The appeal for independent country has become so robust, we now have megafestivals sprouting up all across the country to cater to the fans of this music. But the first, and still the biggest of these events is Under The Big Sky Festival in Whitefish, Montana. It’s also one of the few that remains 100% independent.
Promoted by Outriders Presents, Under The Big Sky had the audacity in 2019 to put together a major country music festival with folks like Cody Jinks, Dwight Yoakam, and Nathaniel Rateliff at the top of the roster as opposed to the pop country flavors of the day. This year it was Zach Bryan, Hank Williams Jr., and CAAMP at the top, with support from folks like Charley Crockett, Colter Wall, Elle King, and Whiskey Myers. Crowds swelled to some 20,000 on the 350-acre Big Mountain Ranch in Whitefish, Montana, only 30 miles from the Canadian border, 30 miles from Glacier National Park, and a world away from the mundane.
It’s not easy to get to, but Under The Big Sky is unparalleled with the amount of natural features on the site. Both an active train track and a mountain creek run through the grounds, with folks hanging out in the creek in the afternoon to cool off. There is also a full fledged rodeo that transpires over the weekend with a $10,000 purse and participants from around the country and Canada. And of course, mountains and forests ring the festival grounds.
Under The Big Sky embraces the Western aspect in today’s independent country music. This is one of the reasons Colter Wall chose it as the setting for one of only two public performances this summer, and to coincide with the release of his new album Little Songs.
Luke Grimes is better known to many as Kayce Dutton from the hit show Yellowstone, but as he said from the stage Friday night, “Today it’s just plain old Luke.” A lot has been made about plain ol’ Luke’s ability to hopscotch folks in the country music pecking order due to his acting career. But when he took the stage at Under The Big Sky with his band, he didn’t feel out of place whatsoever. The crowd may not be familiar with his music yet, but it definitely fit the setting.
Ryan Bingham has played Under The Big Sky more years than not, and his own appearances on Yellowstone have swelled the fandom for his music. He made a return appearance backed by The Texas Gentlemen, who played double duty on the weekend by also showing up to back up Nikki Lane who performed Sunday afternoon.
Nikki Lane had been hanging out all weekend selling wares as part of her High Class Hillbilly business. She had heads bobbing during her set, and stimulated a few whispers and double takes as she took the stage in a sheer yellow dress that showed off, well … quite a bit. People in the front rows got a performance, and a show. Nobody was complaining about either.
Under The Big Sky Fest is so big and the lineup is so packed, you have numerous artists on the bill that would be headliners at other festivals like Whiskey Myers and Shane Smith and the Saints. Marcus King has headlined a few festivals of his own, and almost stole the show Sunday night. At one point King pulled out a Telecaster and ripped into the song “Honky Tonk Hell” he co-wrote with Gabe Lee, and promised his own recording of the song coming soon. He then launched into “Orange Blossom Special” Tele style to the delight of the crowd.
Charley Crockett also feels like an artist that doesn’t need to open the stage for anybody. He came out to his song “Run Horse Run,” moving around the stage like an man who owns it, and putting on a show that was one of the most raved about all weekend.
But Zach Bryan earned the right to headline Sunday night, after being slotted in a mid afternoon slot last year, despite drawing one of the biggest crowds the entire festival. At this point, it’s not even possible for us to quantify the phenomenon occurring around Zach Bryan. All we can do is chronicle it, and hold on for the ride to see where it takes us.
Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Williams Jr. has also earned any and all praise coming his way, and he’s more than happy to revel in it, and tack on a few extra plaudits. Pretty much his entire set was filled with braggadocios proclamations, some of which were even true. He claimed his recent blues album Rich White Honky Blues hit #1 on four separate charts. It didn’t. For those wondering if he’d strike “Dinosaur” from his repertoire after the recent revelations about his son Sam’s sexual orientation. He didn’t.
But there is no denying it, Bocephus puts on a hell of a show, even at age 74. He played all the hits like “Weatherman,” “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,” and “O.D.’d in Denver.” He also told the story of how after he fell off of Ajax Mountain not too far from Whitefish, he convalesced on Flathead Lake, just south of the Under The Big Sky setting. Hank Jr.’s history is very much entwined with northwest Montana. He said when he got the call to play a festival in Whitefish, he responded, “Oh hell yeah!”
The 2023 Under The Big Sky Fest also had a few wild cards on the roster. How would the country-infused indie folk band CAAMP be received by the mostly country audience? A lot of these bigger festivals love to throw an more indie-oriented band on lineups to broaden appeal, sometimes to mixed results.
