Music

The Biggest Summer’s Biggest Event

Under The Big Sky returns to Whitefish amid an already roaring and record-breaking year in the Flathead Valley

By Myers Reece
Crowds cheer during Jenny Lewis’ performance at Under The Big Sky in 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Upon launching in 2019, Under The Big Sky wasted no time cementing its place in the hierarchy of Flathead Valley events.

“It has become the biggest weekend of the year in Whitefish, and it’s only been done once before,” Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said. “That’s a remarkable thing.”

The music and arts festival attracted 15,000 people each of its two days in July 2019, plus hordes of attendees at its pre and after parties. Reviews were sterling, with festivalgoers praising the world-class quality of the large affair and community leaders noting its streamlined execution and spillover economic benefits.

Then, a few months after organizers announced the 2020 lineup, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the country. Johnny Shockey, who founded the festival and hosts it at his 340-acre Big Mountain Ranch along Voerman Road, was thrust into an uncomfortable wait-and-see holding pattern.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Courtesy photo

A year later, the wait is over, and Shockey will be able to see the fruits of his team’s labor on display this weekend when the second Under The Big Sky music and arts festival returns to his ranch on July 17-18, with a bonus day of performances on July 16. 

“After the year everyone’s been through, we’re really happy to be back,” Shockey said last week. “The artists have been telling us how excited they are to return to playing again, and the support from the fans and local community and officials throughout has been amazing.”

Festival organizers expect roughly 20,000 attendees each of the two main days, and far fewer on Friday, which is reserved for 2020 ticketholders who kept their tickets. Other changes include expanding the festival grounds’ footprint to give people more room and adding extra water and hand-sanitation stations. Organizers say they are adhering to local and state COVID-19 guidelines.

The festivities kick off with a pre-party on July 15 at the Remington Bar with Jade Jackson performing. There are after parties at the Remington and Great Northern Bar on July 16, 17 and 18. 

Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish in 2019. Courtesy photo

Under The Big Sky arrives at a time when high volumes of visitors are already straining resources in the valley, with a service industry struggling to balance staffing shortages with amplified demand. Campgrounds and hotels are packed, as well as expensive, and many restaurants are altering hours due to lack of employees.

Meanwhile, rental car availability is virtually nonexistent, reflecting a national shortage due to supply chain disruptions from the pandemic. Amanda Caldwell, location manager for Hertz and Thrifty in the Flathead Valley, said the rental companies placed their orders over a year ago, but manufacturers were forced to cancel numerous shipments. That has resulted in far fewer cars and much higher prices.

“We’re operating at probably about half the fleet we normally carry, and compound that with the magnitude of increased visitors, it’s kind of a rough combination,” Caldwell said.

“It’s been busy for years, but we haven’t seen anything quite like this with so many people coming into a small place,” she added. “The service industry in general, we’re not equipped to handle this volume of people coming in.” 

Hertz and Thrifty turned off their online booking options to avoid situations in which people reserved vehicles and arrived only to discover no cars were available. 

Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish. Courtesy photo

“We get about 25 phone calls per hour around the clock from people desperate to get a car,” Caldwell said.

Tyler Mellem, system manager at Dollar, said his company also shelved online booking and is operating with about half its normal fleet. Both he and Caldwell noted that rental car demand further rises for events such as Under The Big Sky.

“We get a lot of calls from people wanting to come up for those dates,” Mellem said of the music festival. “We just don’t have anything available for them.”

Mellem and Caldwell did note that periodic cancellations open up availability.

“What we’ve been telling people is keep checking back with us,” Caldwell said. “We’re happy to accommodate when we can.” 

Gartland said an event of Under The Big Sky’s scale is undoubtedly a boon for the local economy, but its timing amid this summer’s perfect storm of difficult circumstances makes for a “double-edged sword.”

“An event of that size produced as professionally as they do it can be nothing but positive from a business perspective,” he said. “It’s a wonderful event, an amazing experience, and we welcome it, but there are some logistical issues with moving that many people around and housing that many people and feeding that many people.”

Tyler Childers. Photo courtesy of David McClister

Gartland notes that Under The Big Sky did an excellent job addressing such logistical considerations in 2019, although those issues are heightened in this summer’s unique environment.

“Folks who are coming to town for the festival have been calling us for months about rentals, campsites, VRBOs, R.V. sites, hotel rooms, condos, everything,” he said. “Nothing is available, and what is available is ungodly priced.”

But if you build it, they will come. Under The Big Sky sold out tickets within weeks of going on sale in April, and the enthusiasm for the event following its inaugural success is evident in the proliferation of exclamation-pointed remarks across social media. When people are excited, they find a way. Gartland expects to see tents pitched in backyards and people crashing in vehicles parked at friends’ houses.

“A lot of that will be happening,” he said.

Under The Big Sky organizers reserved a 40-acre property three miles from the festival, in the Halfmoon area west of Columbia Falls, for camping this year. As of last week, Camp Scout & Gather was sold out, and organizers say they are looking to add more camping options next year. The festival is running shuttles to and from the campground, as well as offering other routes for attendees.

Under The Big Sky is once again showcasing top names from the Americana landscape, including headliners Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. But Shockey also places high priority on local acts, a number of whom will play on July 16, with 20 Grand and Archertown on the Great Northern Stage and Hannah King, Luke Dowler & the Midnight Conversations and Mike Murray on the Big Mountain Stage.

Flathead Valley acts performing on July 17-18 include The Snowghost Six, Big Sky City Lights and Badger Hound. A number of other musicians on the ticket hail from elsewhere in Montana, including the Missoula-born The Lil Smokies, fronted by Andy Dunnigan of Whitefish. The festival also utilizes local food and beverage vendors, as well as local transportation and other production partners.

Murray, who performed at the festival in 2019, returns with a full band to close down the Big Mountain Stage’s Friday evening lineup, performing from 9-10 p.m. Murray called it an “awesome slot,” coinciding with sunset. 

After a rough year for the music industry in 2020, and the disappointment of canceling Under The Big Sky last summer, Murray expects a charged atmosphere.

“I think everybody, performers and music appreciators alike, are certainly not going to take live music for granted after being without it for a year,” he said. “I think it will be electric.”

Murray is grateful for the opportunity to play in front of such large crowds, and said without Shockey local musicians likely wouldn’t be able to find their way onto a stage at a world-class festival. Murray noticed a boost in online listenership and other exposure metrics after performing in 2019.

Crowds cheer during Jenny Lewis’s performance at Under The Big Sky in Whitefish in 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“Johnny includes local acts not in a patronizing way — there’s not a local hour or local stage — he includes us on the bill like we earned it,” Murray said. “It’s a cool nod.”

Shockey is a former professional hockey player who launched a second successful career in event and festival production, producing his company’s own shows and co-producing others with music-promotion titans Live Nation and AEG in the major markets of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Growing up in Taber, Alberta, Shockey visited the Flathead Valley frequently and continued coming as an adult, eventually settling here after building his event production career in California. In 2016, he and his wife purchased Big Mountain Ranch from the Voerman family.

Shockey’s experience and expertise in the field are on full display at Under The Big Sky, which holds elevated personal significance for him due to its presence in his own community and backyard.

“We’re looking forward to putting on some great shows this summer and we can’t wait to welcome everyone back to the ranch,” Shockey said.

For more information, visit www.underthebigskyfest.com or the festival’s Facebook page.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.