Big Ponderoo: The Small Festival with Big Importance


For the nonprofit and mostly volunteer-driven SFF Presents, the encroachment and dominance of musical juggernaut Live Nation is not just a hypothetical. The organization is on the front lines of trying to foster support for music in a local community and the surrounding region that takes a healthier and more holistic approach by putting music and people first, and then worrying about the bottom dollar.

First founded in 1995, the Sisters Folk Festival in picturesque Sisters, Oregon has been a mainstay fall festival of the Pacific Northwest for local, regional, and touring musicians for nearly three decades. Over that period it’s created a prestigious name for itself, with musicians and patrons alike eager to return each year. With eight stages operated around the small Sisters community, people flock from around the country to partake in the music and vibe that Sisters Folk Fest creates, and it usually sells out.

In 2023, SFF Presents decided to start a sister festival in Sisters called Big Ponderoo. Where Sisters Folk Fest features mostly folk acts with some independent country and bluegrass music mixed in, Big Ponderoo starts with a healthy mix of bluegrass and independent country, and then features some folk performers as well.

They spell it out their approach right there on the Big Ponderoo website.

Remember the good ‘ol days when you could go to a music festival without buying your tickets on an installment plan and paying $50 or more in service fees? Where you could bring your own chair, grab a beer in less than 10 minutes, and make friends with the people sitting around you? Where you had enough space to bust a move? 

At Big Ponderoo, we’re on a mission to bring our audience a festival reminiscent of the days before the corporate music monopoly took over – where small-town charm meets world-class live music for an unforgettable, warm, and personal festival experience.

This is exactly what I experienced when I arrived in Sisters, Oregon on Sunday, June 30th for the second day of Big Ponderoo. I would have loved to have been there for the first day when the Hogslop String Band, The Brothers Comatose, and Shinyribs capped off what everyone swore was an excellent day of music, but I was four hours away covering the finale of another independently-run festival, the Jackalope Jamboree in Pendleton, OR.

Not wanting to miss Big Ponderoo for a second year, I showed up just in time to see former Old Crow Medicine Show member and revered folk musician Willie Watson taking the stage as a last minute edition.

Watson has that rare ability to be able to captivate an audience intently with just the bare minimum instrumentation and archaic songs. Watson has been somewhat adrift over the last few years after releasing a selection of folk singer albums in 2014 and 2017. He said from the Big Ponderoo stage he used to know who he was when he was younger. But now that he’s in his 40s, he has no clue.

What he does know is that he doesn’t find only singing old folks songs very fulfilling anymore and he now wants to sing his own. Right on cue, there’s a new track from Willie Watson out now called “Real Love,” and a new album on the way in September to look forward to. Watson performed with revered Pacific Northwest fiddler Sami Braman, also known for he work in the old-time band The Onlies.

Sami Braman with Willie Watson

As advertised, Big Ponderoo offered an intimate opportunity to see some world-class artists and bands. Bella White is being booked by many of the major festivals all across the United States as a fast rising roots musician. But only at Big Ponderoo could you see her up close and personal in an experience that is distinctly different for the performers as well.

As opposed to a 10 yard gulf between the crowd and stage with security guards standing sentry every 10 feet, performers feel at one with the audience at Big Ponderoo. Bella put on an especially conversational and relaxed set compared to some others I have seen.

Bella White at Big Ponderoo

Getting to see Oliver Wood and his Oliver Wood Trio that he brought to Oregon was a similar experience. The big sound wasn’t too much for the smaller stage. It made it that much more memorable.

Oliver Wood

Many friends and supporters of Silverada (formerly Mike and the Moonpies) wonder why the bigger festivals don’t seem to be interested in booking them. But just like the Jackalope Jamboree did on Thursday, Big Ponderoo booked them as headliners, with folks coming from Portland and other parts outside of Central Oregon to see what many consider to be the best live band in country music.

Silverada

Another bonus for Big Ponderoo is the site itself. Located just a block or two from the main drag in the town of Sisters, the big Ponderosa pines that give the festival its name also offer excellent shade and a perfect backdrop for the festival. Along with the big national acts on the main stage, there was a second stage with performers playing in between set changes. This afforded performers like Portland’s bluegrass band Fog Holler and the Parnells also from the PDX an opportunity to perform.

Fog Holler from Portland

Big Ponderoo has already announced their intention to hold the festival once again in 2025. But it won’t be without some challenges. In 2023, the Live Nation-affiliated company C3 Presents founded the Farewell Fest in Redmond, Oregon, just 20 miles away. With three stages over three days and a massive budget, the independent country/Americana festival this year has a lineup that includes Billy Strings, Jason Isbell, Whiskey Myers, Colter Wall, Ryan Bingham, and Kacey Musgraves who replaced original headliner Brandi Carlile.

