New Festivals Everywhere

I don’t remember how or when I first heard of Under the Big Sky Festival, which took place for the first time last weekend in remote Whitefish, Montana (just outside the gates of the epic Glacier National Park). It must have come across my social media since I follow a few of the acts on the bill. In the dreary gray of Portland January, seeing a lineup better than any I’d seen in a few years within driving distance of my home was alluring. Seeing the early bird ticket price of around $100 was the clincher, and by February I’d found a travel partner and bought passes.

The initial excitement of bigger names like Band of Horses, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and Dwight freaking Yoakum was matched with enthusiasm to see personal mainstays like Justin Townes Earle, Jenny Lewis and Shooter Jennings. And I’d heard good things about Amanda Shires (who I mainly knew as a player in her husband Jason Isbell’s band), Hogslop String Band, and ZZ Ward.

What Did I Get In To?
In short, I’d stumbled upon a great lineup, cheap price, and gorgeous and unique location. As the months rolled by, I began trying to research more information, a growing curiosity around just who would be so bold as to try and pull this off without national promotion, in the era of festival failure. Just watching meltdowns as varied as Fyre Festival to Woodstock 50 to Sasquatch, I was optimistically suspicious. As a fan and attendee, as well as a music journalist, my curiosity stayed strong all year while very few questions were answered. This was either Americana’s best kept secret, or going to blow up in my face upon arrival in remote Montana.

Under the Big Sky ultimately proved to be neither, though it has the potential to grow into national renown, should promoter/farm owner Johnny Shockey and first-time production company Outriders want to pursue expansion. Talking with attendees, hospitality providers in nearby towns, and locals, it became clear this was an event intended to bring great music to the folks of Northwestern Montana. Shockey realized great live music wasn’t making its way to the Flathead Valley and used his music promotion past to organize Under the Big Sky. They weren’t targeting tourists and weren’t trying to debut as the next Bonnaroo, and it worked. I didn’t meet anyone from more than five hours away, and everyone who lived in nearby towns like Whitefish and Kalispell showed up proud, having been excited (and sometimes skeptical) for months about what the experience would entail come July.

Quaint Little Town
All the regional hotels, lodges, and campsites were full of festival-goers, and I saw folks around the region at small businesses like huckleberry-pie shops or whitewater rafting rentals. I even boarded my puppy at a local dog ranch. The local economy surely benefited from fans Keeping that relationship reciprocal would allow for Under the Big Sky to increase in size or scope, should it wish to in future years. I stayed an extra few days in town and saw my campground turnover from festival-goer to family-vacationer immediately come Monday. While they did promote a few small gigs at bars in Whitefish, more could easily be done around targeting campers and their dollars (such as shuttles, more after-parties, swag).

The festival was held on a privately owned, 350-acre farm. It had two stages, varied culinary options, craft beer, a mechanical bull, trail rides, and a real life rodeo with cowboys!. And yes, there were boots too. And there was no visible evidence of out of culture behavior. (and practically none of cigarettes—which the festival banned and 99% of the people respected). In fact, the attendees were some of the most respectful I’ve ever experienced at an outdoor show.

First time festivals have a set of problems one must expect. No one does this perfectly, especially not out of the gate. Under The Big Sky’s biggest strength was their swift response to feedback and the vast improvements implemented between Day one and Day two. The response was noticed and appreciated.

I hung out under the tent to the right of the main stage for the majority of Day one. This became a great vantage point from which to observe hiccups and successes. Some things were minor (the same George Harrison/Neil Young playlist between each set), and some were concerning (there were mixed messages around what you could bring in which resulted in extremely long lines for folks needing to purchase sunscreen or water—the irony that you need sunscreen and water to stand in hour-long lines in the blazing sun). Most hiccupswere typical—no wifi means no credit card transactions, sound malfunctions during ZZ Ward’s midday set, no chargers.

By Day two, people were able to hydrate much more easily, the credit cards worked, and they even added thoughtful touches like western blankets on the bales of hay used for seating (no more itchy legs) and additional port-a-potty’s. In fact, the worst thing that happened to me on Day two was the selling out of Pina Coladas at the Aloha Cowboy tiki bar before I could get one. I luckily survived.

Under the Big Sky also did a smart thing in encouraging entertainment for all ages. The children had an absolute blast playing with the animals and riding the mechanical bull. The merch was reasonably priced and had a great mix of artist swag and local artisans’ wares (think original art, handmade jewelry & leatherworks, cowboy hats).

Under the Big Sky Festival overall exceded my expectations for its first year. In comparing the catastrophes I’ve seen at other inaugural shows, it was issue-free. It had a defined target audience (local and regional folks) and a quick-to-respond production team that left me impressed with their fast fixes to any issues. They have limitless room to grow, not unlike that epic “big sky” they partied under.

First Year Festival Hacks:

Bring copious amounts of cash. Double what you think you need.

Bring extra empty water bottles or a big bladder and fill them all at once.

Bring phone battery chargers. Your wifi won’t work but you’ll still want your camera.

Bring a shawl or blanket. Seats may be provided but they may also be hot metal, itchy hay, or muddy from unexpected rain.

By Jesi Owens