Music Issue

Under The Big Sky Returns

Following a widely celebrated 2019 inaugural event, the festival is returning to Whitefish after a one-year hiatus with a lineup of national stars and local acts

By Myers Reece
Mike Murray performs at Under The Big Sky outside of Whitefish in July 2019.

When Jason Isbell, whom The New York Times calls one of the best songwriters in the country and whom other critics simply call the best, takes the stage on Big Mountain Ranch in Whitefish on July 17 or 18, it will be nearly 600 days since he was first announced as a headliner for Under The Big Sky.

The initial lineup pronouncement in December 2019 was, of course, for the 2020 festival, but the novel coronavirus had other plans. After an inaugural show in 2019 that was widely hailed as a stirring success, Under The Big Sky officials were preparing to prove that the show’s excellence was the hard-earned result of a sustainable system, put in place by deeply experienced industry professionals, and not a one-off. 

Festival founder and organizer Johnny Shockey went a step further when reflecting on the initial event and discussing the event’s second iteration, saying he planned to make it “even better.”

Now, Shockey and his crew are ready, after a year-long hiatus, to showcase the fruits of those lofty ambitions, with the long-awaited second Under The Big Sky scheduled on July 17-18, once again held at Shockey’s picturesque Whitefish ranch.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Courtesy photo

The headliners, Isbell and Tyler Childers, may not bring the same Billboard name recognition to the stage as Nathaniel Rateliff did in 2019, although Isbell has had a number of singles climb the charts. But in the modern world of singer-songwriters, they arrive with as much gravitas and respect as anybody in the industry.  

There’s also plenty of big-name star power elsewhere in the lineup, including Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam, who bring nearly 10 combined decades’ worth of chart-topping success, as well as a formidable collection of Grammy Awards and other accolades. Yoakam is scheduled to perform at a July 16 pre-festival show.

Montana acts include 20 Grand, Swagar & Co., Snowghost, Big Sky City Lights, Badger Hound, Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs, The Lil Smokies and Archertown. 

The 2019 festival drew 15,000 attendees each of the two days, but it’s unclear if this year’s event will operate at full capacity. Organizers have not yet released details of their COVID-19 health precautions. If the event is forced to cancel or reschedule, the festival will provide a full refund or honor tickets for the rescheduled date.

“The health and safety of our fans, staff, artists, and community remains our top priority,” the festival states on its website. “Once final protocols are established, we will post all information for fans prior to the festival dates on our website, socials, and email list. These guidelines will be subject to change to ensure we continue to comply with current local and state requirements.”

“Additionally,” the statement continues, “if you are feeling unwell or concerned about your health status at this year’s festival, we ask that you please do not attend and we will honor your refund by request.”

Band of Horses performs at Under The Big Sky in 2019. Beacon File Photo

Under The Big Sky joins a robust roster of festivals and live performances returning this year, including shows at two major outdoor venues in Missoula, Big Sky Brewing Company and KettleHouse Amphitheater, as well as Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs. 

Red Ants has encouraged all attendees to get a COVID-19 vaccine and will cap ticket sales at 60% of average capacity. Additional hand-washing and sanitizer stations will be available throughout the festival grounds and campground, and enhanced surface sanitization protocols will be in place.

Nationwide, some major festivals are planning to move forward with delayed dates, such as Bonnaroo in Tennessee pushing back its event from June to September, but others are canceling for a second straight year, reportedly including Coachella, which has been in a cycle of postponement and rescheduling over the past year.

Steve Schmader, the president and CEO of the International Festivals and Events Association, called it a “mixed bag,” noting that states and jurisdictions have different regulations. Organizers have also been conducting surveys to gauge audience comfort levels in attending large events. All of which adds up to an uncertain atmosphere that gives many organizers pause, and also means earlier-season events such as Under The Big Sky will serve as test cases.

“The thing I’m seeing is postponements right now,” Schmader said, adding that a number of event organizers are scrapping this year’s plans altogether. “If they don’t know what their attendance is going to be, and they can’t take the risk after already having come through a bad year, many are saying we’re going to hold off until 2022 and do it right when hopefully things will be a little bit more normal.”

Elle King. Courtesy photo

Shockey, a former professional hockey player, launched a second successful career in event and festival production after his hockey days ended in 2006. He has produced shows through his company Outriders Present and co-produced others with Live Nation and AEG, the country’s two biggest music event promoters, operating in the major markets of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Shockey grew up in Taber, Alberta and visited the Flathead Valley often as a kid, which he continued into adulthood, eventually setting up home here after building his event production career in California. He and his wife purchased the 340-acre Big Mountain Ranch in Whitefish in 2016 from the Voerman family. The property was recalibrated to serve as both a working cattle ranch and top-notch event venue.

Shockey thanked the community for making 2019 an “amazing event,” and vowed to keep improving as he builds an annual, albeit delayed, tradition in his backyard. And while festivalgoers come from around the country, Shockey has always intended, first and foremost, to offer a first-class event 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 of his guiding philosophy in 2019. “Let’s do something cool for the Flathead.”

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