Saturday, November 27, 2021

Big Sky, big bands — and a big, hot sun

| July 25, 2021 12:00 AM

When headliner Jason Isbell sang his single “Be Afraid” from his 2020 “Reunions” album at the 2021 Under the Big Sky Festival in Whitefish, I thought this could be the soundtrack of my weekend.

The lyrics are “Be afraid, be very afraid, but do it anyway.” That’s pretty much how I felt about committing to attend all three evenings of the festival.

I did do it anyway, and I can say by Monday morning I felt a lot better than I thought I would. The hefty dose of live music was good medicine and the crowds seemed to behave themselves.

On Friday, honky-tonk king Dwight Yoakam strolled out on the Great Northern stage wearing a jean jacket bedecked in back with a sequined ace, spade, diamond and club from a deck of cards and what looked like, from my viewpoint, a pair of silver horseshoes, his flair for fashion being a signature trademark. I was able to get close to the stage for the last couple of songs and captured a video on my cellphone of Dwight’s biggest dance moves of the night — a quadruple 360-degree spin punctuated by his classic knee swing and swaying hips as he dropped nearly to the stage floor, served up with a searing guitar solo — 20 seconds of pure performance joy.

I ended the evening over at the Big Mountain Stage to catch the Mike Murray Band, the smoke-diffused fuschia sun setting behind them as they played. A Kalispell native and well-known local musician, Murray drew a warm, friendly audience. The band played a song I thought Murray announced as “The Cottonwood Song” that was so achingly beautiful on that dusky evening I closed my eyes and softly sighed.

Saturday I found my spot in the shade to tune in to the elegant and incomparable Emmylou Harris. It’s no wonder she’s won more than a dozen Grammy’s in her 40-year career. This was the first time I saw her in concert and I hope it won’t be my last. That “Red Dirt Girl” sure can tell a good story and carry a heart-piercing melody.

After Emmylou, I headed over the hill again to the Big Mountain Stage — it’s an enigma that two stages face each other on the festival grounds, but you cannot hear them at the same time anywhere. I guess the hill helps. Friends and I listened to the grassroots-grown bluegrass band from Missoula, The Lil Smokies, featuring Whitefish born and raised Andy Dunnigan. Their music is infectious and lots of folks were dancing. Given the Big Sky’s smoky skies, the band could have temporarily renamed themselves The Big Smokies, or at least The Pretty Darn Smokies.

With temps in the upper 90s over the weekend, by day I kept busy at home moving a pair of water tractors attached to hoses around the yard, making crockpots of barbecue beef to feed future company, and watering everything literally under the sun. By Sunday evening, I’d fallen into a rhythm. Shower late afternoon, fix dinner, pull the car out of the cool garage, toss in my backpack and concert seat and take the back way to the festival — a pleasant evening drive.

My car — everyone’s car — was pretty dusty by Sunday. I’d made a habit of memorizing stand-out vehicles I was parked next to each night and counting rows so I could find my way back to mine in the dark, though well-lit field of cars. It worked.

I figured the weekend of country music was a good chance to expand my musical repertoire. These were big names and my son had sent me playlists to preview the bands. But I wasn’t prepared for that big voice coming out of that skinny Kentucky boy Tyler Childers. He performs with grace and a quiet showmanship that was mesmerizing to watch. Childers is, in a word, intense. He has an authentic, gritty eloquence to his lyrics and music. Though most of the audience was decidedly younger, I sat in front of two friendly middle-aged truckers who’d come all the way from Alabama for the festival — and particularly for Childers. I don’t think it gets much more bona fide than that for a fan base.

I headed home Sunday night satiated with all the world-class live music and performances I’d witnessed. As it turned out, it wasn’t exhausting at all. It was uplifting and I slept deep and well.

Community editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or