Big Debut Under the Big Sky

Inaugural music festival stuns fans, rocks locals as thousands turn out for new event in Whitefish

By Tristan Scott | Photography by Hunter D'Antuono
Band of Horses performs at Under The Big Sky, held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, in July 2019. Beacon File Photo

For anyone fortunate enough to have attended the inaugural Under the Big Sky Music and Arts Festival in Whitefish, the afterglow of the two-day experience will by now have evoked a highlight reel of jaw-dropping moments, an array of singular instances when time, space, events and passion blurred to create something extraordinary.

There was the moment, for example, when a gymnastically supple Dwight Yoakam shimmied on stage and swiveled his denim-clad hips with the boogie-woogie zeal of a much younger artist, hiccupping yodels in high octave notes he should no longer be capable of yodeling. Yet there he was, the iconic country legend, chirping in the twilight of his decades-long career, his slate-gray hair feathering out from beneath a 10-gallon cowboy hat, singing and strutting for Whitefish.

There was the electrifying moment when Jenny Lewis wiggled onto a pedestal riser, sizzling in a pink-sequined dress and sporting Buick-sized, rose-tinted sunglasses that glittered in the sunlight, craning her slender arms and rattling a half-moon tambourine (also pink) in rhythm. “Oh, there you are,” she cooed to the wide-eyed audience, the corners of her mouth curling into a smile after her cheer-and-gloom-perforated “Head Underwater,” understanding that she’d just enraptured a sea of people.

There was the next moment when Lewis crooned coolly about love and fear and heartbreak, at once channeling Dolly Parton and Stevie Nicks, her swooping hairdo levitating in the Rocky Mountain breeze, framed by the Swan Mountain Range and silhouetted against the big blue sky.

Jenny Lewis performs at Under the Big Sky, a new music festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 13 and 14, 2019.

Between the moment when headliner Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell cast his spooky falsetto spell over a crowd of an estimated 15,000 concert-goers on Saturday night, and after the epic, boot-stomping performance of Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats on Sunday night, the moments continued to stack up, many of them involving a cast of familiar faces.

Complementing the A-list depth of the lineup, the festival was also populated by local artists well known to anyone who frequents the Flathead Valley’s music venues, only in this setting their audience swelled in dimension, their platform flanked by 60-foot LED screens and sound towers. Some of them live just down the road from the festival grounds, which were spectacular in both scope and size, a pastoral setting of hay bales and horses that also featured the serious business of festival logistics and infrastructure, which for the average audience member must have seemed to crop up overnight.

In fact, it required months of work and planning. In the end, the lines for food, drink and restrooms were paltry, and concertgoers skated easily between the two stages, traipsing along an unbroken boulevard of newly laid asphalt.

Nathaniel Rateliff performs at Under the Big Sky, a new music festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 13 and 14, 2019.

Playing beneath a bright waxing moon, headliner Rateliff closed the festival down in a bloated, writhing performance, conjuring the styles of legendary musicians like Harry Nilsson, Dr. John and Van Morrison and inviting the audience to participate in the fun. By the time the third pearl snap of his denim cowboy shirt burst open, revealing a barrel chest heaving with soulful energy, he had captivated more than an audience; he’d capped off a weekend busting at the seams with musical talent and a festival that is sure to gain firm purchase in the pantheon of this region’s already rich arts-and-culture scene.

“This is such a special setting. You know, as a local musician and as an original songwriter, so much of the time we’re just grinding away six nights a week,” Mike Murray, a Flathead Valley native who opened Sunday’s lineup, said after his phenomenal set. “Sometimes you get a bigger crowd, but most often you’re just grinding away. So I just feel so grateful to have this opportunity, to be on this stage surrounded with so much talent.”

Murray performed alongside a full band, including local musicians Nick Spear, Chris Krager, Marco Forcone, and Murray’s wife, Jessica Murray, who sang the gorgeous accompanying vocals on songs like “Scars” — a tender and vulnerable strain that Murray dedicated to “anyone who’s ever been through something that left a mark on them” — and “Aeneas,” named for a mountain in the Swan Range that provided the peak-studded backdrop for performers on the Great Northern Stage, and which Murray says he could see through his bedroom window growing up.