But in the case of CAAMP, their music is upbeat, infectious, and rootsy enough that it doesn’t require prior knowledge of them to find appeal. They’re not a moody, broody, shoegaze act. The crowd did thin out some after Colter Wall concluded right before CAAMP took the stage Friday night, but the band held their own and earned their keep for sure.
The big question about LeAnn Rimes is if she would cater her set to the mostly traditional and independent country crowd, or just play her more common country pop material. The answer was a little of both. Along with playing some of her more pop classics and current songs, she also stopped down for a Patsy Cline tribute, performing “Crazy” stripped down and praising classic country as a “long lost art these days.”
She also surprised everyone by playing “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” made famous by David Allan Coe later in the set. It did still feel like a strange fit, but Rimes made the best of her opportunity.
There are two stages at Under The Big Sky Fest, but neither is particularly small. This was apparent when Elle King took the 2nd stage, called the Big Mountain Stage to a massive crowd. Her music all works out from her attitude. It’s not for everyone, but those who lover her, they love her, especially the young women who flocked to her set. Though some wondered if she was out-of-place on the lineup too, Elle King also played the first year of Under The Big Sky, foretelling her recent move to country.
The Dead South had a nearly impossible task of playing right before Zach Bryan and overlapping his set on the (2nd) Big Mountain Stage. But the crowd was still sizable for the viral band from Canada. One can definitely question how and why string bands in suspenders and ribbon ties are still relevant in 2023 when the whole Mumford & Sons thing seemed to die off well over a decade ago. But what The Dead South do, they do well.
Getting to play on either of the Under The Big Sky Fest stages is a massive opportunity, and there were numerous up-and-coming acts that were bestowed that opportunity. One that made a big impression were The Local Honeys, who drove 2,000 miles to be there. They were one of three acts along with Colter Wall and Vincent Neil Emerson from the LaHonda record label.
You expect great songwriting from The Local Honeys after listening to their recent self-titled album. What is unexpected is just how well they evoke the moody and emotional turmoil inherent to their songs in the live context. They understand how to utilize ambiance via a pump organ and other arrangement, and the band behind Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs is stellar.
Colby Acuff was booked as one of the early “local” acts since he is from nearby Idaho. But now signed to a major label and with a strong grassroots following, he could have been one of the early evening acts. He was the first performer on the main stage on Sunday, but had a bigger crowd than anyone else on the stage until Charley Crockett. Colby Acuff has got that George Strait/Alan Jackson squared away disposition, but with songs about the West more indicative of Colter Wall, or about life similar to Tyler Childers.
Colby Acuff is definitely a guy who should be considered the future of country music.
Other up-and-coming artists that got big opportunities were Bella White, Cristina Vane, Drayton Farley from Alabama who evokes that earnest songwriting indicative of Jason Isbell, and Kat Hasty, who also drew an impressive and impassioned crowd early in the day.
Not dissimilar to Zach Bryan, Kat Hasty is a perfect example of how people are sick of overproduced Music Row nonsense, and instead are gravitating toward songwriters telling stories ripped straight from their own lives in ways listeners can intimately relate to. And just like Zach Bryan, many of Kat’s fans know every single word to every one of her songs.
And last but not least, Under The Big Sky embodies the independent spirit of music by making sure to feature local and regional talent on their massive stages. Archertown, Radio Ranch, The Helnore Highwater Band, Jamie Wyman, and Izaak Opatz were all part of the 2023 Under The Big Sky local class. Perhaps the one that made the biggest impression was War Pony, with a voice and talent that Montana won’t be able to contain for long.
No festival is perfect, and Under The Big Sky is no exception. Like most of the greatest festivals, it’s tough to get to, and expensive to stay at. A beer costs $13.50, and you could tell they had slightly inched up the attendance capacity from 2022 when they pared it down after the oversold 2021. It also seemed like the space for VIP viewing in front of the main stage had been significantly pared down too, to perhaps an unfair size—though in GA, if you wanted to be right up front and got to the stage early, you could be.
At Under The Big Sky Fest, there is no corporate branding whatsoever on the stages or anywhere else. They’ve committed to staying independent in an environment where LiveNation is quickly encroaching. There are other 3-day megafestivals now in independent country. But it’s hard to not continue to call Under The Big Sky the biggest, and perhaps, the best.
All photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos. Apologies to any artist not mentioned or photographed. For more photos and video, check out Saving Country Music on Instagram.