Editor’s Note: For more coverage of the Under The Big Sky Fest, check out Saving Country Music’s Instagram page, as well as dedicated reviews of the sets from Dwight Yoakam, Colter Wall, and Tyler Childers.
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One thing was clearly evident after traveling to Whitefish, Montana to experience the massive Under The Big Sky Festival with its incredible lineup and expansive grounds: the independent country and roots music we all enjoy has officially arrived. This is no longer a boutique subgenre with scrappy little bands looking to make some noise in the shadow of the mainstream. This is a musical revolution with bonafide large-drawing headliners, and a greater community of musicians who enjoy strong and fervent fan bases, including many devotees who are willing to travel far distances to see their favorite artists.
With a tributary running through the grounds and right in front of one of the stages, railroad tracks also cutting through one corner with trains coming and going during the festivities, and a rodeo ensuing on the working ranch in between music sets, it certainly made for ideal and memorable environs for a country music festival, even if this year’s historic wildfires made skies smoky, and at times, rendered the beautiful Whitefish Mountains looming in the distance illegible in the skyline, while a high pressure heat wave sent temperatures into the mid 90’s each of the three days—unseasonably hot for these portions of Montana.
But these were all secondary concerns and uncontrollable. And with the lineup assembled to entertain, you’d be a fool to focus on them. What could have been controlled is how the event was dramatically oversold, at least on Saturday, resulting in a generally inhospitable environment for many where no matter who was performing on stage, simply being there was a burden.
Along with major headliners such as Dwight Yoakam, Billy Strings, Brothers Osborne, Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, and Tyler Childers, Under The Big Sky Fest did the right thing for any destination festival, and made sure local and regional talent was also given an opportunity on the big stages.
Though all of these bands turned in great performances, some didn’t exactly fit with the Under The Big Sky sound. But others did and were great discoveries, including fiddle player, songwriter, and Montana-native Hannah King who’s inspired by Western Swing and George Strait and was one of the first to play on the weekend. True country with distinguishing songwriting, she grew up traveling across the country playing in fiddle competitions and now lives in the Flathead Valley. It was local flavor with national appeal, and she had a great band that included Nashville-based mandolin player Mary Meyer, and sang a song with another local songwriter Michelle Rivers.
One of the biggest discoveries on the entire weekend also had Montana ties. Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs threatened to steal the show when they performed early Sunday as folks were still streaming in. They bring a blazing exuberance to bluegrass while still honoring its traditions, and put together a set to remember. Don’t be surprised if this outfit starts making more and more noise nationally in the coming months.
But of course it was the big names that got many to commit to travel to Montana for the festival, and to a name, they didn’t disappoint. As has been the case often this summer, with bands playing either their first big shows back or their first shows period since the height of the pandemic, that pent up enthusiasm came through in the music, and resulted in marquee performances.
Many artists and bands made a buzz, but arguably nobody made a bigger one than Billy Strings. He doesn’t play music. Music plays him. Some transcendental or extraterrestrial portal is opened up, and a communion occurs between Billy Strings and the Unknown, resulting in some of the most mind-altering moments life can afford chemical free.
All of the headliners left their mark on the audience, including Dwight Yoakam, who played before Billy String Friday night, and Tyler Childers, who played after Brothers Osborne on Sunday. The fact that guys like Billy Strings, Tyler Childers, and Jason Isbell who headlined Saturday were the ones who got the final set and the 90-minute slot above more established headliners speaks to just how much their popularity has swelled, and it was a smart move by Under The Big Sky Fest.
Even some of the undercard was filled with artists who could comprise headliners at other festivals, and very well may do so in the future. Colter Wall and Ryan Bingham were able to entertain the massive crowd with just their acoustic guitars. Nobody missed the fact they didn’t have bands. Big Sky country is about the best place to see Bingham, whose found a new resurgence of popularity through his appearances on the Paramount series Yellowstone, which had a number of cast members in attendance. And against inexplicable odds, Colter Wall has made old cowboy tunes and whooping trails songs cool again, and received an incredible reception from the crowd.
Charley Crockett could very well be headlining all kinds of stuff in the future. He came out on the second stage like he was shot out of a cannon, moving and dancing in front of a packed crowd. He probably should have played on the main stage, and later in the evening, but there was no space for him on such a packed lineup. Repping his recent James Hand tribute album, Crockett played multiple Hand songs, including “Midnight Run” and “Lesson in Depression.” When he mentioned how he’d written his song “Borrowed Time” with Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours, the crowd erupted.
