By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Throughout Big Sky, people are talking about Music in the Mountains—which bands they are most excited to see or vying to get a coveted Thursday night off from work.

The Arts Council of Big Sky has been presenting music since 1989, but it wasn’t until Brian Hurlbut became involved with the nonprofit in 2001 that the summer music series began the steady evolution into the highly anticipated, free Thursday night event it is today.

In its early years, Music in the Mountains consisted of three to four “headliner” concerts a year, with the likes of Merle Haggard, The Band and Taj Mahal booked by an outside contractor.

The Portland, Ore.-based Fruition plays Town Center Stage Aug. 25. PHOTO BY CAMERON BROWNE

The Portland, Ore.-based Fruition plays Town Center Stage Aug. 25. PHOTO BY CAMERON BROWNE

Eventually Hurlbut, a lifelong music lover and drummer—you may remember him from Big Sky’s country rockers The Cropdusters—proposed that ACBS let him take over booking the series.

By 2005 he had convinced the arts council to book more, smaller acts because he never felt that big, ticketed concerts were aligned with the arts council’s values. In 2008 the shows became free and in 2010—having been crowded out of Big Sky Community Park by additional sports fields and a skate park—the concert series moved to its current location in Town Center Park.

“That’s when the whole thing blew up,” said Hurlbut, now executive director of ACBS. “We had this killer new venue; free concerts all summer; Big Sky was booming, and it just took off. Now it’s really a centerpiece of the summer in Big Sky.”

Hurlbut got rave reviews for last summer’s Music in the Mountains series, and he was feeling the pressure when lining up this season’s roster.

“It’s a lot to live up to,” he said. “But I think I did it. I think it’s right up there with last summer in terms of what’s coming.”

Hurlbut’s mission is to present a variety of acts that will appeal to the wide demographic of Big Sky concertgoers.

On one end of the spectrum are The Black Lillies—who performed June 23 after EBS went to press—described by Hurlbut as “a country-ish Nashville folk rock band.” On the other would be Deadphish Orchestra, a hippie jam band that plays only Grateful Dead and Phish covers.

Bringing an international flair to this year’s lineup, are bands like Todo Mundo, a world music outfit with a Latin reggae bent; and The Iguanas, who fuse the sounds of Mexico with the funky jazz of their New Orleans home.

“You don’t see a lot of that kind of music up here,” Hurlbut said. “It might not be my favorite kind of music but I know it’s going to go over really well.”

Hurlbut was excited to land Austin’s The Band of Heathens, performing on July 7, after attempting to book them for five years. Another standout for him—in addition to one of his favorite bands, Blitzen Trapper—is singer-songwriter Amy Helm, daughter of the late, great Levon Helm, drummer for The Band and one of Hurlbut’s idols.

If Hurlbut had to pick a headliner of the entire season it would be Lukas Nelson, son of Willie and lead singer of Promise of the Real, Neil Young’s backup band and recording partners. For the second consecutive year The Tiny Band—a Motown cover band comprised of some of Bozeman’s best musicians—takes Town Center Stage for the July Fourth celebration, which last year attracted close to 5000 attendees.

“One reason I think we’ve been successful is that we treat the bands really well,” Hurlbut said. “We pay them well; we feed them well; we put them up at [Big Sky Resort] … word travels. It used to be I had to scrounge for bands; now I have to turn bands away.”

Hurlbut is pleased with the Music in the Mountains series, but is always trying make it better. This year, he’s lengthened the season by two concerts. He’s also bringing in more vendors, adding Lone Mountain Ranch and The Emperor of Ice Cream, a brand new mobile soda fountain, to past fixtures like The Wrap Shack, By Word of Mouth, Totally Tasty and Uncle Dan’s Cookies. Bozeman’s Cosmic Pizza, LaFolley Wood Fired Oven pizza and Thai Basil will also be providing food this season.

“Our main goal is to ensure people have fun,” Hurlbut said. “But I’d also like to believe that people will become more interested in the Arts Council and realize we do much more than put on free concerts.

“And obviously we couldn’t do this without the support and involvement of the community,” he added. “It proves that it really is a community event and a win-win for Big Sky.”