With the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana in the distance and a BNSF freight train rolling down the tracks nearby, Luke Grimes, the Yellowstone actor and emerging singer-songwriter, gazed across a sea of faces during his Friday evening performance at the Under the Big Sky festival.

“This is, by far, the biggest crowd I’ve ever played to — holy shit,” Grimes marveled at the crowd, estimated around 20,000 in attendance.

At this year’s installment of Under the Big Sky, the three-day gathering showcased arena acts (Zach Bryan, CAAMP, Hank Williams Jr.), marquee names (Charley Crockett, Elle King, Whiskey Myers), rising stars (Nikki Lane, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, 49 Winchester), and up-and-comers (Red Clay Strays, Hogslop String Band, the Local Honeys). And that majestic scenery too.

“Growing up in Ohio, I hunted and fished. We were a very outdoorsy family and I’ve always been pretty nature-driven,” Grimes tells Rolling Stone backstage. “With this festival, particularly, it meant a lot because my wife and I live in Montana. This is the ultimate outdoorsy place.”

Based in the outpost mountain town of Whitefish, Montana (pop: 8,492), within an hour’s drive of the Canadian Border and the province of British Columbia, UTBS is located on a 400-acre working ranch owned by Under the Big Sky Festival founder and promoter Johnny Shockey, a native of Alberta, Canada, with a lifelong background in ranching.

“I’ve been coming to [Whitefish] since I was a kid — this is home to some of the best memories I’ve ever had,” Shockey says. “You have the beauty of Glacier National Park, beautiful lakes and mountains in every direction. When people come to experience the festival, they also get to experience all of the other things Montana has to offer. It’s the ultimate expression of freedom.”

A night earlier, Gabriel Kelley is perched on a fire escape in a back alley in downtown Whitefish. Hailing from Athens, Georgia, the singer-songwriter is readying himself and his group, Nashville-based Hogslop String Band, to take the stage next door at the Remington Bar. The indie-folk outfit kicked off UTBS with a sold-out gig at the century-old watering hole.

Hitting the stage at the Remington, Hogslop pour through a sweaty set of searing originals and a handful of covers paying homage to the Allman Brothers and John Prine, the latter being a long-time mentor to Kelley. During a rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie,” a singalong occurs between the rowdy crowd and the mischievous band: “One way or another, this darkness got to give.”

“There’s a lot of weird walls that get made about bluegrass, old-time, rock & roll, country, singer-songwriter, Americana or whatever,” Kelley says. “We just don’t give a shit about any of that. We love great music. We love honest music. We love people who are playing and singing their hearts out.”

That sentiment of attitude and authenticity over polished and packaged is what lies at the heart of UTBS — it’s untamed music in an equally untamed landscape. By presenting acts like Colter Wall, Charley Crockett, and Molly Tuttle, the fest is dialed into the latest wave of real-deal singer-songwriters who don’t want to be pigeon-holed.

Fans at Under the Big Sky Festival, held on a working ranch in Whitefish, Montana.

Felicia Garcia*

“There’s definitely a ‘fuck you’ attitude in the type of music we’re presenting,” Shockey says. “It’s not some Nashville songwriter trying to produce and package a song. What you see here is heartfelt and emotional, probably very vulnerable, too. And I think that’s what keeps it real.”

For Tuttle and her band Golden Highway, allowing the music to go where it wants to naturally has helped the California native — a guitar virtuoso with a songbird voice and elusive tone — become a Grammy-winning new star.

“It definitely helped me reach a new audience,” Tuttle says of her Grammy win for the bluegrass album Crooked Tree. “I feel like we go out and play shows [now], and we feel visceral excitement from the audience.”

On the heels of her UTBS appearance, Tuttle will be releasing her latest album, City of Gold, this week, a record that includes a duet with Dave Matthews. “He’s a big fan of bluegrass and we’re big fans of him,” she says. “We just want to collaborate with whoever we really love.”

Beyond the music itself, every detail presented on the UTBS grounds is meant to pull the concertgoer out of whatever mindset they arrived in and immerse them in the cultural waters of the Treasure State. Between set changes next to the fest’s Big Mountain Stage, the C5 Rodeo crew held bull and bronc riding competitions in a ring constructed for the festival. Twice throughout the weekend, they released dozens of bucking horses into the vast hayfield behind the stage, a stunning spectacle and metaphor of wild horses roaming free.

“This is a festival that grows up out of nowhere in a field, next to a train, underneath this skyline — that’s what Montana represents,” says Lane, who did double-duty as both a performer and merchant at UTBS. Lane captivated the Great Northern Stage with her blend of outlaw country and also sold vintage Western wear and trinkets at her High Class Hillbilly booth, a traveling offshoot of her Nashville shop. “I look at my store as a lifestyle because I like to represent all the characters that I know and love,” she says.

Characters are a big part of the songwriting of Shane Smith & the Saints, an Austin band who brought a mix of country roots and hard rock to UTBS. The band also played a sold-out after-party Saturday night at the Great Northern Bar & Grill on Central Avenue in the heart of Whitefish. “I love the energy aspect of it and I love the live aspect of it,” Smith says.

Shows at the Great Northern and the Remington in Whitefish, and the Coop one town over in Columbia Falls, have become a way for UTBS to present acts like Tuttle, Marcus King, and the Virginia breakout band 49 Winchester in intimate settings.

“For a bunch of hillbilly kids, this is a dream come true,” says 49 Winchester lead singer and guitarist Isaac Gibson. “We’re three-quarters across the country and there are people out in the audience singing our songs tonight.”

49 Winchester perform at Under the Big Sky.

Felicia Garcia*

It’s way past the midnight hour. Hundreds of patrons are meandering in and out of the bars lining Central Avenue. Rebel yells and hearty laughter echoes up and down the streets and into the ancient peaks cradling the town. And there’s music out front too: Parked near the Remington every night, folk-duo Summoning Circle play to passersby, hoping for dollar bills tossed into their guitar case.

“We were in Sandpoint, Idaho, when we heard about this festival. So we rented a box truck and headed this way,” says Jack Kelly, a wandering troubadour from Belfast, Ireland, who performs with Summoning Circle. “Busking for us is a way of life. It’s how we’re able to travel and have adventures, to meet people, work on our music and the way we perform.”

It worked for Charley Crockett. Now a star with one of the biggest crowd reactions at UTBS, Crockett got his start busking on street corners. “I remember the first time I made seven dollars and how big of a difference that was. It meant I wasn’t going to steal from the grocery store,” Crockett says. “I believe the only reason my heart’s still beating is because the creator recognized that I dedicated myself to music.”


Under the Big Sky seeks to do the same and, in the process, set the bar for what a music festival could be.

“It’s a lot of pressure, because we live in a small community and there are a lot of eyes on us,” Shockey says. “But, when you’re under the gun, you’re going to do it right. It’s all about making this a memorable Montana experience.”

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