Sam Bush, Del McCoury to headline event

By Maria Wyllie
Big Sky Weekly Editorial Assistant

BIG SKY – The seventh annual Big Sky Big Grass Music Festival, billed as the largest winter bluegrass festival in the Northern Rockies, will be Feb. 8-10 at Big Sky Resort’s Mountain Village.

Bluegrass giants, the Sam Bush Band and the Del McCoury Band, will headline the event on Friday and Saturday nights. The three-day festival also includes performances by the Emmitt-Nershi Band, the Travelin’ McCourys, Special Consensus, the Pete Kartsounes Band and more.

The event has sold out the past two years, so this year festival organizer Steve Merlino, who also works as Food and Beverage Manager at the Summit Hotel, faces the challenge of finding other ways to grow it since space is limited. New this year are a regional band showcase, a music camp, and a small-scaled brew fest.

The regional bluegrass band showcase will be Friday evening from 4:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. at the Missouri Ballroom and will feature five bands, each playing a 30 minute set, from Big Sky, Bozeman, Billings and Missoula.

Introducing lesser-known Montana bluegrass bands to the festival, Merlino’s vision is to create a dialogue between young artists and critically acclaimed musicians like Sam Bush who can answer questions about their music and suggest ways to improve.

Pete Barrett, guitarist and vocalist for Missoula-based Lil’ Smokies said they are excited to share their music with a new audience while also learning from other musicians and getting feedback from big-name artists like Sam Bush, Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi.

“We play some pretty out there instrumentals – it’s pretty far from traditional bluegrass,” Barrett said, referring to the band’s newer material. “But when the Travelin’ McCourys play together, who knows what’s going to happen. I’d like to hear from those guys about what we’re doing.”

It wasn’t until after the bands were selected that Merlino realized they would serve as a good advertising mechanism for the festival, drawing people from across the state and spreading the word about Big Sky Big Grass to bluegrass fans.

The “Big Sky Libation Station,” a smaller-scaled brew-fest sponsored by New Belgium Brewery and George’s Wine, will also take place Friday night.

All proceeds will go to the newly created Big Grass Music Camp, a workshop to be held Feb. 7 and 8, where artists will lead guitar, mandolin, bass and banjo workshops, as well as seminars on songwriting and performing live.

Rather than involving the resort, Merlino plans to use the festival as a kickoff for the camp, which he hopes can eventually become a part of the community and the summer songwriting festival already in place.

“It’s not about making money. It’s about getting [the program] established and moving it forward,” Merlino added. “I firmly believe any of these types of things need an educational component.”

Local artists, members of the Grammy-nominated Special Consensus, and other award-winning bluegrass musicians are offering their time to the camp, free of charge. Ten spots have been allotted for each instrument, and, depending on interest, Merlino is considering offering a free class for local kids who play string instruments.

Prior to receiving the nomination, Special Consensus was booked for a Saturday night performance at the festival and a Monday morning presentation at Ophir School.

Dedicated to spreading bluegrass, the band is flying to LA for the Grammys on Sunday morning and returning to Big Sky Monday morning to conduct their Traditional American Music Program for 5-12 graders at the school.

Music education will also be spread to the younger students. World-renowned auto harpist Bryan Bowers, also playing at the festival, will perform a 30-minute set for classrooms in grades k-4.

Although the festival is outgrowing its venue, Merlino is making lemonade by building the educational component, making it a learning experience for musicians as well as the local community.