ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons has traveled the world and spent countless hours in clubs with no shortage of character. Now, he owns one.

Fittingly, the timeline of the Wise River Club is a bit blurry, as a story on its website notes. But in its earliest days in the 1900s, it quickly became a meeting place for adventurers who found themselves in Wise River, Montana, in need of respite after a long day of hunting, fishing and exploring. It also attracted its share of nationally known characters, including motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel.

The property has evolved a lot in the decades since, but Gibbons is able to offer a succinct summary. "There’s cold beer, hot food and a shot of tequila to end the night," he tells UCR with a laugh. "If that ain’t enough, you can rest your head up, right upstairs."

It feels appropriate that Tim Montana — who also sports an impressive, Gibbons-worthy beard — is Gibbons' partner in the club. Montana, who grew up in the area, has spent a number of years building his own musical story — first in country music, and more recently crossing over to the rock realm with his single "The Devil You Know." He'll release his first rock album later this year and spend the summer on the road, including a tour with Bush, Jerry Cantrell and Candlebox. Montana and Gibbons both live and breathe all things music, car and guitar-related.

During a recent conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock Nights host Matt Wardlaw, Gibbons and Montana offered an inside look at the Wise River Club.

Guys, let's talk about the Wise River Club. Tim, what are your first memories of this place?
Tim Montana: I was a little kid. Wise River, Montana, is probably 38 miles from where I grew up, and the famous Big Hole River is here, which dates back to the Battle of the Big Hole. The Nez Perce [tribe] and Chief Joseph [Pass], there was much history here in the Old West and Native American history that’s fascinating. I came up here fishing with my uncle at a very young age. He’d take me out here. He had one eye and smoked cigarettes. He’d drive me out here in his old truck to take me on fishing trips. You know, it was a piece of my childhood. My mother hung out here when she was a kid, all through her life — and my grandmother hung out here as well. So three generations of my family have been coming out here. When we found out this was for sale ... it’s a very unique, authentic [establishment]. It dates back to the late 1800s. We had to have it.

Billy Gibbons: [When I met Tim], I said, “You’re Tim Montana, that’s your name? But you’re from Montana?” “Yeah, I’m from Montana and my name is Tim Montana.” "OK, and what about this Wise River? I never knew you to be very wise?" [Laughs] Just recently, we were on the ZZ Top touring trail, and the road show, believe it or not, brought us within 18 miles of a turn-off. I saw a sign, “Wise River.” I thought, “Could this possibly be?” The bus driver said, “You know, we’ve got plenty of time, let’s go check it out!” Which we did. You’ve gotta see this place. We’re talking over 100 years of history, all balled up in this crazy destination where you’re going to have a good time. It’s really something.

It seems like you've had some real characters come through the doors over the years.
Montana: To go off about characters, I’m sitting here in the Wise River Club and I’m looking at an Evel Knievel sign that was signed to the club in the ‘70s or ‘80s. They used to have a pet elk here named Bully. People would travel from all over the country to see the pet elk. His antlers are on the ceiling of the bar. There must be 150 antlers on the ceiling from this elk. But the funny story is that they said back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Evel would frequent this place all of the time and he’d try to ride the bull. The bar owner would get so mad at him as he’s riding a bull elk through the field in front of the Wise River Club. So there’s all sorts of characters who have come in this place a lot.

Gibbons: There’s one corner that I really gravitate to. Tim has been hiding vintage electric guitars there. I knew that there was a set of drums and some microphones. But when I saw a secret door that unleashed a wave of vintage electric guitars, and it was piled up against cases of, some would say, our infamous hot sauce ... Whisker Bomb hot sauce and vintage guitars, they kind of go together. So Tim, the next time I get up there, if you’ll loan me the key to that room ... [Laughs]

Montana: We’re not supposed to tell people about that room, Billy!

What's the first guitar you each acquired that is still significant in your memory?
Gibbons: I should probably jump in with my favorite. My favorite, of course, it’s been a well-known fact for quite a while, [is] Pearly Gates, our 1959 Sunburst Les Paul, made by Gibson. We had a girlfriend back in Texas and one afternoon she said, “Gee, whiz, I’ve got an opportunity to go to California to try out for a movie. But I don’t have a way to get out there.” A buddy of mine, he and I had a 1939 Packard. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, gave her the keys and said, “Listen, here’s the keys to the car. It’s parked out back. See if you can make it to the West Coast.”

Not only did she make it to the West Coast, she got the part in the film, turned around, sold the car and sent the money back. The day the check arrived was the day I had found Pearly Gates out on a ranch. An old cowboy had retired and he said, “Yeah, I used to play this thing. I don’t play it too much anymore. Can you consider buying it off me?” I said, “Yessir. We can do that right now.” [Laughs]

Montana: I’ve sat down with Billy countless times and watched how he plays it. You can watch a million interpretations on YouTube, but when you see it and hear it from the man himself, it’s like, the tone is the fingers, isn’t it? He’s just got such a style that he can pick up any guitar and it sounds like Billy Gibbons. I learned a lot from just that. Tone is in the fingers and the beholder of that. I do have to brag, I did get to play Pearly Gates one time and it was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t wait to give it back to him. I was like, “I can’t afford this, here you go. Thank you, that was amazing! I can die a happy man now.”

That's a great moment right there! Where did you begin, guitar-wise?
Montana: I started with a nylon string guitar. My mom and stepdad owned a pawn shop. They brought it home to me and I bent the strings on that. I grew up off the grid, so I literally learned to play that guitar by candle and lantern light. Because we had no electricity at the house, way back in the mountains of remote Montana. Oddly enough, I started with records like ZZ Top, learning how to play that stuff. Later on, I saved up enough money doing chores and went to buy myself a Fender Squier, which is about all I could afford, for my first electric. I ended up moving up from there, but I remember when I was about 15, I traded it in. I had to have a guitar with a flame paint job on it — Billy, don’t judge me. When I traded it in at the guitar store, a kid at the local high school went and got it and still has it to this day. Because when I was a teenager, he’s like, “You’re going to be a famous guitar player someday.” He still has it and I kind of need to get it back. [Laughs]

Tim, I love that you name-checked John Prine, Marshall Tucker and Guns N' Roses in your song "Bar Band." It's a good thought, the idea that a young kid might hear that song and want to figure out who those people are.
Montana: When we wrote that song, I think it was during COVID. That was when John unfortunately passed away. I actually got to meet him once with Billy at the Palm Restaurant in Nashville. I was a huge fan of his songwriting — the angles he’d take were like nothing I’d heard before. Very Roger Miller, right? I wanted to name-drop him and put some of my favorite acts in that song.

Gibbons: Tim, you may remember, the day that you and I stumbled in, we were making a cross-country journey and happened to stop in Nashville. We were fortunate enough to grab some barbecue. But who should be standing in line? John Prine. A guy was entertaining his youngsters at the adjacent table. I remember hearing the guy say, “Whatever you do, kids, don’t get out a guitar. Between those guys, we might never get out of here!” [Laughs]

An Exclusive Look Inside Billy Gibbons’ New Club

Here's your chance to check out the Wise River Club, which the ZZ Top legend now co-owns with fellow musician Tim Montana.

Gallery Credit: Matt Wardlaw

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