By the time the inaugural Under the Big Sky Music and Arts Festival wrapped up in Whitefish on July 14 with a soulful performance by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, event organizer Johnny Shockey knew he’d done something special.
Still, he didn’t realize the scope of what he’d accomplished for several weeks, taking time to relax at the Big Mountain Ranch, formerly owned by Bill Voerman and transformed by Shockey and his family. He talked to neighbors and community members who were skeptical leading up to the two-day festival, but who were effusive in their praise.
“I was so appreciative of the neighbors who reached out,” Shockey said. “It’s always our overarching goal to imagine and provide the best experience for the attendee. So to get that feedback was really nice.”
Not only were festivalgoers from near and far impressed with the event, but Shockey received high marks from some of the festival’s top talent, too.
After recently attending a Rolling Stones concert in Denver, where Nathaniel Rateliff opened for the rock institution, Shockey attended an after-party and chatted at length with Rateliff’s agent, who said the band was delighted by the festival’s setting and logistical organization.
“There was a lot of criticism going into this about whether we could pull it off, and I felt confident in our team and our ability to execute something on this scale,” Shockey said. “But it can be a little lonely out there sometimes. In this particular instance, I put myself out there. Usually the concerts I put on are shows in an urban setting where there’s anonymity. These people are my neighbors.”
Preparations for the festival spanned months of work and planning, with 28 acts spread out over two days on two stages.
A former professional hockey player who had contracts with NHL teams, Shockey launched a second successful career in event and festival production in 2006, 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.
He said the truest testament to the festival’s success was the feedback he got from Bill Voerman, who was astounded by the scale of the event and thrilled that the property retained its open and idyllic feel despite accommodating 15,000 people.
“That was huge, to see his appreciation for what we were doing,” Shockey said, adding that the Voerman family appreciated his commitment to keeping the land intact rather than parceling it off for development.
Shockey and his team are now in the midst of nailing down next year’s dates for Under the Big Sky, coordinating with a who’s who of musical talent and navigating the complicated logistics of assembling an all-star lineup during the busy summer months.
In addition to headliners Band of Horses and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, other notable national acts last month included Jenny Lewis, Lucius, Ryan Bingham, Justin Townes Earle, Shooter Jennings, ZZ Ward, Whitey Morgan and Dwight Yoakam, who has won multiple Grammies, released five Billboard No. 1 albums and sold over 25 million records in his lengthy country career.
Shockey said the caliber of this year’s lineup isn’t going to diminish in ambition next summer.
“Now that people can digest what we do hopefully the ranch and the brand can speak for itself,” he said. “We’ll be announcing next year’s dates soon, and there’s definitely room to grow. But we definitely intend on maintaining a comfortable experience for the guests.”
Shockey also said it was important for him to include local artists on the roster of musicians performing at the festival, including Mike Murray and Jameson and the Sordid Seeds, as well as Archertown.
“I have an incredible amount of respect for local bands and artists in the valley,” he said. “They’re the ones moving the local music scene forward. They can speak for the valley better than I can. They’re ambassadors for the valley.”
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