There are many festivals out there now catering to independent country and Americana all across the United States and into Europe, verifying the swelling popularity and importance of this music that is emerging from the shadow of the mainstream. But in three short seasons and amid a pandemic, Under The Big Sky Fest has quickly made the case for being the biggest and most important of all off the strength of its lineups, and the crowds it draws, despite its remote location in Whitefish, Montana mere miles from the Canadian border, and near Glacier National Park.
The festival’s third year comes after 2021 may have been a little too popular and well-attended. The massive crowds, especially on Saturday had folks fighting for ground space, and waiting in impossibly long lines for food, water, and bathroom privileges. Widening the space in front of the main stage, and moving the second stage back a bit meant more room for everyone, and limiting capacity meant less people that needed to be accommodated. It was like night and day from 2021, with water cheaper and more available, and everyone able to find a spot to enjoy the weekend in. If anything, they probably could have allowed a few hundred more people in with no problems.
The headliners all lived up to their billing. The Turnpike Troubadours took the stage Friday night and put on an excellent set, despite a little bit of drama earlier in the day trying to get frontman Evan Felker to the stage due to flight delays. If Turnpike had been forced to cancel last minute, it would have been the country music drama of the century. Instead, their set was the perfect way to start off the festival, and from a band that’s been around for a while, but just now feels like they’ve finally made it, coming out the other side of drama and adversity even stronger. (read full set review)
Saturday night headliner Lord Huron was one of the wild cards of the fest. How would they go over with a mostly country crowd as a mostly indie rock band was a big question. But their last album Long Lost was very much inspired by classic country—as are elements of previous works—and they made sure to lean heavy on that material in their set. Whether you were a diehard Lord Huron fan or just a curious country music onlooker, it was hard to not buy into what they were doing. They were also the only band on the weekend that brought their own set and lighting, with cliff face facades elevating the respective Lord Huron members on the stage, interspersed with psychedelic neon cactus plants.
Cody Jinks, who headlined Sunday, was everything you wanted and expected Cody Jinks to be. In independent country, some of the top artists have reached the pinnacle only to let their foot off the gas, cease touring regularly, to retire or even switch genres. But not Cody Jinks. He became a top dog, but is still out there pushing and staying hungry. He was the perfect guy to close out the festival.
Cody Jinks also deserves “good dude” points for bring his current opener Erin Vaincourt out for a duet, and forgoing the whole “encore” exercise so he could play more songs. The next to last song Jinks played was his Platinum-selling “Loud and Heavy,” and despite it being clear and hot all weekend, it suddenly clouded up, and it wasn’t a thunderstorm, but big random Montana-sized raindrops started falling from the sky during the song in a chill bumps moment. They stopped as soon as Cody was done with the song.
Even though Under The Big Sky builds their lineup around some of the biggest artists in independent country, it also doesn’t completely ignore the quality artists from the country mainstream. This year that meant giving the quickly-rising Lainey Wilson an opportunity on Sunday that she took full advantage of. From small town Louisiana, Wilson is a bona-fide redneck warrior princess, and one of the good apples doing what she can to keep it real in the mainstream, returning country back to country music, and women back to a genre where they’ve been sorely missing.
Lainey didn’t feel like a mainstream artist at an independent country fest as sometimes happens. Super energetic and animated, but unpretentious and endearing, she worked the stage in front of a stripped-down three-piece band who started the set off all crowded around one microphone singing Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.” Sure, her big radio single with Cole Swindell “Never Say Never” felt a little flat. She’s doing what she can to make it through a tough industry. But most of her songs had the crowd singing along and buying into what Lainey Wilson is trying to do.
Midland is also a band ideal for crossing that mainstream/independent cultural divide, and even though Saving Country Music has made sure to correct the record about the origins of this outfit (They said from the stage Sunday to remember they’re from Austin. Spoiler alert: They’re not), it’s hard to deny that when it comes to the mainstream, they’re keeping it country, and are one of the best bands out there. Songs like “Sunrise Tells The Story” and “14 Gears” are as good as any. And though singer Mark Wystrach did the hackey “point at people in the crowd” thing that mainstream artists do (he once said he wanted to kick my ass. I thought about confronting him backstage, but I promised his mom I wouldn’t), otherwise, they didn’t feel foreign on the Under The Big Sky lineup at all. Midland turned in a really enjoyable, and truly country set.
Meanwhile, another guy who straddles the independent and mainstream, Warren Zeiders, was the one whose cockiness got in the way of his music. A lot of buzz has been made about this guy, and he’s racked up some serious numbers, apparently by appealing to people on Tik-Tok. His music sounds very mainstream, but since country radio still doesn’t know what to do with him, he’s being pushed through independent country channels.
Not even Koe Wetzel exudes the kind of haughty attitude Warren Zeiders did at Under The Big Sky. He walked out to walkout music, but then when it ended he just kind of stood there, basking in a decent amount of initial adulation, but nothing special, and then proceeded to preen himself as his band didn’t exactly know if they should start the first song. Then during the first song and in the breaks, they guy again would stop down just to soak in any adulation. It was Warren’s 26th live show he said, and though his band was tight and the performance energetic, he showed his novice status in the intangibles. The dude does have some decent songs to go along with quite a few bad ones, but he’s kind of the anti Zach Bryan, who also came up via viral moments, but unlike Zeiders, Zach displays nothing but humility and gratefulness for the opportunities he’s been bestowed.
