Schaper takes home second win

By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Town Center thrummed with activity during the sixth annual Big Sky PBR, held from July 28-30.

Beginning with a performance by Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real on July 28 and reaching a crescendo with two nights of rowdy bull riding in a sagebrush field turned rodeo arena, vendor village and music venue, Big Sky was awash with visitors and events. One of the summer’s most entertaining weeks in Big Sky continues to impress bull riders, business owners and PBR fans alike.

Here’s a breakdown of three days of sun-soaked and star-filled entertainment.

Sunset over Lone Mountain captures bull riders in their element.

Sunset over Lone Mountain captures bull riders in their element.


Drawing a crowd on par with the July Fourth music and fireworks, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real packed the grassy park surrounding Town Center Stage during the biggest week in Big Sky.

Nelson steadily introduced intensity into the evening—and the weekend—by starting his set with a handful of solo acoustic songs that highlight vocal similarities to his father, Willie.

POTR bassist Corey McCormick and drummer Anthony LoGerfo joined Nelson on stage and the band continued building momentum. The trio, fresh off a two-month European tour with Neil Young, played songs old and new, alternating between covers and originals.

By the time the band dug into a cover of J.J. Cale’s “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime,” the tone for the evening was set.

“[They] took the crowd for a ride and they enjoyed it,” said Brian Hurlbut, who heads up Music in the Mountains booking for the Arts Council of Big Sky.

While introducing “Carolina,” Nelson said, “I wrote a song about the Carolinas—hope you don’t mind. I haven’t [written] a song about Montana yet. But that’s coming.”

Nelson’s played the area before—he headlined PBR in 2012—and he eschewed a weekend back home to spend time in Big Sky, where he golfed, caught Friday night’s PBR, and unwound from his European tour.

The winner of Saturday night's dance competition busts a move.

The winner of Saturday night’s dance competition busts a move.

Although they played a number of solid tributes—Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” and Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe”—it was the band’s closing song, an electric instrumental rendition of “Amazing Grace” that really drew out goosebumps.

“I think first of all it was the biggest Thursday night concert we’ve ever had by far,” Hurlbut said. “That combination of a big-name artist and a big weekend in Big Sky came together to bring that crowd out.” He estimates 4,000 people attended the show, which included an opening act by Big Sky’s Double Barrel.

Ripples from the week’s events were felt throughout area businesses, as stores struggled to keep their shelves stocked and retail businesses boomed. “Anybody I talked to was pretty happy,” said Town Center director Brodey Simkins. “The bump PBR gives all the local people is pretty incredible.”

Mark Robin, who owns the Hungry Moose Market and Deli with his wife Jackie, said the two of them pulled 16-hour shifts to keep the store staffed as lines for sandwiches wound through the store. “Business can’t be too good, but, yeah, it’s booming,” Mark said while ringing up customers on July 31. “There are tons of people in town. This is big.”

In a post-event email, Matt Kidd, a principal with CrossHarbor Capital Partners said, “The PBR is a highlight of the summer season in Big Sky and as the event has grown, it has become a measuring stick for continued growth and energy for all of Big Sky.”

Friday night

Just as she has for the past three years, Big Sky resident Veda Barner headed up the entrance line for general admission. Barner developed an interest in bull riding because her father-in-law rode bulls “back in the day.”

Then she got hooked. She started following the PBR tour on television. She’s attended all six Big Sky PBR events, and even made the trip down to Las Vegas in 2014 for the Built Ford Tough Series World Finals.

Watching the replays on television is great, but “being in person and the interaction with Flint is awesome,” Barner said, referring to rodeo clown Flint Rasmussen. “All the dirt, the bull snot … The whole energy of the place is different.”

Barner was particularly excited to see “Asteroid” in action, a 2012 World Championship Bull. Five-time PBR Stock Contractor of the Year Chad Berger brought “Asteroid” out of retirement for another year of bucking off eager riders.

“If you see Chad Berger, tell him he needs to come find me and [introduce me to] ‘Asteroid,’” Barner said.

