In years past, I was known to lock myself in a room for long hours with only a guitar as a companion, and lyrics flowing incessantly through my head. Many lyrics were my own, while others were planted by songwriters I admire.
From those experiences, I accumulated a modest inventory of my own self-composed songs, but more broadly I was instilled with a deep respect for those songwriters who inspired me.
Over time, I have developed a personal pantheon of great modern songwriters, perhaps led by Jason Isbell for lyricism but also populated by the likes of Tyler Childers, Ryan Bingham, Justin Townes Earle and others who followed in the footsteps of forebears such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine.
Therefore, I was thrilled to see two of those aforementioned names coming to the Flathead Valley this summer, with Earle and Bingham among many other notable acts performing at the Under the Big Sky festival in Whitefish on July 13-14. At least half of the lineup has been in my listening rotation at some point, and the event is firmly in the running for Montana’s biggest music festival this year.
Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife and an impressive songwriter in her own right (not to mention a killer violinist), will also perform. She once lamented in a song that “when you need a train, it never comes,” but I’m glad hers is coming to Whitefish, although I’m secretly hoping she drags Isbell onto the stage with her.
Cody Jinks, Whitey Morgan and Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son) are standard bearers for the “outlaw country” genre, which years ago, before it morphed into an invasive factory-pop cross-bred species, used to be called “country.”
Lucius could be on the top of many tickets, and if you don’t know the band, do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself. They long ago discarded any notion that harmonizing is reserved for choruses and hooks, and can instead be freely deployed throughout the duration of songs and entire albums, creating the satisfying impression that those two wonderful voices are a complexly layered one.
Elle King burst onto the scene with her hit “Ex’s & Oh’s,” which was and remains awesome, and she continues to carve out a soul-rock niche in the pop stratosphere. And it’s hard to go wrong with Jenny Lewis, who is releasing a much-anticipated new album this spring.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats shares top billing with Band of Horses. Anybody who listens to popular FM stations has heard Rateliff growl-crooning a steady succession of Billboard hits, while Band of Horses has cultivated a loyal national following for over a decade. Another performer, Dwight Yoakam, needs no introduction.
Corb Lund, a Canadian singer-songwriter whom I’ve followed for years and wrote a profile about last year, will also make an appearance. He told me Montana is his “favorite state” and “feels like family.” Given the scope of this festival, I imagine he might meet more of his Montana family in one sitting than ever before.
There are a number of other names I’m less familiar with, but given their counterparts on the ticket, I’m excited to meet their acquaintance. I’m also happy to see local favorites in the lineup, including Jameson and the Sordid Seeds and Mike Murray.
The Flathead Valley has been trying to attract bigger musical acts and shows for years, and Under the Big Sky festival is the most significant manifestation of those efforts yet. Whether it’s a sign of things to come, or an outlier one-off event, it’s worth celebrating.