Big Grass 7th annual Big Sky Festival

review submitted by Lavender Lori Big Sky Big Grass MontanaI guess I’ve been sleeping under a rock the past 6 years because I had never heard about Big Sky Big Grass until the first Friday night of February while I was enjoying one of my favorite Missoula bluegrass bands; Lil’ Smokies at the Old Post. Pete, their guitarist mentioned they were headed over to it on the weekend. When he said who’d be playing I had no choice but to go. By 1:30 I was on the road, dog called dibs on the passenger seat, and we picked up a young couple on the freeway entrance with a huge sign that said Big Sky. They braved the drafty , topper covered back. We arrived an hour before the show started. I grabbed a seat on the outside isle of the 4th row, thinking I could not believe my luck. There were 50 people in the room. The Two Bit Franks out of Bozeman were up first. They did a fine job, had some real nice harmonies and were obviously talented musicians. It was the first time I had ever witnessed a mando-cello, which was one of their standard instruments it had a rich , syrupy sound. The room filled up as they were bringin’ it around. It was a diverse crowd, both young and old, sedate and rambunctious. I’ve gotta give a big shout out to Josh the volunteer security guard who from his post at the stage could see I was getting danced upon by the sideline crowd and set me up in a front row center seat. Thank you! I had never seen Del McCoury before, so it was real special to be that close. It was, I must say, a pivotal bluegrass moment. This man has been gifting us with his iconic high, lonesome sound for 50 years, and we were lucky to have him here as he was to fly out to be at the Grammy’s next day. Del forgot the lyrics a couple times but being as he’s nearly 75 we’ll give him that. And hey, it’s live,right? No matter, they played right through the rough spots, Del laughed it off and complimented the audience often, warning that they knew the words so well they might get pulled up on the stage to sing. The McCoury’s are some of the cleanest pickers around. I’ve never heard the likes of such clean, sharp and stylish bass playing. And damn if he wasn’t charming. Though the fiddle player is the smallest man in the band he’s got the deepest voice, which we heard in the harmony laden tune “Get down on your knees and pray.” The band mixed it up with some old time traditionals, tributes, originals, and some covers-by far the crowd’s favorite was Richard Thompson’s “Black Lightning”, and there were many requests for “High on the Mountain” which they played. Personally, I award this band the best dressed band in bluegrass. They all looked like a million bucks; nice similar colored suits and lovely silk ties.

