By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

BIG SKY – The ninth annual Big Sky Big Grass Festival returned to Big Sky Resort Feb. 5-8, showcasing another high-caliber lineup of musicians in a number of intimate settings.

Although big names like Sam Bush, Bill Nershi, and Del McCoury didn’t decorate the list of artists, Leftover Salmon opened the festival with a sold-out show Thursday night at Whiskey Jack’s. The high-energy group, which now includes Montana resident Bill Payne of Little Feat on the keyboard, threw down with festive songs like “Cajun Girl” and “It’s a Powder Day.”

Following the show, a few of Leftover’s band members gathered in the Huntley for a late-night picking session with members of Bozeman’s Kitchen Dwellers and other musician friends. The late night jam sessions have become synonymous with this small winter festival – something that fans and musicians alike look forward to each year.

Local musician Ben Macht, who plays mandolin for the Driftwood Grinners and the Gallatin Grass Project, has attended Big Grass eight times and said the intimacy of the festival is one of the reasons he keeps coming back.

“To be able to watch Leftover rip it up on stage in Whiskey Jack’s, and then sit with them in the Firehole while they are pickin’ is awesome,” Macht said. “I don’t think that happens everywhere.”

Drew Emmitt, who has been playing at Big Grass since year one – sometimes with the Emmitt-Nershi Band, with the Drew Emmitt Band, and now with Leftover Salmon – agreed that the late-night jam sessions are one of his favorite aspects of the festival, apart from skiing, and he says the wintertime setting at an actual ski resort sets the festival apart.

“It’s sort of like an all-inclusive [resort] … similar to an indoor version of the Strings and Sol festival we’ve been doing in Mexico,” Emmitt said.

Over the years, Emmitt says the festival has progressed to include more high-profile bands like Sam Bush and Peter Rowan. “I think more people have found out about it, and I think it gets better every year,” he said.

Other big names on the docket this year included Darol Anger & the Furies, the Travelin’ McCourys, Della Mae, and John Jorgenson’s bluegrass band J2B2. Lesser-known acts like the Billy Strings and Don Julin duo, and rock-country jam band Grant Farm won over the ears of many new fans who went in not knowing what to expect.

“I heard some people were concerned [the lineup] was too weak, but there were amazing musicians here and to be able to see the different musicians in different settings – like Whiskey Jack’s and the Carabiner– is so cool,” Macht said.

Billy Strings compared the festival to being on vacation.

“It was the best weekend ever,” said the 22-year old guitarist from Michigan. “As a whole, it was an amazing experience for me. That’s what a music festival should be like.”

Although some of the crowds were smaller than in years past, folks who attended – whether fans or musicians – took full advantage of the festival’s intimate nature.

“I think Steve [Merlino] does an awesome job,” Macht said, referring to the festival organizer. “I hope he keeps doing what he’s doing because [the] festival kicks ass.”

Jason Meyers, who helps Merlino organize the event, says next year there will be a few quieter shows held at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, as well as favorite acts from years past, and some more “newgrass” bands.