News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Sisters makes music connection with Montana

Two weekends ago, a number of Sisters locals chased their musical passions more than 600 miles to Under the Big Sky Music and Arts Festival in Montana.

Running July 16-18, the massive festival staged by promoter Outriders Present is located in the picturesque Big Sky Country, nestled in the Bitterroot Mountain Range. Under The Big Sky is held on Big Mountain Ranch, a 350-acre working ranch located just over a mile east of the city limits of Whitefish. This was the festival’s second year. There were approximately 25,000 people in attendance including those with roll-over tickets from the COVID-canceled 2020 festival.

There were two stages at the festival, the main stage, the Great Northern Stage located at the edge of the grounds in a large grassy field to accommodate the crowds. There was also the second and slightly smaller stage, the Big Mountain Stage, located at the entrance of the grounds — a natural amphitheater style with a tributary running in front of the stage.

The lineup this year consisted of a few Sisters Folk Festival (SFF) alumni acts, including Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange) and The Lil Smokies.

The White Buffalo (aka Jake Smith), the son of Jeff and Ginny Smith of Sisters, has played both the Sisters Rhythm & Brews Festival and SFF and proved to be a big draw on The Big Mountain Stage.

Other artists included Ryan Bingham, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Charley Crockett, Riddy Arman, Paul Cauthen, Colter Wall, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Big Sky City Lights, Lily Hiatt, Brothers Osborne, Tyler Childers, and more.

Ryan Bingham and Colter Wall, two of the big-name artists at the festival, had the attention of thousands of people with just their guitars, singing cowboy songs. This gives Jim Cornelius, co-founder of SFF, “hope for the future of music.”

Billy Strings capped out the Friday evening special-event performance with a 90-minute set of pure and raw guitar talent. Strings played his signature Preston Thompson Guitar made in Sisters (see related story).

One of the bands that made quite the splash — being the only band to play two sets on the weekend of the festival — was Hogslop String Band. They will be performing in Sisters as part of the SFF 2021 lineup. Hogslop String Band brought huge energy to the Big Mountain Stage with audiences climbing the fence and splashing in the creek (also due to the extreme heat wave that was present at the festival).

There were also sightings of dancing pigs storming the stage; we will see if that happens at SFF.

Elisabeth Kokesh of Sisters was in attendance at the event taking photos for Colter Wall and Riddy Arman’s record label La Honda Records.

“Like Colter Wall sings, ‘when I first saw Montana, I knew I would love her,’” she told The Nugget. “Unfortunately, our eastern neighbors were just as smoky under wildfire skies as in Central Oregon, but it did make for a beautiful sunset .... After a year of solitude and longing for not only live music, but the community of friends that come with the territory of the country music scene, this weekend solidified my conviction in never again taking weekends like this for granted.”

Sue Boettner, former board chair of SFF, was also in attendance.

“Under the Big Sky Festival, what a lineup!” she said. “Jason Isbell stole the festival in my opinion. Loved Jade Jackson, and Ryan Bingham’s sets — they both need to come to Sisters Folk Festival. Shovels & Rope played an amazing set of new and old songs, they are so talented! Lilly Hiatt was really great; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Emmylou Harris at 74 was amazing as usual, her voice still incredible, but the Red Dirt Boys (her band) brought it also and they performed a rocking set!”

Jennifer McCrystal, co-creator of Jen’s Garden and now a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Reed Bros. Realty, was also at the music festival.

“We were long overdue for adventure, post-COVID,” she said. “I heard about Under the Big Sky and decided to check it out. My significant other and I drove from Boise 11 hours and met up with three Bend couples. Three days of great music, gourmet camp food, and just reconnecting in person! The 16-hour drive back to Sisters passed in the blink of an eye as I reminisced about a weekend of music in one of the most beautiful venues I have ever experienced.”

Throughout the weekend, between sets on the Big Mountain Stage, there were 30-minute heats of rough stock rodeo. Bronc-riding and bull-riding were the main events. Where else but Montana can you pair a country music, roots festival with rodeo?

A number of the performers kept saying, “We thought we’d never get to do this again.” This was one of the first of many festivals slotted for this year after a year and a half off of performing due to the pandemic. Now with vaccine rollouts and regulations changing, these festivals are made possible again.

Concluding his Friday night show, Dwight Yoakam said, “We gotta start living life; if we don’t start living life, there won’t be any life to get back to living.”

Many of the performers at the festival were performing in front of the largest audiences of their careers in a setting that is unmatched. This type of success at a festival encourages the growing number of independent country and roots music fans, including the Sisters locals in attendance.


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