Estimated 20,000 People Flocked to Under The Big Sky Festival in Whitefish

More than 30 performers were on the bill this year, including headliners Hank Williams Jr., Zach Bryan and CAAMP

By Mike Kordenbrock
Hank Williams Jr. performs at Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish, July 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Under The Big Sky festivalgoers who flooded into Piggyback BBQ in Whitefish last weekend might as well have been throwing darts at the menu, according to owner Reeves Stanwood.

“We sold literally everything we offer,” Stanwood said. “And they’re a drinking crowd, too, so we sold quite a bit of beer.”

Most of those sales happened during lunch hours, when people loaded up on food and drink prior to heading to the festival grounds, which more or less flips the normal traffic flow at the Whitefish eatery on its head. By the time 6 p.m rolled around, Stanwood said there was a mass exodus as the last wave of people headed off for the all-day event.

Crowds at Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish, July 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In many ways, the uptick in consumer demand is reflective of the broader context in which the festival alters life in the Flathead Valley, where over the span of a few days a groundswell of people creates increased traffic, ramps up pressure for local services and can even impede cell phone service.

Outriders Presents, the group that has put on the festival four times now, estimates that 20,000 people attended each of the three days of the festival, which takes place in the fields of Big Mountain Ranch east of downtown Whitefish.

The festival takes a bit of a country slant in booking performers, and headliners this year included Caamp, Hank Williams Jr. and Zach Bryan, who tweeted at 11:11 p.m. Sunday night, a little over 10 minutes after his set was scheduled to end on the final night of the festival, that he’d had to shut it down due to curfew. “SORRY WE DIDN’T PLAY MORE I LOVE YOU GUYS THAT WAS INSANE THANK YOU UNDER THE BIG SKY,” Bryan wrote.

Colter Wall performs at Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish, July 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Other acts on the ticket included Whiskey Myers, Ryan Bingham, Charley Crockett, The Dead South, Leann Rimes, Elle King, Marcus King, and Colter Wall, who performed on the first night of the festival, which happened to be the same day that he released a new album, “Little Songs,” which is his fourth overall, and his first since 2020.

“I would be remiss if I skipped this song here in Whitefish. It’s another little history piece, here,” Wall told the crowd before launching into the ballad “Bob Fudge,” which tells the story from birth to death of the cowboy of the same name, who drove livestock from Texas to Montana, where he fell in love with the land and stayed, living long enough to see the land transformed and automobiles drive through Yellowstone Park.

Before Wall could reach the song’s piercing final lines — “My name is Bob Fudge/I died in Montana” — he stopped mid-song to call for a medic over to an area where around a dozen people had been frantically waving to get his attention to send help. Nurses from Logan Health, members of the Whitefish Fire Department, and the Flathead County Sheriff’s Posse all made their way over to the area several feet back from the stage to check out the situation, leaving Wall to pause for a couple of minutes before picking the tune back up. 

Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish, July 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The weekend of the festival saw temperatures on Friday reach into the low 80s, on Saturday climb into the upper 80s, and on Sunday reach highs in the low 90s. Travis Tveidt, the acting fire chief for the Whitefish Fire Department, told the Beacon in the days leading up to the festival, that in years past most often festivalgoers in need some kind of medical assistance were feeling unwell because of time spent in the heat and sun, but that there are also instances of people needing treatment related to alcohol consumption.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, which is the primary law enforcement agency staffing the festival, reported 528 calls came in for county response over the weekend, with 88 calls for service at the festival, which included medical requests.

In a social media post, the sheriff’s office thanked its posse volunteers, and also offered up thanks “to all event patrons for staying hydrated throughout the weekend.”

The volume of calls equated to roughly seven calls an hour, which is about the same rate of calls the sheriff’s office reported fielding over the weekend leading up to the Fourth of July.

In the city of Whitefish, Police Chief Bridger Kelch said that his officers made a few arrests over the weekend, but that they weren’t related to the festival. He said that most of the festival-related enforcement his agency took action on involved parking violations.

Caamp performs at Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish, July 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“It was relatively uneventful for us,” Kelch said. Last year, Kelch said the festival had been required to get a special event permit for its shuttle drop-off at Depot Park in downtown Whitefish. That permit requires event organizers to provide lighting, garbage service and portable toilets. That same permitting was required this year, which Kelch said seemed to work out fairly well. 

Kevin Gartland, the executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said that while the festival’s presence in Whitefish is noticeable, including in terms of traffic congestion, the city doesn’t necessarily see significantly more tourists than it does on any other weekend during peak summer tourism season. The festival filled up lodging throughout the area, which wasn’t a problem for those who had planned ahead. In some cases, though, he said people contacted the chamber trying to find lodging just a few days in advance of the festival, to which Gartland said they had to direct folks to look in Kalispell, or even as far south as Polson.

“We say the hotels are full all summer long and that’s true, but they can charge a significantly higher rate the weekend of Under The Big Sky, and they have,” Gartland said. “Under The Big Sky is really one of the factors that has pushed up our average nightly rate over the last four or five years, because people can see they can alter their rates that weekend.”

Hank Williams Jr. performs at Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish, July 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Gartland said that he used to be involved in concert promotion in the 80s and 90s. He attended one night of the Whitefish-area festival and was impressed with what promoter Johnny Shockey and Outriders had put together.

“It’s an exciting event to be a part of. For a lot of folks it’s difficult to believe an event of that size and scope is happening in a community of our size. And I don’t just mean in Whitefish, I mean in the Flathead. You’re talking about 20% of the population of the Flathead being in one place at one time,” Gartland said.

As for the broader trends this summer season, Gartland said it remains an “extremely busy” summer in Whitefish, but he’s not sure they’ll be breaking records this year.

“But, we don’t need to break records every single year.”

For more images of Under The Big Sky music festival in Whitefish, visit Media Director Hunter D’Antuono’s photo gallery here.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

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