Musical homecoming

Former Kalispell woman happy to be singing for old friends at one of Northwest Montana Fair concerts

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The Northwest Montana Fair brings scattered Flathead County residents home every year. But one former Kalispell woman is coming home for an unusual purpose: to sing at the Aug. 13 concert.

Cheryl (Insteness) Huggins will perform at the Northwest Montana Fair as a member of The Fleetwoods, whose hits in the early 1960s included “Mr. Blue” and “Come Softly to Me.” Huggins has been part of the trio since 1981.

The Fleetwoods are performing with other groups Aug. 13 at the fair’s Cruising the Oldies concert.

“I’m wondering if this is really a dream,” said Huggins, 70. “I didn’t think of ever joining the Fleetwoods, number one.

“Number two, I’m going back to my hometown. I don’t have a lot of relatives there, but I have friends and classmates.”

Huggins said she is eager to see the Flathead County Fairgrounds again and visit a few of her favorite former haunts, including Lone Pine and Woodland parks.

“It’s exciting,” she said.

Huggins has always been involved in music. As a child, she took violin lessons — until the day her teacher convinced her to play piano instead so she could accompany the other violinists. Huggins gladly made the switch; she said she had never cared for the violin.

She began taking piano lessons in the sixth grade. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion.

“It was easy for me. I loved it,” she said.

Huggins started playing the piano for various groups around the Flathead Valley and, at age 14, became the organist at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Her musical interests also included singing; while attending Flathead High School, Huggins sang in the choir.

She graduated in 1961 and married Jim Huggins the following year. The couple moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1962 so Jim, who had a degree in photography from Montana State University, could attend Brooks Institute and further his photography education. Over the years, the couple also lived in Spokane and Missoula before finally settling in Olympia, Wash., in 1978.

Huggins said she didn’t have much time for music during those years; she was busy raising her son and daughter. While in Missoula, however, she did get involved with Sweet Adelines, a group she loved.

After the couple moved to Olympia, Huggins took up the piano again. She accompanied local theater groups and played for weddings. She also became the organist at her church, where she accompanied singer Gretchen Christopher, an original member of The Fleetwoods.

Through Christopher, Huggins found out about an opening in the trio for a Fleetwoods reunion benefit concert in 1981. Barbara Ellis, one of the original members, was no longer interested in performing, and the group needed someone to take her part.

“I got the OK from Gary Troxel, the original lead singer,” to take Ellis’ place, Huggins said. She has performed with Troxel ever since.

Huggins said performing with The Fleetwoods is like a dream; she remembers listening to the trio while growing up.

“I knew the songs. ‘Mr. Blue’ and ‘Come Softly to Me’ — once you’ve heard them, you can’t forget them,” she said. “And Gary sounds exactly like he did way back then. It’s a treat to perform with him.”

Christopher primarily does solo work these days, Huggins said, so Bonnie Hannukaine sings with Troxel and Huggins.

“The blend is just there,” she said of the trio. “It’s a magical thing. It’s been really fun and very interesting.”

Until this year, The Fleetwoods performed five or six concerts a year, Huggins said. Those shows were primarily on the East Coast, however, and the trio tired of the long trips from Olympia.

“We’ll still do the West Coast. That’s why we’re doing Kalispell: It’s not that far,” she said.

When they perform, The Fleetwoods generally are one of several oldies groups in a concert lineup, Huggins said. That’s true of the group’s Kalispell concert, where The Fleetwoods will perform alongside several other hit makers from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

“For me, it’s just kind of a fun ride,” Huggins said. “When we go off and do shows, it’s a pleasure to see Gary’s fans, and we get to hear all the other groups live. We see great concerts backstage. It’s a lot of fun.”

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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