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Polson's Unofficial Ambassadors: The Montana Shamrockers
Montana Senior News, June/July 2013
“We consider ourselves the unofficial ambassadors for Western Montana. We go where we are called and serve as we are able,” says Neal “Nels” Lewing. If you think Neal is referring to political diplomacy or the Foreign Legion, think again. As the spokesman for the Celtic-themed Montana ShamRockers, Neil is talking about sharing the pleasures of Irish music not military support or statesmanship. For this fun-loving musical troupe, service comes as much in the form of performing gratis at nursing homes and schools as in driving hundreds of miles for a gig that barely pays enough to cover fuel costs.

“We promote the joy of music, the power of love, and the gift of laughter,” emphasizes Neal, one of the group’s original members. He describes the ShamRockers as five men from Polson—Rick “Mick” Skates, Rob “Robbie” Sloan, John “Liam” Glueckert, Mike “Paddy” Lozar, and himself—who “sound like the Clancy brothers and Tommy Makem and have enough Irish in them to count. Some have more than others. Some can trace their roots to specific locations in Ireland. Others have marginal ancestral associations.”

Whatever the amount of Erin-go-bragh blood flowing through their veins, these “lads” bring equal measures of enthusiasm and dedication to their music. They rehearse as often as their day jobs permit and besides writing their own tunes and lyrics are constantly researching books, archives, old recordings, and sheet music for traditional Celtic melodies to add to their repertoire.

“We try and find different arrangements but stay as close to the originals as we can. Unless a tune grabs all of us right away, we don’t dive in. We also research the history of each song and the era in which it was created,” explains Neal, who co-produces the Port Polson Players with his wife, Karen. “Then we can communicate the backstory—if it’s interesting—when we perform. Audiences like to know the history of the songs and like to sing along with us, which we encourage.”

Additionally, the ShamRockers bring their trademark sense of humor to the stage whenever they perform. Ever since the group first harmonized ten years ago, fans have asked why the Irish so often sing about fighting, drinking, and sailing. Not one to be caught off-guard, Neal is ready and waiting with a reply. “The Irish have plenty of love songs, too,” he’ll tell you with the barest twinkle of the eye. “Their love of fighting, drinking, and sailing.”

As you might expect, the ShamRockers find themselves most in demand throughout March complimenting Montana’s rich Irish history. Over one energetic St. Patrick’s Day spree, the group was asked to play seven venues in Great Falls during a jam-packed 36-hour timeframe. And they happily complied.

The Christmas season, which Neal assures brings out their reverent side, also keeps their calendar full.Through these two holiday periods, the quintet frequently crisscrosses the state along with harmonicas, bizoukis, fiddles, mandolins, whistles, banjos, and guitars plus an array of lesser-known instruments, such as cabassas and Saxonphones. What began for these musicians in 2003 as entertainment for hospital thank-you luncheons has since blossomed into the release of two albums along with invitations to perform at regional music fests including the prestigious Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle during this year’s Memorial Day weekend.

“It is rare for an unknown group like us to get into this festival on the first try,” remarks Neal. The 30-minute stage opportunity will require some 1,000 round-trip miles of driving to Puget Sound but for these Montanans, singing at such a huge musical experience is well worth the effort expended to participate.

In addition, the ShamRockers annually perform at the An Ri Ra Irish Festival in Butte with its celebration of all things Gaelic. Over the years, they have also played in various other Big Sky locales from Libby and Three Forks to Thompson Falls, Anaconda, Missoula, Havre, and Helena.

One of the most memorable events, which cemented the group’s commitment to Irish music, took place in Fort Benton in 2009 for a ceremony honoring Thomas Meagher, whose statue sits on the front lawn of the Capitol grounds in Helena.

“He was from Waterford, Ireland and was Montana’s first territorial governor,” recalls Neal, who credits Meagher with designing the Irish tri-colored flag. “He mysteriously disappeared in Fort Benton supposedly after falling off a Missouri River steamboat and was never found. We wrote a song to commemorate him and people were weeping as a result of the research we did.

“Music is one of the first ways humans learned to communicate. It is integral to the human makeup and has been used for everything from teaching a lesson to rousing the troops,” explains Neal, a born storyteller who attended the University of Montana on a voice scholarship. “Music is incredibly binding, everyone can relate to it.”

Aside from enjoying the tunes they hear, audiences also relate to the jovial banter and easy rapport that is so obvious amongst the ShamRockers.

“They key in on the chemistry, the joking that goes on between us. We’re like a big family and socialize together when we aren’t performing. Between us, we have 13 kids and 14 grandchildren,” rattles off Neal without needing a moment to total the head count. “It’s all about the fun and that’s what comes across. No one is planning to get rich from this. If we get on David Letterman, that’s okay. But if we play the second grade at St. Basil’s Catholic School, that might even be better.”

For more information about purchasing The Montana ShamRockers’ recordings or to hire them for a performance, call 406-883-9212 or email