Music is not Grant Ferguson’s full-time job. And he’s okay with that.
Ferguson is a guitar maestro. He is the frontman of the Modern Rock Orchestra, a band that combines a four-piece rock and roll band with a ten-piece orchestra to create something inspired by both genres but totally unique. Ferguson writes and composes every song. He wants to play rock that has the bones of classical music.
He has spiky hair and a rocking goatee. But when Ferguson isn’t on stage, he’s more of a white-collar guy. He is the CEO of a company called UFS, a lender that focuses on giving entrepreneurs money to start or buy their own business.
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“Music is my full-time passion and obsession,” he said. “So I set it up so I could have an income that helps fuel and fund my music and my ambitions.”
He has tremendous respect for musicians who make creativity their full-time job, but he never wanted to do that.
“For some of these people,” he says thoughtfully, “music becomes something they no longer associate with love and passion. It’s an obligation or a chore.
He never wants to end up in a cover band trying to pay the rent.
“I never wanted to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ in some shitty bar somewhere,” he says with a smirk.
What Modern Rock Orchestra does is definitely not bar music. Their music is melodic and ornate. Ferguson’s stabbing guitar usually leads, playing over a loaded rhythm section made up of rock band staples like bass, drums and keyboards. Many bands stop there, but not Modern Rock Orchestra. There are ten members who play strings, with violins, violas and cellos all represented. The strings allow the rest of the band to soar, they take on a sort of ethereal feel.
They may seem heavenly, but Ferguson said the MRO was born out of frustration.
“As an instrumental rock musician,” he said, “you play in these venues and find that a lot of your audience is male guitarists. And as cool as that sounds, it’s a very narrow niche.
Ferguson is a gearhead. But he wants his audience to be people who may not be as passionate about theory as he is. He would like to play arpeggios for people who don’t really know what an arpeggio is.
“I don’t want to be a guitarist’s guitarist,” he said. “I want to be a musician. I want to be known for my compositions. I happen to play guitar.
He happens to play it quite well. But he practiced a lot.
Ferguson was born in Scotland. His family immigrated to America when he was young, but his musical roots go back across the ocean. His uncle was an accomplished guitarist, who lived in the Shetland Islands, where Ferguson’s mother was from. The Shetlands, which are the most northerly point in the UK, are known for their strong musical traditions, in particular a traditional fiddle style born from the region’s proximity to Scotland and Scandinavia. Ferguson had two cousins who were Shetland fiddlers.
“At a very young age,” he recalls, “we got together and played violin and guitar. There would be whiskey and the smell of peat smoke and ocean salt spray.
These experiences marked him. But it was in high school in Colorado that he really fell in love with the guitar.
“I was playing trumpet in the school band, and that wasn’t cool enough,” he said with a chuckle. “I was never going to have girls playing trumpets.”
So he switched from trumpet lessons to guitar lessons and got good enough to start playing in a garage band. He recruited friends and even asked his girlfriend to be the lead singer. Even though she eventually dumped him to date the drummer. They were kind of like Fleetwood Mac, except they didn’t make it.
“We had the drama, but not the fame,” he said.
Music took a back seat in college, as Ferguson focused on his business degree and budding career. But a divorce around 2000 made him change his mind.
“I had my priorities completely upside down,” he said. “I had put my musical interests and talents on hold. I had a guitar that just sat on a stand as decoration in my living room.
So he picked up the ax again and attended the Atlanta Institute of Music in 2004 to hone his chops.
“I decided to get really serious about my job,” he described. “Learn what I was doing.”
He familiarized himself with melody and musical theory and began to apply it.
Ferguson’s wife’s family is from Great Falls, and her mother and sister live in Billings. Charmed by the area, the couple bought cabins outside Red Lodge and now spend part of the year there, including part in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“If I started like Fleetwood Mac, now I’m like John Mayer,” he joked. “I am one of those part-time workers. »
Montana is now his musical epicenter. He partially recorded his most recent record, “Windswept Isle” at Paris Montana Studio, a studio in one of the outbuildings of his Red Lodge property. Ferguson and his wife call their property the Paris Montana Ranch, and it has turned into two business ventures. They rent two cabins on the land and now have Paris Montana shops in Red Lodge and Billings.
Fittingly, Modern Rock Orchestra debuted in Billings, and in 2021 they played their first show at the Nova Center for the Performing Arts. It was their innagural concert, and they sold the place.
For Ferguson, it was validation. Proof that his dream of this group was not just a vain project. “People understood the concept of a modern rock orchestra without Grant Ferguson,” he said proudly. “It was beyond me as a person and beyond my music.”
“What I really wanted to do was expand the audience,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to take instrumental rock to a bigger stage.”
That works. Modern Rock Orchestra played Bozeman and Missoula, and expanded into Ohio.
It is a flowery project. But it travels well. Classical musicians are well trained in reading music.
“You get them the score up front, get together at the sound check to go through the tricky parts, and you’re good to go,” Ferguson said.
Modern Rock Orchestra contains a large number of great musicians from the region, including some from the Billings Symphony. Ferguson’s compositions are all written for a full orchestra. He would like to one day work with a great force like the Symphony Orchestra.
“We just take it organically,” he said. “One step after another.”