As Saving Country Music reported in 2023, FairWell Fest directly resulted in the cancellation of the locally-promoted Wild Hare Festival just outside of Portland, and greatly affected Big Ponderoo in their inaugural year, as well as the Jackalope Jamboree.

My real concern with Live Nation’s presence in Central Oregon is the overall negative impact on the music ecosystem as a whole,” Crista Munro of Sisters Folk Fest/Big Ponderoo told SCM in 2023. “A handful of artists we tried to book for the initial lineup were radius-claused out by the FairWell Festival, which we didn’t know was happening until we started hearing about it from agents that we work with closely.” 

For SFF Presents, FairWell Fest presents a double whammy because FairWell’s radius clause is so robust, it restricts all the FairWell talent from not just playing Big Ponderoo or the Jackalope Jamboree. It also means they can’t play SSF Present’s flagship festival, Sisters Folk Fest in September.

“While radius clauses are nothing new—and really are a way for promoters to keep from stepping on each other’s toes—they can also be weaponized to squeeze smaller promoters out of the market,” says Munro. “As you know, Live Nation is monopolistic, owning everything from the venue to the booking agencies to the ticketing company in many markets. It’s virtually impossible to compete with that.”

This is one of the reasons the United States Justice Department is suing Live Nation and attempting to get the company to spin off its ticketing arm, Ticketmaster. But this litigation could take years to resolve, and as has been seen in other monopoly busting cases, is not always effective.

SFF Presents doesn’t just book and promote Sisters Folks Fest and Big Ponderoo. They organize other events and local shows in the area throughout the year. Even more critically, one of the primary goals of the organization is to raise funds to support music education in the local community and schools. In 2023 alone, SFF Presents helped nearly 1,200 youths participate in extra curricular musical activities, as well as providing 77 youth and adults tuition assistance for direct musical instruction.

As arts funding continues face budget cuts and other pressures, organizations like SFF Presents are critical to helping to fill those gaps and foster musicians and a musically literate populous into the future.

On Sunday, June 30th when Big Ponderoo was enjoying the second day of the festival, The Guardian published an ominous article titled, “‘A death sentence for music’: the battle for America’s last Live Nation-free city.

That city is Portland, OR, which is pondering allowing Live Nation a 3,500-capacity venue downtown. Though Portland is nearly three hours away from Sisters where the Sisters Folk Fest/Big Ponderoo happen, it speaks to the encroaching nature of Live Nation into one of the last regions that remains mostly music independent.

The big population center in Deschutes County where Sisters, OR resides is Bend, which has seen a population explosion in recent years. As Portland has resisted allowing a Live Nation-owned venue to be erected in the city, Bend’s Hayden Homes Amphitheater is operated by company. Many of the artists and bands that used to play Portland are now playing in Bend instead.

One strategic advantage Big Ponderoo and the Sisters Folk Festival have is the intimacy and the community the events are able to afford to loyal patrons. This insulates them from being too vulnerable to the corporate megafest. In other words, they may be too small to fail in some respects.

The audience at Big Ponderoo

Meanwhile, FairWell fest—just like many of the megafests in 2024—is having issues filling to capacity as opposed to 2023 when many sold out immediately. With so many of these major events sprouting up across the country, they are beginning to cannibalize themselves, even with the increasing number of fans.

For some though, the lineups of the big megafests are still just too alluring to pass up. As much as they make it more difficult on smaller festivals and organizations, they make it easy for attendees to see many of their favorite artists in one place. The size of these festivals also speaks to how fortunate it is that many independent artists have now become so large, promoters can justify throwing these big megafestivals.

But someone has to afford up-and-comers and local artists the opportunity to be showcased right beside the big national names. Someone has to fund local music education that is under-funded through government sources. Someone has to put bands like Silverada on the stage as a headliner.

SSF Presents and Big Ponderoo are more than happy to do these things. And hopefully, they will be doing them for many years to come.

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All photos below by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos. For more photos from live events, follow Saving Country Music on Instagram.

Silverada playing to the Ponderosas and appreciative audience at Big Ponderoo
Mike Harmeier and the whole band came out in sunglasses, with the Ponderosa Pines being reflected back in Mike’s Pit Vipers
Mike Harmeier and Omar Oyoque
Catlin Rutherford and Omar
Zachary Moulton put on a clinic with the dobro and pedal steel guitar
Taylor Englert the day after his birthday
The Parnells from Portland
Joanna Lee on the side stage
Picturesque downtown of Sisters, where all the buildings are fashioned to look like the Old West, and stores are the kind Wal-Mart has put out of business in most places.
Sisters Folk Fest founder and SFF Presents Board Chair Emeritus, Jim Cornelius, thanks everyone for coming to Big Ponderoo, and promises to see everyone next year.

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