By Maria Wyllie and Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Staff Writers
BIG SKY – The Infamous Stringdusters kicked off the eighth annual Big Sky Big Grass festival at Whiskey Jack’s Thursday, Feb. 6, ushering in a weekend of performances by the country’s best pickers –and deep powder skiing – at Big Sky Resort.
In addition to the ‘Dusters, the weekend featured bluegrass luminaries the Sam Bush Band, Traveling McCourys, Darol Anger and Friends, the Drew Emmitt Band and Tony Trischka Territory. A surprise snowstorm Friday night dumped more than a foot at the resort, making the skiing as fun as the nighttime revelry.
Event organizer Steve Merlino said festival attendance was the largest it’s been in eight years, and 12 hours of music was featured on Sirius XM Saturday. “[It’s a] great plug for Big Sky as a community,” he said in an email.
In typical festival fashion, individual musicians graced multiple stages around the resort for guest appearances with their friends, and the Huntley Lodge’s Missouri Ballroom hosted some heavy hitters in the business. On Saturday night, the Sam Bush Band was accompanied by keyboardist Bill Payne – a founding member of Little Feat who also plays with Bozeman’s Hooligans – for a rock-infused set featuring covers of The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, a rousing version of “Crossroads” and Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken.”
“[It was] another fantastic Sam Bush show,” Merlino said. “If folks have not seen one, they need to.”
The ballroom was also the scene of Sunday’s Big Grass Ball with the Drew Emmitt Band, Traveling McCourys, and The Infamous Stringdusters’ encore performance.
Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon and the Drew Emmitt Band made his sixth appearance at Big Grass this year, and said the festival’s smaller scale and collaborative nature make it a truly special event.
“It’s not too big. That lets the musicians have a really good time and express themselves. The late night jams in the Huntley and the hangs that get to happen because it’s a smaller festival and everyone’s right there – that’s the coolest part,” Thorn said. “That doesn’t happen at a lot of festivals.”
The 29-year old banjo player played Big Grass with the Drew Emmitt Band, and also joined Tyler Grant in the Carabiner, as well as the ‘Dusters in the Big Grass Ball, or “super jam,” as he called it. For Thorn, playing and hanging with the ‘Dusters and Kitchen Dwellers was equally enjoyable as playing with heroes like Sam Bush and Tony Trischka.
“Getting to collaborate with those guys is so fun,” he said. “They do a really good job of hiring bands that are like minded people and enjoy being in the middle of nowhere in a mountain setting. And the skiing is awesome. We all love to ski.”
The Big Grass Ball epitomized the collaborative nature of the weekend as the Traveling McCourys’ fiddler Jason Carter joined the Drew Emmitt Band to kick it off. When Carter returned to the stage with the Traveling McCourys, the Stringdusters’ Andy Falco – who’d been touring with the band in the previous weeks – proved he belongs with the big boys, as he traded lightning-quick solos with the recently Grammy-anointed McCourys.
The Traveling McCourys were delayed in their arrival to Big Sky, missing their Saturday performance, but made up for lost time with a rousing performance that caused the dance floor to tremble. They took a break midway through the set as mandolin player Ronnie McCoury called his mother and father – the legendary guitarist Del – to have the audience wish them a happy 50th wedding anniversary.
The Infamous Stringdusters closed out the weekend in the ballroom with a high-energy set that featured a stage full of musicians, including the Drew Emmitt Band, at one point.
Between the heavy snowfall and endless jamming, it was a beautiful blur of a weekend at Big Sky Resort. From Whiskey Jack’s to the Carabiner, to the Missouri Ballroom and sessions in the Huntley’s atrium that went into the early morning hours, those that made it to this year’s Big Grass Festival were treated to some of the finest picking and powder in the country.