Mike Murray performs at Under the Big Sky, a new music festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 13 and 14, 2019.

All of the moments of this highly anticipated spectacle were in one way or another the product of Johnny Shockey, who through his production company Outriders Present hosted the two-day event on his 340-acre Big Mountain Ranch along Voerman Road in Whitefish.

It was rare for an act to end without a musician booming some version of “Thank you, Johnny,” and it’s he who deserves the lion’s share of the credit, though he won’t accept it.

Loaded with big names across the ticket, Shockey curated a stellar lineup featuring some of the most talented and well-known performers in a wide-ranging roster of genres, including alt-country, honkytonk, indie, blues, and folk.

The 28 acts spread out over two days on two stages, plus after-party performances at venues in Whitefish and Columbia Falls, included notable national outfits such as Lucius, Ryan Bingham, Justine Townes Earle, Shooter Jennings, ZZ Ward, Whitey Morgan, and Amanda Shires. Others with local ties included The Lil Smokies, whose lead singer is the son of legendary Flathead musician John Dunnigan, and Jameson and the Sordid Seeds, whose front man Brent Jameson could not contain his excitement throughout the weekend.

“This is so amazing,” he said. “Johnny did such a fantastic job. We’re so happy to be here.”

Band of Horses performs at Under the Big Sky, a new music festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 13 and 14, 2019.

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.

In 2016, he and his wife purchased the 340-acre Big Mountain Ranch in Whitefish from the Voerman family, and after witnessing impressive turnouts at other Montana shows, including Pearl Jam in Missoula, he decided he could apply his talents as a production guru right in his backyard, literally.

By the time the events of July 13-14 unfolded in Whitefish, and despite a fair amount of skepticism over whether the Flathead Valley could even accommodate an event of this magnitude — What about the traffic? How will you handle the parking? And the food and beverages? — Shockey and his logistics teams had proven themselves master architects capable of so much more.

Signs provide directions around Under the Big Sky, a new music festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 13 and 14, 2019.

According to Alastair Duncan, who coordinated public relations for Shockey at the festival grounds, the Under the Big Sky Music and Arts Festival employed 400 locals and relied heavily on local businesses and products. The owners of bars, restaurants and coffee shops reported a groundswell of customers in the past week, breaking all manner of financial records. Locals were also hired as show-runners, working with the logistics team to keep the artists happy — tracking down two-dozen bottles of Voss artesian water, for example, or a half-dozen pizzas for Rateliff.

Shockey, who seemed to be in dozens of places at once, and even popped into the Great Northern Bar late on Saturday night while The Lil Smokies brought down the house, said he plans on hiring a firm to conduct an economic analysis and post-mortem logistics review, with an eye toward cultivating an even higher-caliber experience for festivalgoers next year.

Yes, there will be a next year, and the lineup promises to contain a similar mix of top-tier talent, big names, local acts, and lesser-known bands from far-flung corners of the country.

“How many of you have never heard of us before today?” shouted Kevin Martin, lead vocalist and fiddle player with the Nashville, Tennessee-based Hogslop String Band, as hundreds of festival attendees raised their hands, admitting they’d not. “Yeah, we’ve had little to no success as a band.”

A member of Hogslop String Band crowd-surfs at Under the Big Sky, a new music festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 13 and 14, 2019.

And then an instant later, in yet another memorable moment, a member of Hogslop named “Pickle,” who contorts his body at unnatural angles while plucking the washtub bass, was leading hundreds of newly devoted fans with linked arms across the sloped lawn sprawled out before the aptly named Big Mountain Stage, the ski area of Whitefish Mountain Resort rising prominently in the background.

If you attended the festival, you no doubt have moments of your own. There was yoga and a mechanical bull, a petting zoo and a rodeo complete with bucking broncos.

And if you missed it, there’s always next year.

“I just can’t thank Johnny enough,” Jameson said, beaming. “So, so good.