Ron Schuster had a knack for taking just about any song and making it his own, what his bandmates called being “Schustatized.” Though he traveled the globe seeking adventure, the guitarist and singer continually returned home to Billings where he would develop lifetime friendships and deep roots within the musical community.
Schuster died on Feb. 1 from complications related to cancer, which he battled for 20 years. He was 70.
A memorial on Feb. 5 drew more than a hundred friends and family to celebrate his life and music. “I was just in awe how much he meant to different people and how involved he was in so many different people’s lives,” said his wife, Ginny.
A public celebration is scheduled for Sunday at Yellowstone Valley Brewing, beginning at 4 p.m. and featuring many of the musicians who performed with Schuster throughout the years.
Longtime friend and bandmate Bob Brown, who led the Feb. 5 service, described Schuster as a joyful man whose greatest wish was to have a family of his own. A previously unwed man, Schuster found such a family at age 50 when he married his high school sweetheart and became father to her four daughters, who were teenagers at the time.
Schuster's family extended into the community through music. Wayne Schuster recalled his younger brother's drive to perform. “It filled a need in his life that was vacant, and he had a lot of close friends because of music. That was all part of his family — his musical family.”
Starting in the 1970s, when Schuster was strumming guitar and running Budget Tapes and Records, he would meet his best friends and bandmates, and as they grew older, he helped mentor their children in musical ways.
With his version of folksy blues and milky vocals, Schuster could sway a crowd. He was charming — the kind of guy who lit up a room with his smile. He didn’t seek the spotlight, but was much more apt to share the stage, and he gave his work to audiences with humbleness.
“I always admired his willingness to get up on stage and perform,” said Wayne, acknowledging his brother often downplayed his abilities.
In 2012, Schuster was presented the Freeman Lacy Lifetime Achievement Award at the Magic City Music Awards for his enduring presence in the Billings music scene.
In previous interviews, Schuster remained humble about his playing, even calling himself “adequate” at guitar work. “I recognize I’m limited in my talent but that doesn’t deter me in the fact that I love to play … To me, that’s what it’s all about. Playing with my friends is really what’s fun.”
In 1999, bachelorhood became fatherhood for Schuster. He married his high school sweetheart, Virginia “Ginny” Olsen, who he first dated at age 16. Ginny had four daughters: Katherine, Rebecca, Charlotte, and Elizabeth.
“He jumped in,” Ginny recalled. “And he didn’t push authority. He just pushed friendship from day one. He never needed to tell me that he wanted a family; it was just evident that he loved every part of it.”
Rebecca took the Schuster name following her divorce, a way to honor her stepfather, she said. “Ron has been a constant father figure in my life, and I wanted him to know how much he meant to me.”
The family would continue to grow, and Schuster became grandpa to 12 grandchildren.
“I don’t remember a conversation with my brother that didn’t have something to do with the grandkids,” said Wayne, who is seven years older. “The stepdaughters quickly became his daughters, and the grandchildren were his life.”
Schuster’s life was immediately fuller with Ginny and her daughters, but early on, the family received quite a blow. Four months after tying the knot, Schuster was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His prostate was removed, but cancer continued to advance throughout his body.
“It’s been a long road, but one I would have always taken, because I really, really adored him,” said Ginny. “Very much so, how he loved the children and his common sense. I was rather sheltered growing up on a ranch, and he just brought a new life to me.”
Schuster was a cultured and interesting man, one who followed a hippie and beatnik lifestyle after graduating high school in 1967. He traveled extensively, bummed around Europe, lived in England for a few months, and even took a Volkswagen with stick-on flowers on its sides to Mexico. Yet, he would always return to Billings, where he developed lifelong musical connections.
Ronald Lee Schuster was born March 29, 1949, to T.H. Schuster and Lois Olga Hegg in Billings. His mother played piano and organ, and his father would strum country songs on an acoustic guitar.
At age 10, Schuster’s parents divorced and his father left behind his guitar. Schuster would sit and play single string songs, such as the theme to the Twilight Zone or the early '60s surf-rock song “Pipeline.” As he got older, he’d pluck at the guitar during parties, and he found the attention people paid to him alluring.
While still in high school in the mid-'60s, Schuster started his first band, Poison Ivy. The group gigged at school and several teen clubs around town. Music seemed to link everyone together, and on the weekends Schuster and his friends would listen to music in their cars and congregate at the clubs.
As a teen, Schuster frequented a record store in the basement of the Hart-Albin Building, which at the time housed a four-story department store. He would paw through audio logs, ordering music he read about in Rolling Stone or heard on the radio.
In the '70s, Schuster managed Budget Tapes and Records, part of a chain of record stores based in Colorado. The store had couches for lounging and music magazines. Incense was always burning and music was always playing.
Schuster ran the record store with friends and musicians Bobby Brown and Bob “Carb” Brown. They’d sling records all day and jam music at night.
“Music was everywhere,” described Bobby, who met Schuster when we was 16. “We’d go to work, listen to music, go home and listen to music, and then play music all the time.”
The musicians had plenty of jams across the years, and Schuster credited both Bobs for getting him back into playing guitar after returning to Billings from Europe, where he was living during the Vietnam War after declaring himself a conscientious objector.
“We would get together in a basement and just thrash away,” Schuster described in a previous interview. “We thought it was wonderful! Back then we were just exploring. We used to have so much fun, all plugged into this giant amplifier that had this horrible sound. I don’t know if we ever made sense or not, but it seemed like we actually played music.”
The musical melding of Schuster and both Bobs became D’ Club La Peach, a name inspired by the Allman Brothers album, “Eat a Peach,” and Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club de France. The group also included Joe Sullivan, Tom Brown (Carb’s brother from Casper), and Pat Rogers.
