Music

Under the Big Sky Notably Bigger, with Same Top-Tier Talent

Music festival in Whitefish returns after pandemic hiatus

By Tristan Scott
Brothers Osborne greets the crowd at Under the Big Sky, a musical festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 16-18, 2021. JP Edge | Flathead Beacon

Two years ago, the inaugural Under The Big Sky music festival emerged as a triumph of artistic and organizational spirit when a who’s-who of Americana all-stars, outlaw-country mainstays and provincial darlings converged in Whitefish to cast a spell over the 15,000 concertgoers who sprawled across the pastoral festival grounds for two days in July.

Even before the afterglow of the 2019 event had dissipated, the community buzzed with anticipation for the 2020 iteration while locals and visitors alike heaped praise on event organizer Johnny Shockey, who founded the festival and hosts it at his 340-acre Big Mountain Ranch along Voerman Road.

A few short months after organizers announced the 2020 lineup, the coronavirus pandemic displaced live entertainment and the 2020 edition of Under The Big Sky was scrubbed, much to the dismay of would-be festivalgoers who’d already snatched up tickets.

Shockey, however, took the long view. Shifting his professional chops into low gear, he set his sights on 2021 and began massaging the logistical puzzle pieces into place, securing commitments from his headliners while navigating an entertainment industry slowly awaking from pandemic paralysis.

Concert goers cool off at Under the Big Sky, a musical festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 16-18, 2021. JP Edge | Flathead Beacon

By the time the second-annual Under The Big Sky finally kicked off July 17-18, including a bonus day of performances on July 16 and a slate of afterparties, all eyes were wide open.

Festival organizers pegged the attendance for each of the two main days at 20,000 people, with far fewer attendees on Friday, which was reserved for 2020 ticketholders who hung onto their tickets. In addition to the noticeable uptick in attendance over 2019, other changes included an expansion to the festival grounds’ footprint, engineered to give people more elbow room, as well as an extra bank of water-filling and hand-sanitation stations.

Still, this year’s version of Under The Big Sky featured few departures from its widely heralded debut, and hewed particularly close to the musical subgenres that defined 2019, as well as the emphasis on local artists. The festival once again showcased top names from the Americana landscape, including headliners Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, as well as outlaw country crooners Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou Harris.

Jason Isbell performs at Under the Big Sky, a musical festival held on Big Mountain Ranch outside of Whitefish, Montana on July 16-18, 2021. JP Edge | Flathead Beacon

Shockey also took care to put local acts on prominent display, with Friday’s decidedly more intimate lineup including 20 Grand, Archertown, Hannah King, Luke Dowler & the Midnight Conversations, and Mike Murray. Additional weekend performances by the Snowghost Six, Big Sky City Lights and Badger Hound helped round out the roster of local acts. 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 utilized local food and beverage vendors, as well as local transportation and other production partners.

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