DOUGLAS — Anyone who has spent time in Bisbee over the past 10 years has likely seen musician Mike Montoya, with his trademark curly hair and easy grin, filling local venues and events with his clear voice and the dulcet strains of an acoustic guitar.
Montoya, who has been in and out of the historic town for over a decade performing solo as well as with other musicians — including the Phoenix- and Bisbee-based versions of ever-evolving band Fatigo, and his traditional Mexican family group, The Montoya Clan — now makes his home in Douglas.
As the longtime musician continues to develop as an artist, his faith and supporting the work of churches and nonprofit organizations on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border has become a driving force of his work.
“I’ve made it kind of like a mission,” said Montoya, sitting over a cup of decaf at the Gadsden Hotel, where he plans to become a regular at the speakeasy-type bar the historic hotel will open this summer.
“When someone opens up their Google, there are always little negative news stories, and if I can throw out positive things on the border, to show that there’s a different story going on down there — whatever I can do to reverse that news,” said Montoya.
Those efforts have included teaching guitar and hosting “jam sessions” and recordings at Studio Mariposa, a free afterschool art program located in Naco, Sonora, leading a children’s choir at St. Michael’s Church in Naco, Arizona, as well as performing fundraising concerts at venues on both sides of the border, including coffee cooperative Cafe Justo in Agua Prieta. Montoya also plans to begin offering low-cost guitar lessons with Douglas-based organization Border Arts Corridor, he said.
“The work that he does over in Naco, Sonora, with the kids and the art, teaching them how to play the guitar, and trying to raise funds for them, I think he’s very community oriented,” said Kenny Andrews, owner of Naco, Arizona, cafe Borderline, where Montoya has a regular Monday night spot. “He’s always working, he’s always doing something.”
Montoya’s ability to light up a room doesn’t hurt business either, said Andrews.
“The reason that we have him here is because his stage presence and the way he engages the audience is amazing — he should do standup comedy even,” he continued. “He plays guitar, he plays guitar, mandolin, he tells jokes and stories.”
Montoya, an Army brat, first found himself in Bisbee after his good friends, musical duo Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl, encouraged him to move to the artistic town.
Montoya — who, when asked to describe his music, says it’s like “Los Lobos and The Beatles had a baby” — said he has always been a songwriter at heart.
The musician composed largely quirky, nonsensical songs with Fatigo, such as “White Bear,” part of a series of songs about a polar bear stranded in the desert, which became the band’s moscot. Pivotal events in his personal life, including the passing of Derrick and Amy Ross of Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl in 2013, drove him to pen deeper and more introspective lyrics, he said.
“Now, I try to write about more personal things,” he said. “But I still have a sense of humour about it — I mean, you’ve got to, or else you’ll go crazy.”
Recent events on the U.S./Mexico border, including the much-publicized journey of caravans of migrant families from Central America, has also served as inspiration for both his music and his work in the community, Montoya said.
“I usually don’t get too political with music, but when the caravan, when the whole thing about when Trump said that 5,000 people were an invasion — I got really upset about that, because a lot of them were little kids,” he said.
Montoya, who owns a large van, started a “Care-Van” to ferry donated supplies to the migrants.
“I have a song that’s specifically about the caravan — when it was happening, I just started writing a song, when I saw that totally untrue news was happening,” said Montoya. “It’s a song saying ‘at the burst of a whistle, I’ll salute the caravan of 5,000 worn-out shoes,’ so it’s like saying we stand by you as people. They’re just trying to provide something for their families.”
Spreading the truth about about the border is important to Montoya both as a community member and a musician, he said.
“Just going to get tacos on Molcajetes on the line, or just doing paintings with the kids at (Studio) Mariposa — anything that any of us can do to show positive things happening on the border,” he said.
“I think a lot of people should do that, and I’m trying to do little things here and there.”
Montoya is a regular at Borderline Cafe in Naco, playing on Monday nights at 6 p.m. More information about upcoming albums and concerts can be found on Fatigo’s Facebook page and at http://www.fatigomusic.com.