Arts & Entertainment

Music Issue 2019: Drawing the Stars

Led by events and venues such as Red Ants Pants Festival in White Sulphur Springs, KettleHouse Amphitheater in Bonner and now Under the Big Sky Festival in Whitefish, Montana is routinely and increasingly attracting big-name national acts

* Other stories in our Music Issue 2019 edition:

Sarah Calhoun founded a women’s workwear company called Red Ants Pants in White Sulphur Springs in 2006 and grew it into a nationally celebrated clothing line with a nonprofit foundation that supports women in leadership positions and promotes rural communities.

Still, even with that resume of trailblazing success, there were no guarantees that launching a music festival in her little central-Montana town in 2011 would bear fruit.

“We thought, ‘Why not have a music festival 100 miles from anywhere and see what we can do with it?’” Calhoun recalled last week.

“That first year, it was: ‘Let’s get through it and make sure we have enough toilet paper,’” she continued. “We bought out all the toilet paper across three counties because we had no idea how many people were going to come.”

Nine years later, the Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs is a highly anticipated annual musical showcase, boasting past performers such as Taj Mahal, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Brandi Carlile. The festival attracted 18,000 attendees last year, and the Montana Office of Tourism named it the state’s “Event of the Year.” Proceeds support the organization’s foundation.

“Certainly we didn’t expect that kind of growth,” Calhoun said. “We created kind of a monster here, but it’s a good one.”

The monster has revealed a truth to Calhoun: “Montanans are thirsty for that live music experience.”

Johnny Shockey, through his production company Outriders Present, is tapping into that thirst in the Flathead Valley with this summer’s Under the Big Sky Music & Arts Festival in Whitefish, a two-day gathering that will feature a lineup of well-known national acts, including Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Band of Horses, Jenny Lewis and Dwight Yoakam.

Shockey is a former professional hockey player who had contracts with NHL teams but calls himself a “career minor leaguer.” After his hockey days ended in 2006, he launched a second successful career in event and festival production, producing his company’s own shows and co-producing others with Live Nation and AEG, the country’s two biggest music event promoters. He operated in the competitive San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco markets.

Shockey grew up in Taber, Alberta, immersed in the area’s rich ranching lifestyle, not to mention its fervent hockey culture. He visited the Flathead Valley frequently as a kid, and continued doing so as an adult, eventually setting up home here, originally in Kalispell and then Whitefish, after building his event production career in California.

Johnny Shockey, pictured on April 4 at his property along Voerman Road in Whitefish where his two-day music event, Under the Big Sky Music & Arts Festival, will be held on July 13-14. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In 2016, he and his wife purchased the 340-acre Big Mountain Ranch in Whitefish from the Voerman family. The property will be the site of the July 13-14 Under the Big Sky festival.

“When I finished playing hockey, I felt it was a great place to raise kids,” Shockey said last week. “I wanted to be close to home.”

Shockey had been impressed by turnouts at other Montana shows, including Pearl Jam in Missoula last year, and saw that he could ply his event production trade in his new home state.

“There was that moment where it was like, ‘A lot of people in Montana are willing to travel to a show,’” he recalled, adding: “I’m amazed at how many people travel to the Gorge (in Washington) and to Red Ants Pants and to the other things that are going on. Those are devout fans. It’s amazing to see.”

So he set his sights on producing a talent-laden show in his backyard, literally. He and his team researched and evaluated the numerous logistical nuances that factor into a big festival, and once he felt comfortable it would work well at the site, he poured his professional resources and expertise into making it a reality.

While the show will draw attendees from outside of the valley, Shockey’s primary focus from the beginning was creating a show for locals.

“We want to do something for the Flathead, for locals to enjoy, and for people traveling here to enjoy while they’re here,” he said. “Let’s do something cool for the Flathead.”

Calhoun also views her festival through the lens of a local. She feels a duty to her community, and she praises the owners of the Jackson Ranch, which hosts the festival, and the town’s residents for their partnership and support in producing a big event in a small town every year.

“We try to set the tone of having a good neighborly feel: taking care of the land, taking care of each other, making sure the land is in better shape than when we found it,” she said.

Calhoun said she’s proud of the festival’s track record of safety, including its lack of DUIs and traffic issues.

“It’s incredibly important to us to have a close relationship with the community, with local ranchers, neighbors,” she said. “There are a lot of good people in White Sulphur Springs.”

Shockey has enlisted his full-time logistics team to do what they do best: streamline traffic, parking, Porta Potties, food and beverages, and generally cultivate a high-caliber experience for festivalgoers. There will be shuttles from locations in Whitefish, and re-entry won’t be allowed to cut down on traffic flow to and from the site.

“There’s a fair amount of pressure,” he said. “You put yourself out there being in a small community.”

There weren’t a lot of festivals or venues in Montana consistently drawing national acts when Calhoun and Joanne Gardner, a Livingston resident with a successful career in music production, first began discussing the idea of Red Ants Pants Festival. Exceptions included Magic City Blues in Billings and Rockin’ the Rivers in Three Forks, while the National Folk Festival was emerging in Butte, but Calhoun said a lot of Montanans were driving out of state to get their festival fix.

Almost a decade later, Calhoun said the live-music landscape in Montana has evolved significantly, not only with more festivals but also with the addition of top-notch venues, led by the efforts of Logjam Presents, an entertainment production and promotion company in Missoula that operates the Wilma, Top Hat and KettleHouse Amphitheater and is building a new venue in Bozeman.

Given the KettleHouse Amphitheater’s gorgeous views and location on the Blackfoot River, along with its state-of-the-art construction and 4,500-person capacity, Logjam owner Nick Checota told the Missoulian in 2017 that it would be “one of the coolest venues in the country.” It hasn’t disappointed since opening that year, drawing acts such as Lyle Lovett, Melissa Etheridge, Pat Benatar, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Norah Jones, John Butler Trio, Foreigner, Greensky Bluegrass, Primus and more.

“What he’s doing is amazing,” Calhoun said of Checota.

Big Sky Brewing Amphitheatre in Missoula also regularly hosts national names, while Bozeman, Billings and others towns attract their own rotating casts of top-ticket talent. Calhoun said the growth of Montana’s live-music scene is a two-way street, with Montanans demonstrating their appreciation for shows and booking agents “realizing there’s a really good market out here.”

“They’re reaching out and sending their bands our way more now,” Calhoun said, adding: “With these outdoor festivals, who doesn’t want to be in Montana in July? It has the cachet and romanticism to be able to draw anybody. We certainly have that going for us.”

Shockey echoed Calhoun, saying the response from bands has been enthusiastic, as has the response from the public.

“Ticket sales are great; enthusiasm is great,” he said. “I hope it can be an annual thing, but I say that in the humility of getting through the first one and making sure we do it right.”

For more information on Under the Big Sky Music & Arts Festival, visit www.underthebigskyfest.com.