Zach Bryan was the headliner of the 2022 Under The Big Sky Festival, even though he played at 5:00 pm in one of those festival slots where the sun blazes right in on you. Though you have to show deference to Cody Jinks, Lord Huron, the Turnpike Troubadours, and Jamey Johnson, Zach Bryan is both the biggest, and hottest thing going on in all of country music at the moment, independent or mainstream. Slotting him as a mid level act was one of the few mistakes made by the promoters/organizers of Under The Big Sky.
Compared to the last time this set of ears saw Zach Bryan about 10 months ago, the tightness of Zach Bryan and the band is night and day. This is no longer a viral songwriter with a beer league backup band of semi musician friends. This is a serious live show that still makes sure to put Zach Bryan’s songs first.
The crowd for Zach Bryan was massive, despite it being super hot, and basically in the middle of the festival day. When Margo Price took the stage next, the crowd in front was about 10% of the size. It really illustrated just how big Zach Bryan is, just how strange slotting him so early was when he’s been headlining other festivals. It was also unfortunate for Margo, who turned in a quality set that included appearances from her husband Jeremy Ivey, and Sierra Hull. Price continues to be a strong live performer, even if she’s traded her steel guitar in for a second lead guitarist these days, and is decidedly more classic rock and classic pop in style now.
Later on Sunday about half way through the headliner set of Cody Jinks, Cody said, “I think Zach Bryan stole the show. The kids are gonna be alright.”
Another artist that played a midday set and threatened to steal the show was Sierra Ferrell. Spellbinding in her performance, she overcame her bass player breaking a string during the first song, and her mandolin player exiting the stage early to put on one of the most lauded sets of the weekend. It won’t be long before Sierra will be playing her own headliner sets too. She also made a surprise appearance singing her duet with Shakey Graves, “Ready Or Not.” (read full Sierra Ferrell set review).
Jamey Johnson wasn’t officially a headliner, but he might as well have been, closing out the second stage on Saturday night in front of the biggest crowd assembled at the “Big Mountain Stage” all weekend. He played all his most recognizable songs before launching into a litany of covers, including a slowed down version of “This Land Is Your Land” that had everyone in chills, as well as a new song called “21 Guns.” (read full Jamey Johnson set review).
But one of the best, and most important parts of a festival such as Under The Big Sky is giving you something to discover, or seeing artists you’ve heard about, but haven’t had an opportunity to see live.
There is nobody screaming for discovery more than Nick Shoulders, who received his first real opportunity on a national stage at Under The Big Sky. The singing, yodeling, whistling, mustachioed and mulleted weirdo freak is a “day one” guy at Saving Country Music. He was first profiled here back in 2018 releasing DIY recordings to Bandcamp. Now he has multiple viral videos out there, and he drew an impressive crowd to his early Sunday set. Nick Shoulders performing at Under The Big Sky felt like that moment an artist had “made it” both to the audience, and to Nick, who shared his gratefulness throughout the performance.
And one of the coolest things about Under The Big Sky Fest is how they open their stages to local and regional acts from Montana, giving these artists big opportunities they may not otherwise receive so close to home.
Michelle Rivers from Eureka, Montana just released a new album called Chasing Somewhere, and her single “Gone” is currently in the Saving Country Music Top 25 Playlist. I first discovered her sitting in with Montana fiddle player/songwriter turned Nashville recording artist Hannah King at last year’s Under The Big Sky Fest. Hannah also performed again this year, including her new single “26.” Tim Helnore of the Helnore Highwater Band was another local standout who played Saturday morning.
And along with supporting local acts, there are two artists that are almost becoming synonymous with Under The Big Sky. The first is the super fun Hogslop String Band, who always bring the party. The other is Paul Cauthen, who not only played setup for the Turnpike Troubadours Friday night, also took over the set of The Black Pumas on Saturday, who were forced to cancel. Adia Victoria was also on the early lineup for the festival, but backed out.
I said my peace about Paul Cauthen in last year’s Under The Big Sky recap, and since then, Cauthen has doubled down on getting away from the sincere and heartfelt songwriting of his early career, and instead—like many mainstream country acts—just reacts to whatever the crowds want live, and leans into that even more. Cauthen codified this with his new album Country Coming Down, and the single “Country As *uck.”
But you can’t gloss over that the dude is clearly entertaining, and the crowds go wild for him. This is the reason he was given a second slot after the Black Pumas cancellation, and an art installation in one of the beer barns had been erected in his honor. For many, if not most of the folks that attended the 2022 Under The Big Sky Fest, they will tell you Paul Cauthen was their favorite act, or at least one of them. That can’t be denied, or discounted.
Under The Big Sky Fest is still a bit of an arduous festival. It’s difficult and expensive to get to and stay at. The trek between the two stages is laborious, yet you’re compelled to make that trek due to the strength of the lineup. Even though Montana can be cool and overcast in the summer—like it was the day after the festival in Whitefish—if the sun is out, it can be a swelter, which it was once again in 2022.
But Under The Big Sky Fest feels like one of the top, if not the top festival that takes the best of independent country, Americana, and even a bit of the mainstream, and putsd it all in one place. The pictures don’t do justice to the crowds. An estimated 20,000 total people attended each day in 2022 according to the fest. Under The Big Sky truly represents the greatest that “country” music has to offer each year.
All photos Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos
Apologies to artists not mentioned or pictured. With two stages and three days, you just can’t cover everything.