Emmylou Harris walked out on stage like a ravishing country music goddess, and immediately you were left in awe. “Does anyone like country music? Does anyone remember country music?” she asked. “This is a Kitty Wells song. It’s real country,” she said before launching into “Making Memories.”
Even the earlier acts each day were a who’s who of country and Americana. Whitney Rose, Nikki Lane, and Lilly Hiatt all appeared, making sure that women were well-represented on the lineup. Fastly rising artists such as Jade Bird and Jesse Daniel drew enthusiastic crowds, the latter with an excellent band he’s boasting these days. The local band Badger Hound put on a fun set with their punk-infused hillbilly music. And The White Buffalo impressed with his larger-than-life presence and earnest songwriting.
You also had some more left-of-center acts that ended up receiving a lot of praise and enthusiasm over the weekend. It’s still questionable just how “country” Orville Peck is, and he’s not as much a novelty in country as he once was. At this point he may have to come out as non-binary and claim to have been molested by Matt Gaetz to get the media interested in him again like they were a couple of years ago. But he’s a guy that you heard folks harping about as one of the most intriguing of the fest.
Paul Cauthen continues to be a guy who doesn’t seem to be able to write a song beyond one perfunctory verse and a catchy, and frankly empty chorus repeated on end. He made the chorus of his song “Cocaine Country Dancing” last some 15-minutes, and when that got old, just kept repeating “My Saddle” in his over-affected voice for another 12 minutes until the set ended. But you’d be a fool to not notice how Cauthen had the crowd in his hands the entire time. Few turned in a more rousing set. You just wish he’d work towards being more of an artist than an act, and reel in the voice and mature like Colter Wall has done very successfully in his career.
The Hogslop String Band also deserves some love for playing two sets, and really bringing the party to Under The Big Sky, capped off with a bevy of dancing pigs jumping through the crowd to their string band music.
But along with all the buzz created by Billy Strings and the other headliners, the superior middle card, and the new discoveries on the weekend, the other big topic among the crowd was how on Saturday the festival site was so completely packed with patrons, it became problematic to a level rarely seen even at rowdy field festivals, let alone a highly-curated and expensive destination event such as this one.
In an era when many events are cutting their capacities in an abundance of caution, Under The Big Sky Fest appeared to blow through any governors on capacity, and there were thousands of more people on the site Saturday than there should have been. It wasn’t uncommon to wait 45 minutes for a beer, an hour for food, 30 minutes to use the restroom, and even when you had relieved yourself or received your items, it may take another 30 minutes or more just to make your way back to the tiny spot of earth you’d carved out for yourself and your family or friends. Though long lines and packed areas are a regular rigor of attending a festival, it really was above and beyond at Under The Big Sky on Saturday.
This was an especially big issue when it came to water, which was $5 a bottle, and the two free water stations on the massive site were not nearly enough to keep up with demand. Parking, traffic and shuttles also became a major issue with the oversold capacity, with some waiting hours in line just to get into or leave the festival. There was also no cell phone service on the site due to both spotty reception, and towers in the area being overtaxed by the sheer numbers of people attending, meaning folks couldn’t communicate with their fellow concertgoers, or access ride apps, or share their experiences in real time.
It’s also important to point out that on Friday with its reduced capacity, everything ran smoothly for the most part. On Sunday—whether due to reduced ticket sales, or people simply refusing to endure another day (a take heard from numerous folks afterwards), things also ran much more smoothly, the long lines at the water stations notwithstanding. But on Saturday, even the VIP areas were so overbooked, you could barely move. A post on the festival’s Facebook page reminding folks there were two water stations instead of one became a forum for complains about all the issues brought on by the overcrowding at the festival.
Everything is in place for Under The Big Sky Fest to not just be a successful independent country and roots festival, but perhaps one of the premier events all year. With the large site and a stellar concept, it can facilitate the kind of incredible lineup it has seen over its first two years. And as a 2nd-year festival, growing pains and other issues are understandable. Hopefully they heed the feedback from patrons, and work to resolve the issues that arose on Saturday.
Saving Country Music did reach out to Under The Big Sky Fest to try to confirm capacity numbers on the respective days, and ask if they wanted to address the overcrowding concerns. But they did not respond by the time of this post.
Beyond the gripes levied, many fond memories were made at Under The Big Sky Fest 2021, many memorable performances were turned in, and many artists got opportunities in front of some of the biggest crowds in their career, facilitated by the swelling numbers of independent country and roots fans who continue to reshape the paradigm in popular music.
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Editor’s Note: Sincere apologies to any artist not pictured or mentioned. With two stages so far apart, it was impossible to see every artist.
All photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos