The fifth annual Big Sky PBR
By Jacob Osborne EBS Editorial Assistant
I look on drowsily as Ersin Ozer, event director of the 2015 Big Sky PBR and current insomniac, batters the cloud-grey pounder down onto the top of the week’s first warped T-post. I only know he is making progress because the nubs in the evergreen metal inch down in the direction of the Big Sky bedrock in jolts and jerks. This is slow work.
It’s Monday morning, and in only three more days, the town will go insane. More than forty bull riders will converge in the heart of Big Sky to willingly mount a few truckloads of one-and-a-half-ton bulls with the hopes of mastering the animals for eight seconds and then, consequently, dismounting without dying.
And in three days, 7,000 residents, tourists, friends, siblings, ski bums, small business owners, moguls, cowboys-to-be, road trippers, romantic interests, and rodeo enthusiasts will converge in the heart of Big Sky over the course of three nights to watch it all take place.
For now, Ersin and I are focused on pounding our first post. It is, after all, my first PBR.
Twenty-plus food, drink and craft sellers spent the day setting up their 10-by-10-foot stalls in the vendor village outside of the Big Sky PBR venue, and by 5 p.m. the gravel lot was a teeming bazaar of chili dogs, microbrews, and Montana artwork for sale.
The Pro Bull Riders weekend kicked off on a charitable note under the Golden Buckle tent with a Calcutta auction sponsored by the Spanish Peaks Community Foundation. Eight teams of five riders were auctioned off to bidders, with half the pot earmarked as a donation to the Gallatin River Task Force. The local nonprofit, dedicated to the health and upkeep of the Gallatin River watershed, received a check on the arena dirt for $14,250 before the bull riding commenced.
Following the Calcutta, artist Julie Chapman auctioned off a
dry-brush painting of a bull rider to benefit the nonprofit Rider Relief Fund. “The raw courage of the bull riders inspired this piece,” Chapman said. The painting fetched $5,000 for the aid of injured bull riders.
In the arena, announcer Brandon Bates welcomed the crowd to the fifth annual Big Sky PBR and introduced the event’s riders, bull fighters, and lead entertainer – Montana’s own rodeo clown, Flint Rasmussen. One of Big Sky Fire Department’s ladder trucks lifted a giant American flag high above the stadium, and the 2,000-strong in attendance fell silent for a powerful rendition of the national anthem by Gina Daws.
The main event commenced, and during Flight 2 the Big Sky crowd expressed a mix of awe and fright as 25-year-old Tyler Harr, from Slovak, Ark., skillfully rode “Big Enough” for the full eight seconds, and then narrowly avoided a grisly run-in with the bull near the chute gates after dismounting.
Four rides later, Brazilian Robson “Spiderman” Aragao’s bull,“Westley’s Pet,” bucked the chute gate at the start of the ride, but Aragao managed to hold on for eight seconds, a feat that prompted him to dance a two-step after hearing his score of 85.5.
“I go to every event Chad Berger is at,” said Aragao, referring to Big Sky PBR’s primary stock contractor and the reigning PBR Stock Contractor of the Year. “Every one he’s at is a great event.”
Adrenaline turned to smiles and laughter as the event
transitioned from bull riding to sheep riding just before intermission. Thirteen children competed in the night’s Mutton Bustin’ competition, an event where young riders are scored based on how long they can remain on the back of a scampering sheep.
Six-year-old Taylor McVey of Big Sky gripped his sheep for a long ride and ultimately wrestled the animal down to the ground in an impressive feat that looped several times on the arena’s big screen.
McVey, however, was healthy enough to hoist the first-place trophy – a prize taller than him – over his head for the rest of the evening in his best simulation of a world champion bull rider.
Thursday night concluded with a final, explosive shot of excitement. Barely old enough to legally enjoy a celebratory beer, 21-year-old Cooper Davis earned a shot at the Lone Pine Builders Bounty Bull thanks to his evening-high, 88.0 ride of “Ink Spot” earlier in the night.
With all eyes on the center chute gate, Davis emerged on the back of “American Gangster” to thunderous cheers from the crowd. The rider thrashed along with his bull and stayed aboard for the eight seconds necessary to win him an extra $2,000.
Buzzing from the successful Bounty Bull ride, spectators poured out of the arena and across the road to the free afterparty concert, performed by Bozeman’s Kris Clone Band. The group played a rollicking set that featured covers of artists ranging from Radiohead to Johnny Cash.
The Golden Buckle tent filled once again on July 31, and the second time around the Calcutta auction sent $17,625 to the Arts Council of Big Sky. Afterward, Julie Chapman auctioned another dry-brush painting, this time to Big Sky’s Bob Olson for $8,000, to once again benefit the Rider Relief Fund.
The riding heated up fast in round two, as the second rider of the night, River Stephenson of Blackfoot, Idaho, completed a powerhouse 89.0 ride. Only four rides later, Stetson Lawrence answered with a masterful 90.5 score. Combined with his 85.0 ride on Thursday, it would prove to be the night’s winning effort.