The event opened with rider introductions by announcer Brandon Bates. Two-by-two, the riders, all outfitted in chaps and white cowboy hats, strode through an aisle of flames in the arena dirt.

As Lone Peak High School rising senior Ellie Quackenbush sang the national anthem, sending notes high and deep through Big Sky and out to Lone Mountain, the riders readied themselves for action.

Three previous Big Sky PBR champs were in attendance—Brant Atwood (2012), Nathan Schaper (2014) and Stetson Lawrence (2015)—but Schaper was the only rider of the three to cover his bull for eight seconds the first evening.

Longtime PBR rodeo clown Flint Rasmussen—perhaps the most famous entertainer in bull riding—kept the crowd amused throughout the night.

He divvied up the three bleacher sections into the merlot crowd, the whisky crowd and the beer crowd. Rasmussen picked out a couple familiar faces from the beer crowd, including one particularly feisty fan who put up a worthy, if unsuccessful, attempt at winning the dance competition with an exuberant performance to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s early ‘90s hit, “Baby Got Back.”

Competition was stiff. Rasmussen’s pick from the merlot crowd was Big Sky local and 40-year-old birthday boy Erik Morrison. Morrison, who studied dance in college, put forth his best effort, which included a lively demonstration of “the worm.”

But both were bested by a woman named Liza from the whisky crowd. Liza’s suggestive dance very well could have made Rasmussen blush underneath his clown makeup. Her boogie prompted Rasmussen to comment, “I’ve got daughters!”

Rasmussen was rarely without a well-timed quip, nimble little jig to songs new and old, or crowd sing-a-long. He said Big Sky’s crowd really enjoys engaging with the event. “They want to feel like they’re in the show.” And so he brings them in.

“If it looks like we’re having fun out there, we’re having fun,” said Rasmussen before Saturday night’s event. He said Big Sky’s event is one of his favorites—when he comes here, he gets to go fishing during the day and maybe catch a drink at night. “We have fun the whole weekend that we’re here.”

Flint Rasmussen has entertained Big Sky PBR fans since the event's first year.

Flint Rasmussen has entertained Big Sky PBR fans since the event’s first year.

“This is the closest I get to come to home,” said the Choteau, Montana native, who works about 35 events across the country every year. He’s been Big Sky PBR’s entertainer since the event’s first showing in Big Sky.

Jacqueline O’Donnell said Rasmussen’s lively performance is one of the key pieces of the Big Sky PBR puzzle that keeps her family coming back to Big Sky year after year.

“The clown’s great,” agreed her husband Ed. “That guy’s a genius.”

The O’Donnells lucked into tickets for themselves and their three daughters in 2011 and they’ve planned a visit to Big Sky from their home in Miami, Florida, around the event ever since.

Big Sky’s event, which riders have voted as PBR’s Event of the Year for three consecutive years now, draws attendees—and riders—due in part to its beautiful location. Cowboys also appreciate the hospitality of locals and the generosity of sponsors.

“Big Sky is one of my marquee stops every summer,” said competitor Tyler Harr. “All of us guys meet up and go whitewater rafting or rent mountain bikes while we’re here.

“Chad Berger brings the best bulls around,” he continued. “This year we had our entry fees paid for. I can’t say enough good things about the sponsors.” Locals and sponsors rallied to cover entrance fees for all the riders.

In addition to bringing his best animal athletes to Big Sky, Berger judged the Mutton Bustin’ event.

A mutton buster rides a wiley sheep.

A mutton buster rides a wiley sheep.

Ramsay Merryman displayed just as much, if not more, excitement for his high-scoring ride, even though his ride was on a sheep rather than a bull. The 6-year-old from Encinitas, California, could be heard shouting “87 points!” long after his win, and proudly toted around a sheep-adorned trophy nearly as tall as he was.

In the bull-riding arena, Schaper netted the top score of the night with a 90-point ride atop “Pistol Whip.” Schaper then had the opportunity to ride the bounty bull for another hit of cash. “Cowtown Slinger” proved a worthy opponent, though: Schaper didn’t cover the bull for eight seconds. Thus, the $2,000 in bounty bull funds are rolling over into the 2017 PBR.

