Music in the mountains

by Nick Oldham

Bluegrass music and the mountain lifestyle, the two go together like Beyonce and the Super Bowl. It might be the outdoorsy and free-spirited crowd drawn by the genre, or maybe banjos just sound better at high altitude. Either way, with Lone Peak as the stunning backdrop, Big Sky is the perfect place to hear some twang. This weekend, Bozeman’s beloved neighboring mountain town will host its 7th annual Big Sky Big Grass festival, bringing big names to the small mountain setting.

So maybe you’ve been to a music festival or two and you’re thinking, “Big Grass is probably just like [insert festival name here].” Wrong! Throw away all those preconceived notions of tightly packed tent cities and throngs of people fighting for the front row, because Big Grass is nothing like that. This incognito festival takes place in several bars and ballrooms around the mountain village and flies below the general public’s radar. Besides the swarm of hippies that descend upon Big Sky, tourists and day skiers hardly notice that world-class musicians are collaborating right under their noses.

Music

This year’s lineup features favorites from years past, but also brings new names to the table.

The Del McCoury Band will headline Saturday night, giving patrons the chance to hear that Appalachian swoon hardly found west of the Mississippi. The family is steeped in bluegrass tradition and Del’s sons continue his devotion to the industry in the Travelin’ McCoury’s, who will play Sunday evening. Sam Bush, a special guest from last year, will return to the main stage on Sunday night, this time with his band. Dubbed the “King of Telluride”, he is no stranger to the mountain scene. New this year, The Special Consensus and Denver up-and-comers Trout Steak Revival may be less recognized, especially by the younger demographic, but will undoubtedly add great variety to the festival.

One highly-anticipated act is The Emmitt-Nershi Band, who will be returning for their third consecutive Big Grass. Drew Emmitt, mandolin, fiddle and vocals for the band, shared his excitement for the impending jams of the weekend, saying “Montana is a beautiful place” reminiscent of his home in Crested Butte, Colo.

Not surprisingly, skiing is a big motivator for these mountain folks to come back. “It’s much more than just going up and playing, it’s the whole experience,” Emmitt said. Because they spend more time on their other projects, Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident, this will be the only chance to catch Emmitt-Nershi Band in the foreseeable future. “We’re going to do it up this weekend,” Emmitt said enthusiastically.

Venues

The wide array of artists playing this year is coupled with an equally diverse set of venues. With music from 4:00-5:30 and 8:30-11:00 every evening, the Carabiner Lounge in the Summit hotel offers a free, all-ages option. Ethan Mangant, an organizer of the festival, called it “a low-key, family-friendly atmosphere that is laid-back after a long day on the mountain.”

After some time to recharge tired legs in the Carabiner, music is offered at 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday in the nearby Talus Room, which provides the most intimate experience. Or maybe you’ll want to check out Whiskey Jack’s, a boot-stompin’ barroom scene which keeps energy high throughout the weekend with music starting at 3:30 p.m. every day. The Emmitt-Nershi Band will be headlining at Whiskey Jack’s on Friday and Saturday night, and according to Emmitt, “We much prefer playing for a rowdy dance crowd.”

Finally, The Missouri Ballroom in the Huntley Lodge will host the Regional Showcase on Friday and pricier headlining shows Saturday and Sunday.

Since each venue offers its own unique experience, they are all essential to the experience of Big Grass — not to mention the impromptu fireside jams that have been known to spring up.

“Big” changes

An exciting new component of the festival this year is the Music Camp. It’s a rare opportunity for aspiring musicians to play with a group of locally and nationally recognized instructors. Students can get a real taste of bluegrass and folk tradition that can’t be paralleled. “It’s important to provide this type of education,” Mangant said. “It really helps to bridge the gap from generation to generation.”

Also new this year is the aptly-named “Libation Station,” where the next generation of bluegrass pickers will get a chance to show off their skills in the Regional Bluegrass Band Showcase on Friday. Early discussions of a mini beer festival quickly expanded into a full alcohol tasting in conjunction with the friendly competition. Although the booze will be a plus, local guitarist Kyle Shelstad of the Kitchen Dwellers said he is most looking forward to “the excessive lack of whomp that will be present during the weekend.” Flatt Cheddar will join the Kitchen Dwellers in representing Bozeman at the showcase and other Southwestern Montana bands include Ted Ness and The Rusty Nails, Lil’ Smokies and Driftwood Grinners.

The 7th annual Big Sky Big Grass Festival will take place this weekend, Feb. 8, 9 and 10. To encourage those on the fence about attending the festival, Emmitt said “If you’ve never been and are thinking about going, get your tickets because it’s going to be a throwdown!”

A detailed performance schedule, along with weekend passes and individual show tickets, is available at bigskyresort.com. If you’re not planning to stay the whole weekend, the Skyline bus runs between Bozeman and Big Sky at a variety of times — visit skylinebus.com to view their schedule.