By Bella Butler EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT
BIG SKY – Just over two years ago, a law school drop-out and an attorney set aside their pragmatic career paths in the pursuit of music and self-expression. In 2018, their dreams were validated as their band Mt. Joy’s song “Silver Lining” ended the year ranked at No. 13 on Billboard’s Top Adult Alternative Songs.
One thousand miles away from the five-piece band’s home in Los Angeles, California, Brian Hurlbut, executive director for the Arts Council of Big Sky, took a liking to the band’s hit track from their self-titled album, which was written by lead singer Matt Quinn as a reaction to witnessing his college peers dying young due to drugs.
On a business trip to St. Louis in December 2018, Hurlbut saw Mt. Joy play and was stunned by their live show. He immediately pegged them as a potential performance for the Music in the Mountains summer series.
Although booking Mt. Joy, who has recently picked up a steady national momentum, was a lofty goal for ACBS, Hurlbut foresaw the effect of the up-and-coming band’s appearance in Big Sky to complement his mission of curating a great lineup for the free summer music series.
“My goal for the free series is not to have the biggest names come here that everyone will recognize, but to have high quality artists performing that tour nationally, but maybe are under the radar in some capacity or are not yet a household name,” he said.
Hurlbut has been charged with booking groups since 2003, and he has watched as the local music scene has grown with the community. He sees part of his job as ensuring that this growth is organic and knows that a part of this is crafting a music lineup that not only appeals to him but primarily to general audiences in Big Sky. It’s a fine balance, Hurlbut noted, to push boundaries and diversify lineups while also serving up crowd pleasers.
In addition to finding music that satiates the Big Sky community’s variety of tastes, all while introducing people to new groups and sounds, Hurlbut believes the series offers something to the artists, as well.
“The Music in the Mountains series has a great reputation for bands,” Hurlbut said. “It pays well, has a large, attentive audience and is absolutely one of the best outdoor stages in Montana and even the Greater Yellowstone region.”
He added that many bands that have played Thursday night summer shows in Big Sky have gone on to see immense success in larger artistic arenas.
Hurlbut gets approached frequently by artists hoping to play amidst the famous Big Sky skylines, and with only 12 headlining slots a summer, it can become competitive.
Mt. Joy, intrigued by the scenic outdoor venue and unique, slow-paced community of Big Sky, obliged the offer to play Music in the Mountains on Aug. 15. The show, in part sponsored by Moonlight MusicFest, kickstarted the festival with a packed show featuring an audience of Big Sky residents, visitors and Mt. Joy fans from the surrounding region. In between introducing fresh material from their new in-progress album, the band delighted the crowd with a selection of their most popular songs mixed in with covers of the Flaming Lips, Bill Withers and Buffalo Springfield. The entire set had the swelling crowd on their feet, singing along well after the sun set behind the Spanish Peaks.
Hurlbut, while counting nights like that as successful, said shows like Mt. Joy’s inspire the question “How big can this get?” When Thursday night performances draw crowds of 5,000 to 6,000, the venue is at capacity, and as Big Sky and Gallatin Valley grow, it’s a sound prediction that the popularizing Music in the Mountains will only attract more people. At some point, however, the influx of music fans will need to be limited, with infrastructure only supporting what it was designed to.
Hurlbut also hopes to maintain the hard-earned atmosphere and fears particularly large crowds may interrupt the intimate nature of it, but for now, Hurlbut will continue his 50-60 hours a week listening to music and researching groups that will continue to build the flourishing music environment in the Big Sky community.