“In the record shop, we were exposed to all this different music that you didn’t hear on the radio,” Schuster said. “Everyone wanted to hear radio music like ‘Free Bird’ and (Lynyrd) Skynyrd — all those cliché things. We were playing stuff like Elvis Costello. We were playing stuff way ahead of its time people just didn’t understand.”
D’ Club La Peach evolved across the years to many different bands, which would break up and form into others. Schuster played in Mumblin’ Eddy, the Southside Swing Band, Neo Trio, and The Floyds — to name a few.
In the mid-'80s, Schuster quit the record store to pursue music full-time and hit the road with Dr. Pluto. The group played across Montana and into Idaho and attracted the attention of a Minneapolis-based booking agency, but split up before much manifested.
Schuster went on to play with Soul Brat during the mid-'90s. During this time, he was diagnosed with cancer and would spend the next 20 years in and out of remission, playing whenever he could muster the energy.
Soul Brat reunited at the 2010 Billings Outpost Tuney Awards (now known as the Magic City Music Awards). At that concert, bassist Todd Eagle described Schuster as “one of the sweetest, dearest, most talented people I’ve ever met ... If I’m the brat, he’s the soul.”
Schuster continued to play in groups, and spent the past decade sharing the stage with friends in The Peach Pickers and simply as “Schuster.” His final performance was the day after Thanksgiving in 2019 with The Peach Pickers. The sons of his bandmates were part of the pack, including Steve Brown, Parker Brown, and Matt Rogers.
“He gave them the opportunity to feel like that’s what they should do, and encouraged them to be musicians and help them any way they could,” said Bobby Brown, whose son, Parker, grew up around basement jams with Schuster.
“When I was a kid, Ronnie treated me like his friend,” Parker posted to Facebook following Schuster’s death. “When I grew up, he treated me as a peer. And in the years before he left I felt like he revered me in the same way I had revered him all my life. It was a relationship coming full circle — especially seeing him interact and love on my kids.”
One of the last shows Schuster performed was a house concert with Parker, where they performed songs that were influential to their musical careers. It was obvious Schuster was battling this longtime illness, but his spirit was bright and his songs were soulful.
“He was up for performing that night,” said Wayne, Schuster’s brother. “He was on fire.”
A lover, but a fighter
Doctors tried to eradicate cancer from Schuster in many different ways. Treatments left him fatigued — something he equated to feeling like a limp noodle that also left him disinterested in playing the guitar.
Though cancer, and its treatments, ravaged Schuster’s body, he carried a smile in public and was often seen in the audience, cheering along local musicians. And he found his way back to the guitar as often as he could. He knew how to rally, even on bad days, and he would pull himself together to greet his many grandchildren or attend and even play at a concert, described his stepdaughter Rebecca.
“He was so quick witted and could always make my kids laugh, even as teenagers. He was Grandpa Ron from the beginning.”
During Schuster’s memorial, stepdaughter Charlotte Bernhart described how affectionate, humorous, and kind he was. “I don’t know what I would have become without Ron,” she said.
Bearnhart added, “I do believe Ron loved the package he got with mom. The only part missing was that none of his daughters had a musical bone in their bodies.”
The Schuster family had a running joke that Ron would have preferred his daughters be more like the Kemmicks, a musical family that includes brothers Ed and John, who played in Peach Pickers with Schuster. John’s daughter, Katy, often played guitar and sang at family get-togethers with Schuster.
On her Facebook page, Katy described one evening jam session when Schuster leaned over and said, “Hey, just so you know, when I die this guitar is yours.”
“I told him I hoped I never got the guitar,” Katy wrote. She described how a few years later, Schuster told her he changed his mind, and he’d like her to have the guitar while he was still around.
“It’s become one of my most prized possessions," Katy said. "I’m trying my best to do things he would’ve been proud of."
Schuster was one of the first on-air programmers in the 1970s at KEMC (now Yellowstone Public Radio) and maintained several programs including the Mr. E Guest and Tin Pan Alley. He remained on the airwaves for three decades, becoming known for his “ironic wit and a sincere knack for finding the deep cut you never knew you needed to hear,” said Ken Siebert, program manager for YPR, on a tribute that aired following Schuster’s death.
While working as a DJ for Yellowstone Public Radio in the 1990s, Schuster would bring Australian rock guitarist Deniz Tek into the Billings musical fold, asking him to be a “Mr. E. Guest” on his weekly program.
Schuster introduced Tek to fellow musicians Bob Brown and Pat Rogers, and they began weekly jam sessions in Tek's basement and writing songs under the name, Zero House.
“We were just a bunch of guys having fun,” Tek recalled in a previous interview. Those sessions resulted in a solo album for Tek, who routed his musical connections through town to assist, including Scott Asheton, one of the founding members of the Stooges, and Chris Masuak, guitarist from Tek’s band, Radio Birdman.
“These guys reached a pinnacle with their band, traveled the world, and were recognized all over," said Schuster. "And here I am, a guy from Billings, Montana, who barely plays guitar, jamming with them. It was a real ego boost for me … It was an honor to be in the same room.”
The resulting album, “Take it to the Vertical,” includes the song “Me and Gene,” written by Schuster about his time as a teenager driving the Montana Hi-Line and trying to pick up radio signals from Canada.
Connected to music for his entire life, Schuster leaves a legacy of love for music, friends, and family.
“He showed up for every practice and every show that was humanly possible,” said Bob Brown. “Sometimes he thought he was superhuman and would show up to play when we all knew he should probably have stayed at home, but that was Schuster. He lived for the next gig.”