Dates for next year’s event will be announced this fall.

Shortly after the bleachers emptied on Friday, the Vendor Village lot filled with revelers jamming to the southern country rock sound of The Outlaws, who played the SAV stage.

The band sold T-shirts printed with “Florida guitar army”—a fairly accurate description of the band, which boasts one drummer, one bassist, three guitarists and three-part country harmonies.

The Outlaws introduced one of their latest releases with a little reflection: “We feel a certain amount of pride for who we are and what we do,” said one member of the Tampa, Florida-based band before launching into one of their last tunes of the night, “It’s About Pride,” a long, wild song that had the band members trading off one guitar solo after another.

Saturday night

Saturday evening opened with three bouts of rain and a round of thunder and lightning, but it didn’t slow down the show. By the time Bates introduced the riders, the rain and accompanying rainbow were gone and the setting sun threw long shadows on Abbi Walker as she sang the national anthem.

“Asteroid,” a dark brown 1,500-pound beast, didn’t disappoint those counting on an athletic performance. He threw his back legs high into the air and bucked off Cody Nance in 3.55 seconds during the third round, securing one of the top bull scores of the event—46.5—and maintaining his 100 percent buck-off rate for the 2016 PBR Tour.

Schaper had worthy competitors in Cooper Davis, who is currently ninth in the world standings, and Aaron Roy, who ranks 31st. After his first qualified ride of the event on Saturday evening, Roy ran over to the stands to high five his 2-year-old son Axel, who was held up by his wife Hallie.

But it was North Dakota native Nathan Schaper who took home the Big Sky PBR title

Nathan Schaper, pictured holding his first place Gibson guitar, won the Big Sky PBR for the second time in his career with a score of 92.5 in Saturday night's championship round. Standing with Schaper are (from left) are Chad Berger of Chad Berger Bucking Bulls, North Dakota Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum, Kathryn Helgaas, and Freestone Productions' co-owner Andy Watson.

Nathan Schaper, pictured holding his first place Gibson guitar, won the Big Sky PBR for the second time in his career with a score of 92.5 in Saturday night’s championship round. Standing with Schaper are (from left) are Chad Berger of Chad Berger Bucking Bulls, North Dakota Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum, Kathryn Helgaas, and Freestone Productions’ co-owner Andy Watson.

with a 92.5-point ride in the final round atop “Modified Clyde.” In addition to the title, Schaper won a Gibson J-15 acoustic guitar, Sandy Epstein’s “Sky Ride” trophy bronze and nearly $11,500 in prize money.

Big Sky PBR could be a turning point for the 25 year old. In Big Sky, Schaper, who is currently ranked 34th in the world standings and has been pro for seven years, earned more than double his second highest-earning event of the year. Schaper won Big Sky PBR in 2014 but 2016 has been a rocky, up-and-down season.

“Words can’t describe [it],” Schaper said after winning. “Out of all the events a guy could win, this one means more than anything to me.”

July 30 was the anniversary of Lane Frost’s death at the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. Frost’s name is legendary in the bull-riding community. He’s memorialized by a 15-foot statue in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the movie “8 Seconds” and a handful of country songs.

After Schaper shook some hands and accepted his prizes, Vendor Village turned into a two-step and swing dance stage courtesy the Texas- and Oklahoma-infused harmonies of Jason Boland and the Stragglers.

Lead singer and guitarist Jason Boland took a moment to reflect on the musical greats that have passed in 2016. There have been some tough losses, he said: Guy Clark, Prince. But the biggest loss might be that of country legend Merle Haggard. “There will never be another Hag.”

The band—a guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel guitar and fiddle affair—then cruised into a cover of Haggard’s “Rainbow Stew.”

Which seemed a fitting song for a weekend of sun, rain, thunder, rainbows, riders, bulls, mutton-busters and throngs of Big Sky PBR fans.

Those who missed the event—or just want to relive some of the highlights—can watch recorded video of the event at