have a television premiere in Absarokee, as you can imagine," David commented.

In spite of the group's reservations, Funk said the Oltrogges are topnotch musicians who bring something extra to the show -- "a deep emotional connection between a father and his children even though they are young adults. It's really apparent on the show. There's a really strong connection between everybody. We captured that, which I'm really pleased about."

Funk first heard the Oltrogge Family Band during one of Hannah's honors courses at MSU. He was Hannah's instructor for "Texts and Critics," and she had told him about the band. Ilse-Mari Lee, instructor for "Music and Society" and director of the MSU Honors Program, then invited Funk to listen to the band during Hannah's final presentation in her class. Funk ended up asking the Oltrogges to perform on "11th and Grant." He also visited their home to conduct indepth interviews that will be part of the "11th and Grant" show. He recently heard David's "So Here's to You, Simon and Garfunkel" concert at the Ellen Theatre in Bozeman.

"It was a killer performance," Funk said. "It was a pretty full house. People went nuts, and there was some really fine musicianship going on."

"11th and Grant" exposes Montanans to a wide variety of music from serious musicians who are Montana natives or somehow landed in Montana, said Funk, who helped develop the show and hosts the program. It's no surprise that country western is popular, but Montana musicians also play Cajun, zydeco, Brazilian jazz and other genres that might seem foreign in Big Sky country, he said.

David said he started playing in bands in 1965 and never had to convince his two youngest children to sing or play instruments with him. One of them will hum a bar or tap on the table, and the others join in automatically with harmonies and beats. Besides the instruments they play in their "Blowin' in the Wind" show, David plays trombone, drums and keyboards. Hannah plays tenor saxophone and French horn. Luke plays piano, tuba and euphonium.

Music is their alter ego, the three agreed. It's a world that's completely different from their "normal" lives, but sometimes seems more real than construction, research and studies.

"The three of us, when we are looking at each other singing, it's as though all of those people disappear and we are standing in our den," David said.

"We do the music because we love it," Hannah said. "If people get something out of listening to us sing together, that's even better."

Because of the distance between Montana and California, Luke practices to a DVD that someone made of the family band while they performed at a relative's wedding. When he flies home for an engagement, the trio holds some marathon practice sessions in their den.

"It's really a fun thing to do, something to look forward to," Luke said.

David said he loves the guys in his other bands, but the Oltrogge Family Band is especially dear to him.

"Every time we sing, it's a family reunion," he said. "Musicians come up to me all the time and, to a man, they say that has got to be the coolest thing in the world to be on the stage with your kids. And it is."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or