Near Olney, a Folk Festival Takes Flight

By Beacon Staff

OLNEY – Inside Bill Montgomery’s airplane hangar is a kitchen, a wall full of musical instruments and a well-lit performance stage.

Right now, Montgomery’s PA-12 plane sits outside to make room for the hundred plus people who will attend his fourth annual Stillwater Landing Music Gathering on August 8-10. But the real gem for musicians and concertgoers is the 30 by 40 square-foot stage outside, crafted out of larch and resting on the shoreline of Lower Stillwater Lake.

“I get comments that it’s one of the better outdoor venues in the country,” said Montgomery, who operates the stage with his partner Connie Cuff.

The outside stage is very much a performance venue, not just a platform for musicians. An intricate lighting system, including a multi-colored disco ball, snakes its way across the roof overhead. State-of-the-art speakers ensure that people in the back of the crowd get the same sound quality as those in the front. And it’s all powered by a soundboard connected by a complex underground system of wires.

This year’s Stillwater Landing festival features a host of local musicians, as well a few from around the country. A.J. Masters, a Nashville-based songwriter who has written songs for major-label country performers, is the biggest name, though an array of talented musicians will be on hand.

Bill Montgomery sits near the indoor stage he assembled in an airplane hanger on his property south of Olney.

Performers have played everything from classical to folk to the blues in the three previous Stillwater gatherings. This year will mostly focus on traditional folk, Montgomery said, with Susan Wheatley leading the way. The musicians aren’t paid, so donations are strongly encouraged. Concertgoers usually have extra cash for donations since they don’t have to pay an admission fee.

“(The musicians) play because they love to,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery bought his 43-acre parcel of land in the 1960s. Because it’s located in Stillwater State Forest, the surrounding landscape is nearly as undeveloped as back in the 60s. Montgomery thinks it’s unfortunate to see so much beautiful land elsewhere in Northwest Montana being bought up, locked up and hoarded from the public. He prefers a more generous, this-land-is-your-land type of approach.

Though the concert is private, not commercial, Montgomery said the invitation is open to anyone who likes “good music.”

“I’m kind of old time,” he said. “I kind of enjoy sharing.”

Anyone is welcome to play at the festival and at about any other time of year when Montgomery is home. He hosts jam sessions throughout the year, sometimes inviting spectators and other times just letting a couple of musicians play together. Montgomery usually grabs his guitar and joins them.

Montgomery is part of tightly woven web of locals throughout the greater Flathead area trying to nurture and promote homegrown music talent. He said that Scott Johnston of the Montana Radio Café, Christian Johnson of Mission Mountain Wood Band fame, artist Marshall Noice and others have dedicated themselves to helping local musicians, especially young up and comers.

An aerial photo shows the Stillwater Landing stage and surrounding seating on Bill Montgomery’s property.

“That’s the livelihood of it, to help encouraging young people to do music,” he said. “I think that’s the philosophy of many of us doing music in the valley.”

At the Stillwater Landing gathering, people are invited to come and go as they please with whichever means they want. Some arrive by plane, others by boat or car. People eat, mingle and swim throughout the day. Montgomery encourages people to bring their own chairs, blankets and flashlights.

At the end of both Friday and Saturday is the “Grand Jam.” Musicians who had already performed join up with anyone else who has an instrument and play deep into the night. For Montgomery, it embodies the communal mentality and spirit of the gathering.

“I get to play with a lot of great musicians,” he said. “The setting is perfect.”

Anyone interested in the festival can contact Bill Montgomery at bill@stillwaterlanding.com or by phone at (406) 881-2236.

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