Singer-songwriter Emily Elbert has a particular word for the feeling that the Crown of the Continent Guitar Workshop and Festival evokes in her: reverence.
“You recognize it the moment you set foot onstage,” she says. “The majesty of the natural surroundings brings out a certain reverence in all of the musicians, which deepens the experience and inspires them to level up their musicality.”
Steve Anderson, executive director of the Crown of the Continent Guitar Foundation (COCGF), also attributes a large portion of the festival’s impact to its location, Bigfork’s Flathead Lake Lodge.
“It’s ridiculously beautiful,” he says. “When everyone walks out of the lodge and sees the lake, it’s a moment of equality, because everyone is experiencing the same feeling of awe.”
The Crown has been awing audiences of thousands each year since its inception in 2009, when founding director David Feffer brought guitar legends Pat Metheny, Scott Tennant, Alex de Grassi, and Lee Ritenour to Northwest Montana for a week-long series of performances and workshops.
The festival’s influence on the music culture of the valley and beyond has only grown since then, and this year, from Aug. 27 to Sept. 2, guitarists and guitar enthusiasts will celebrate its eighth anniversary with featured performers and artists-in-residence including Elbert, a funk-folk guitarist; Dobro resonator guitar master Jerry Douglas; Nashville recording artist Brent Mason; rock and blues guitarist David Lindley; electric guitarist Mike Stern; jazz guitarist Leni Stern; unorthodox blues guitarist Sonny Landreth; and elite classical musician Jason Vieaux.
The Crown, however, doesn’t just bring internationally acclaimed guitarists to Northwest Montana; it also elevates local musicians, providing them with the opportunity to gain confidence in their guitar skills and learn from the best in the world in an environment where, as Anderson puts it, “everyone checks their egos at the gate.”
Over the past seven years, COCGF has awarded 144 scholarships to students and teachers from the Flathead and across Montana. Valued at $5,000 each, these scholarships allow guitarists of all genres, backgrounds and levels of expertise to spend the week at Flathead Lake Lodge, take one of a variety of workshops taught by the acclaimed artists-in-residence, and, on the final night, perform onstage alongside their friends and mentors.
The foundation also collaborates with the Bigfork ACES afterschool program, North Valley Music School and the Salish Kootenai College Foundation to offer community guitar classes and foster a love for music.
Whitefish native and singer-songwriter Tim Torgerson, who will teach a Crown workshop entitled “Only the Beginning,” started teaching guitar for both the ACES and SKC programs after attending the festival for multiple years as a scholarship recipient. The Crown has helped him to round out his approach to music and appreciate it from the perspective of both student and teacher.
“I had always been a singer-songwriter and never had the ambition to teach,” Torgerson says. “But once I got submerged in teaching, the more I wished I’d done it years ago. It’s brought me a lot of growth as a guitar player and showed me the holes that needed to be filled in my own musicianship.”
For Bigfork High School band teacher and Bigfork schools music teacher Randi Tunnell, a 2016 and 2017 scholarship recipient, the Crown has spurred both personal and professional growth. A trombonist and music educator, Tunnell started offering a guitar elective to her students four years ago, but periodically doubted her skills because she was self-taught.
“When I first went to the Crown, I did it solely to become more confident in my own playing,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that I was teaching correctly.”
Tunnell took Grammy-award winner Chris Eldridge’s Americana workshop at the 2016 festival, an experience she describes as “nerd nirvana.” The confidence she gained from the workshop led her to begin offering an intermediate-level guitar class this past fall, and all four students who took the class applied for a scholarship to the Crown. One, a rising sophomore named Emily Bonner, was accepted. Tunnell and Bonner are enrolled in the same workshop this year.
“It’s very rare for me to get to be the student,” Tunnell says. “I love it.”
Whitefish High School director of bands Mark McCrady echoes that sentiment.
“I thought I had plateaued in my knowledge of the guitar,” says McCrady, who formerly played guitar in a Minneapolis rock band. “And so I stopped performing and started teaching.”
Two years ago, McCrady received a Crown scholarship and took a workshop taught by one of the guitarists for Steely Dan. It completely changed the teach-only perspective he had developed over the years.
“As a teacher, I get caught up in living through my students,” he says. “My energy is in them, for them to move forward. But after the festival, I saw that making music needs to be part of my equation, too.”
“I think about that week a lot,” he continues. “It influences how I work with kids and how I see my own musical career.”
The Crown has encouraged Kalispell-based singer-songwriter Kate McLaughlin, a two-time scholarship recipient, to take her career to new heights.
“I’ve become more confident in my ability to license my music and sell my songs,” says McLaughlin, adding that the Crown also spurred her to “come out of [her] shell” and network with other participants.
“I love how the Crown supports young artists,” she adds. “It’s so important to show them that a career in music doesn’t have to be this faraway thing. Entering the industry can be hard, but if you love music, you can do it.”
In its eight years, the Crown has created considerable economic and career opportunities and strengthened music’s presence in the valley.
According to the COCGF 2016 Annual Report, which cites an economic study conducted by Solution Mountain, Inc., the combined economic impact of the festival and foundation initiatives from 2010 to 2015 exceeds $7.6 million. Of that amount, $4.2 million is retained in Flathead County, $2.5 million of which represents payroll compensation that impacts 90 local jobs across a range of sectors, including lodging, retail and more.
All of this from a festival that only lasts a week each year.
In addition, Anderson says, the number of venues for live music in the valley has essentially tripled since 2010, right around the time that the Crown began.
“There are more and more musicians working in the valley, successfully and happily, who are pursuing complete or partial careers in music or art,” Anderson says. “Nowadays, there’s live music in Kalispell and Whitefish two to four days a week.”
“If we help artists make a living,” he continues, “more people will come to the valley, more people will buy homes here. And not just people who want second homes.”
Anderson hints at a larger point here, one underscored by Tunnell when she says, “The arts are what make us human.”
This year, Tunnell coordinated one of the Crown’s fundraisers, a Jeep raffle, to benefit future scholarships for local guitarists.
“I did it because I want people to realize that this event changes people’s lives,” she says. “Someone needs to give this festival millions of dollars so we know it’s going to be here for a very long time.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.