Yet 36 rides remained under the rising blue moon, after the would-be champion gave his first-place showing.
Nathan Schaper of Grassy Butte, N.D., was shrugged quickly late in the evening, spoiling the 24-year-old’s bid to repeat as Big Sky PBR champ.
Matt Triplett, a Montana son and the world’s second-ranked rider coming into the event, advanced to the 10-contestant championship round with one 87.0 ride under his belt.
Stock contractors save their meanest, most talented animals for the event’s championship round, and Triplett emerged from the chute to give a solid, eight-second showing on “The Kraken,” becoming the only cowboy to ride successfully in the finals. However, the judges awarded him a score of 86.5, news that was met with spirited boos from the crowd and earned Triplett third place.
Sean Willingham, of Summerville, Ga., earned the weekend’s silver medal with his combined scores in the first two rounds, but drew “Smooth Operator” – the ninth-ranked bull in the world and a contender for 2015 Bull of the Year – in the championship round.
Announcer Brandon Bates extoled the bull’s talent and prospects as the live feed on the big screen showed Willingham anxiously preparing himself on one of the meanest animals in the business. It would have been a winning ride had the Georgia native stayed on for eight seconds.
The gates opened and Willingham stayed atop “Smooth Operator” for a wild 3.7 seconds before his world-class adversary slammed him to the earth. Smooth Operator was awarded a career-best 47.0 points for the ride.
Stetson Lawrence had already won the 2015 Big Sky PBR by the time he was up for his championship ride. He failed to become the only contestant to ride three bulls when “Dead Calm” bucked him, but that couldn’t stop him from grinning wide when he accepted his winner’s check on the dirt.
The victory in Big Sky moves Lawrence to No. 10 in the world, and he’s in fine shape heading into the Built Ford Tough Series finals in Las Vegas, Nev.
“I always wanted to win it,” Stetson said of the Big Sky PBR, which he’s competed in every year. “The crowd is amazing, it’s one of the best [BlueDef Velocity Tour] events.”
Lawrence doesn’t plan to dwell on this win, however. “I’ve just got to stay healthy, [and] keep rolling down the road,” he said.
The soundtrack for Friday night’s afterparty was all Led Zeppelin, as tribute band Zoso played the opening notes of “Rock ‘n Roll” just moments after Lawrence received his winnings. Spectators and Zeppelin fans stayed out listening to classics late into the night.
“[The Big Sky PBR] is an event that both locals and visitors
can enjoy,” said Jenny Pelej, director of marketing at the Montana Office of Tourism. “This is what [Montana’s] all about: recreation during the day, and hospitality at night.”
Concertgoers flowed into a rearranged arena on Aug. 1, as local bluegrass group Two Bit Franks took the stage. The ensemble played a varied and energetic set as crowds settled down at their bleacher seats, cocktail tables, hay bales, or in the standing section in front of the stage where official venue signs commanded audience members to “bust a move.”
As the evening light dimmed, New York rock ‘n’ roll trio the Jamie McLean Band hit the growing throngs of listeners with a mix of sounds, some with soul and some with bite. At one point, the East Coast rockers engaged in a twenty-minute improvisational session that exhibited the spontaneity, confidence, and playfulness of a private garage jam.
The entire weekend ultimately generated $13,046 in funding for the Big Sky Community Food Bank. All together, the three-day event and all of its donors raised $57,809 for local nonprofits.
For the 2015 Big Sky PBR’s final act, country and bluegrass legend Robert Earl Keen walked out in front of a crowd of nearly 2,000 dressed in an all-white suit, from his hat to his shoes, save a green tie. To promote his new album, “Happy Prisoner,” Keen is touring with a seven-piece bluegrass ensemble.
Keen chatted and joked with the Big Sky crowd in his low, silky, Southern speech, and alternated between new tunes and classics.
The sky was a dark navy and the orange moon burst over the horizon when Keen played “The Road Goes on Forever,” the 1989 hit that many know him for. He took his time with the crowd favorite, offering every instrumentalist on stage a chance to showcase his skill in an extended solo.
Brian Hurlbut, the executive director of the Arts Council of Big Sky, has seen Keen perform several times, including once at a venue in Keen’s hometown of Houston, Texas.
“The energy in Big Sky was just as good as it was in Texas,” Hurlbut said after Saturday’s concert. “Everybody up front knew all the lyrics to his music.”
As glow sticks flew above bobbing heads, and shooting stars rushed down into the black silhouettes of distant peaks, Keen finished a second encore, strolled off the stage, and officially concluded one of biggest parties in Big Sky history.
But, during his final song, Keen had smiled at the hundreds dancing on the bull-trodden dirt and promised he would be back.
So, too, will the Big Sky PBR.
Reporting was contributed by Joseph T. O’Connor and Tyler Allen.