Sam Bush and Del McCoury at Big Grass Montana

Sam & Del

For the last couple songs Del invited Sam Bush up on stage. They’ve been playing a lot of gigs together lately. Now, Ronnie McCoury is one the fastest, cleanest mando pickers ever known. And when Sam joined in while each member played their solo, he pulled a classic prank; reached over and loosed the top tuning key of Ronnie’s mando. After that, Sam and Ronnie played dueling banjos on Bluegrass Stomp. I have been a fan of Sam Bush’s a avantguard newgrass style forever but the difference between the styles shines thru in the side by side.   Del was cool as a cucumber, didn’t appear to break a sweat, even in what Sam called his street clothes. Sam was, just as I remember him in Telluride, back in the late 80’s sweatin’ bullets, honestly I dunno how the man keeps a hold of that pick after brushin’ the sweat off his forehead and thru his hair as often as he does. The show ran from 8:30 to 11. And when Del is done, he just walks off the stage; evidently unbeknownst to the band. Sam seemed especially surprised, and ran after all of them in his exagerated style. They did return for one more tune. I headed for the truck, and with plans to attend next day’s show drove out to the far end of the free parking lot where one other bluegrass fan was in a camper van. My topper is not of high quality, but I had come planning to stay this way. I’m on one hell of a shoe string budget these days but was hell bent to see both these legends, together, in the same place, not 4 hours from Missoula. You never know when 75 year old musicians are gonna hang it up. The back of my pickup under a ramshackle topper is only one cool remove from the shotgun shack I’ve been living in this winter. I had lotsa down, lotsa wool, and one red heeler. Snugged up like bugs we were. It was bloody cold; sub zero, wind howlin’, snow blowin’ thru the cracks. But after a couple hours our breathing and body heat made it tolerable. I slept heavy enough at one point to get to dream land and I didn’t wake up dead. Come daylight, and the arrival of the skiers, I rolled outta the back, put the truck in 4wd and drove outta the snowdrift down to the Blue Moon Bakery-wow. Had nuances of the bakery in Polebridge; same quality baked goods, artisanal breads, and a nice double cappucino. The dog got a couple long walks and we crawled back in the sleeping bag for a puppy nap while the sun warmed it up to a whole 12 degrees. Back to the bakery for a spinach salad, a cup of white tea to get me thru the evening, and, well, to do somethin’ with my hair in their bathroom. My eyes were lookin’ a little bleary at that point. Back at it Sunday night. Brian Bowers, the only auto harpist still among the living to make it in to the hall of fame. His only company in that title is Maybelle Carter. I heard this man back in Salt Lake City some 25 years ago. Incredible then, and still so today. He’s a story teller, the likes of which today’s culture of texters and tweeters is sadly bereft of. He is a dying breed but for music festivals like this one where a tiny little slice of how it used to be can still be gleaned. He performed many traditionals, explaining to us while playing “When the Saints” how all five fingers create a textured, deep tune and that many years ago he realized by adding that pinky finger to gain another octave – he found the sweet spot “where faeries dance on the head of a pin.” He gifted us with many originals, his best; ‘Love Starved Nuns’ – socially forbidden, but lotsa, lotsa fun. He talked about being 71 yrs old and how one loses track of friends so wrote a tune called ‘Learn a song, it’s a friend for life’ and called Sam Bush and his guitarist up on stage to help him sing it. Some folks don’t seem to age, and Mr. Sam Bush is one of ’em. I used to attend Telluride Bluegrass Fest 27 years ago, and I swear, the man is still as silly, still as talented and still seems to take the greatest pleasure in entertaining the masses. My 3rd row center seat turned into first row when the dancing throng made all the front seats disappear. I couldn’t see a damn thing and was too tired to do a balancing act standing on my chair amongst a crowd of mostly 20 somethings. I’m not sure these kids understand that Sam’s been sockin’ it to us a good decade before their birth. They certainly missed the connotation of his double middle finger salute and a tribute to another band that never received a Grammy for best album like himself – the band then serenaded us with ‘I’ve just seen a face’ by the Beatles. Sam gave a sweet shout out to his wife in the audience, and did a song for her, written back in his Telluride heyday. Sam writes and arranges tunes into a bluegrass flavor the way popular rock and roll bands did in the 70s. Rifs and instrumental story lines reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, where there is a story, a bridge, interesting solos and refrains. And he asked the audience more than once if we could handle a jam, and then went off almost grateful dead-like into the tune ‘bananas’ that at one point morphed into the Allman Brothers ‘Tied to the whippin’ post’ and then brought it back around before you realized where you’d been for the last 15 minutes. I was really hoping he’d do more, if anything, from his Peaks of Telluride album, one of my favorites. And I was secretly hoping he’d bring some friends up, say Johnny Cowan, or Bella? He did have a friend from Florida sing one tune. My concern for the dog freezing out in the truck and a burning desire to not sleep on that mountain again under clear skies, and even colder temps, set me on a 10:30pm trajectory, missing the encore, for Three Forks, a good hour in the direction of Missoula. A $50, pet friendly room at the Broken Spur Motel in Three Forks had the noisiest baseboard heater, and worst coffee ever, but the hostess turned the heat on, in my room an hour before I got there. Tho the dog coulda had his own double bed, he cuddled right up agin me. And I had one of the hottest showers next morning. It was NOT too much to pay. Lori Parr Facebook, Pinterest, Etsy, Craigslist,, Linked-In (406) 396-1514

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