by Heidi Desch / Whitefish Pilot
June 7, 2016 1:05 PM
Whitefish musician Rod Fisher got his first paying gig in the eighth-grade playing trombone at the Great Northern. He really hasn’t stopped since.
“I don’t think anybody retires from music — as long as your fingers still work you keep playing,” Fisher said from his Whitefish home.
Fisher, 85, continues to play shows on the weekends and just released his fifth album. He’s also the author of four books, builder of sailboats and a video game creator.
Fisher worked weekends all through high school playing trombone, formed a five-piece combo, and began composing and writing arrangements. He met his wife, Carrie, while they were both still in high school. They’d eventually go on to perform as a duo alongside other musicians and travel with their children as the family played their way across the West.
“I kept playing because I could do it,” Fisher said. “If you can make a living doing what you love to do, then you do it.”
Following high school, Fisher attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts for six months before he entered the U.S. Air Force, where at first he denied being able to play a musical instrument.
“They told the guys who could play to get in one line and I got in the other,” he said. “I didn’t want to just march around playing the whole time. I went through basic training and then when they did career counseling, they found out I had gone to the L.A. Conservatory.”
He was assigned to 515th Air Force Band and was selected as one of two arrangers to score concert music for 14 bands. During his service, he also taught himself to play the piano. The assignment ended up for the best, he says, because he was doing something he loves, arranging and composing music.
After leaving the Air Force, he found himself in Missoula at the University of Montana. He stopped in at the Journalism School to say hello to an old friend — Dorothy Johnson was teaching there at the time. He met Johnson while working as a printing apprentice at the Whitefish Pilot. Fisher had decided to use the GI Bill to attend UM and Johnson got him a job working in the University Press.
“I talked to the students in the music school and decided I knew more about composition than they did because I had already been doing that in the Air Force,” he said. “I decided journalism would give me a lot of freedom to learn many areas.”
While at UM, he formed a six-piece progressive jazz group called The Combo, which included the best jazz musicians from the music school. By the time he was leaving school, he said, it was the end of “jazz fans.” Fisher knew he wasn’t good enough to play jazz in New York City, but he wanted to make music his career.
After seeing some Nevada lounge groups, he realized that was the key to a career in music. He needed to cover pop songs and bring an entertaining act to the stage. He formed Audrey and the Beachcombers, which was renamed the The Solitude when they went on the road after graduation working in lounges and casinos in all the western states and Alaska.
“Being entertaining was the way to make a living,” he said. “Musicians I saw with a star complex were cursed.”
In 1964, he and Carrie worked as a duo and then in 1970, they added Tom Burroughs forming the trio Tom, Rod & Carrie for a successful run for several years. In the 1970s, the couple along with their three children set out on the road performing as The Fishers. Fisher also picked up work at newspapers along the way working as a journeyman pressman.
For a time, the family toured year-round throughout the West, but as the children grew older and began attending school the family set up a more permanent home. They settled in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where they played regular shows during the school year and spent summers on the road.
Their manager booked them shows on the West Coast. They’d load up a sailboat with their instruments behind the family car and hit the road.
“We’d always get to stay in a nice hotel that was paid for and the kids would get to play on the beach,” Fisher said. “We had a lot of fun in those days.”
The years spent on the coast inspired a family love of sailing. Fisher bought a book on sailing, taught himself to sail and later built his own sailboats.
The Fishers moved back home to Whitefish in 1984. He found continuous weekend gigs at the Bigfork Inn and the piano bar in Marina Cay on Flathead Lake. For the past few years he’s played in Lakeside and Kalispell.
In the early 1990s, Fisher began creating video games largely as a hobby. In his game “Territory: the Mountain Men” the player explores Montana in the early 19th Century and has to establish a trading post to become the richest fur trader in the territory. The games, which he designed, created the animation and wrote the music for, are available on his website for free.
“Some of the best composers in the world now are creating music for video games,” Fisher said. “Give them a 100 years and they will be considered the classical composers of their time.”
Fisher recorded his latest album, “Waltzing the Classics” in his attic studio. The album is a bucket list of sorts, says Fisher, who mulled the idea in his head for three years before producing the album which features waltz variations of familiar classical themes such as Swan Lake.
“Why make waltzes out of these great themes?” he writes in the album notes. “They certainly didn’t need any improvement or enhancement from me. If you love classical music, you probably shudder at the idea and consider it sacrilegious. There is no artistic defense for it. I just felt like doing it.”