Billy Failing, banjo player for Billy Strings. PHOTO BY DAVID MADISON

Behind the scenes at Bluegrass Fest

Tucked behind a black curtain in the Lake and Canyon rooms of the Yellowstone Conference Center, guitarist Vince Herman relaxed after a soundcheck with his bandmates in Leftover Salmon and talked about the state bluegrass in America. 

“I think the music is in good hands,” said Herman. “But venues and the music infrastructure of America is challenged. There aren’t as many clubs. More and more people are just going to DJs. I think live music culture is challenged, but I think bluegrass is doing alright.”

Leftover Salmon kicked off the recent Big Sky Big Grass Festival, playing to a reportedly rowdy crowd at Montana Jack. Herman recalled the scene, describing one fan as being, “In variable stages of dress, who saw to it to react in a very physical way to the music we were playing, writhing in the middle of the circle.”

The fan base’s willingness to submit to the music hasn’t changed since the band came together in 1989, but it’s gotten more difficult to sell records and make a living in music. Adjusting to the changing economic ecosystem, Leftover Salmon is partnering with Winterstick Snowboards, EcoVesse, Osprey packs and Meier Skis to “cobrand” outdoor gear aimed at the band’s core audience: mountain town people who like to get after it on the trails, slopes and the dance floor.  

Before the Saturday night show with Billy Strings, banjoist Andy Thorn skied the North Summit Snowfield and guitarist Drew Emmitt found fresh tracks riding the Shedhorn Lift. 

“The trees were incredible,” said Emmit. “We did three runs over there and then we went over to Challenger and it was really nice.”

Big days on the hill are often followed by cold beers, and in the past, the band has partnered with Breckenridge Beer to market new music. In one promotion, anyone who bought a six-pack got a download code for fresh Leftover tunes. 

And anyone strolling through the Huntley Lodge during the festival might have encountered impromptu performances by members of Leftover Salmon and other acts playing up at the resort. 

“One of the best things about this festival is they let you jam in the hotel lobbies, and they let all the friends and fans hang out,” said Thorne, who grew up in North Carolina attending America’s mega bluegrass event: MerleFest. 

The band members sized up Big Sky Big Grass as a great mid-sized festival where musical collaborations extend from hotel lobbies to the stage.

“This guy we’re playing with tonight, Billy Strings, he’s the future of bluegrass,” said Herman. “He’s influenced as much by Pantera as Bill Monroe. He brings that metal energy
to bluegrass. Kids are eating it up.”

Across the hall in the Missouri Ballroom, Billy Strings and his band were going through a sound and lighting check. A guy at the soundboard called out: “Mando… banjo… guitar…” while dialing in each feed so during the show every instrument blended into a clean stream of music. 

Next to the soundboard, lighting designers Frank Douglas and Rachid Schultz with Jereco Studios in Bozeman tweaked the look and feel of the lights surrounding the stage. 

Douglas, who used to tour with Bozeman’s Cure for the Common, was shadowing Schultz.

“I’m more of an apprentice this weekend,” said Douglas. “Rachid has been the long-time lighting designer. And I’m just starting to takeover.” 

Schultz now lives in Seattle, but came to Big Sky to run the lighting and train Douglas on some new gear.

“The new thing this year is we have a new moving light, which is a lot brighter than the ones we’ve had in the past,” said Schultz. “Basically, it allows us to create these giant, moving shapes through the haze that we have. Last night, one of the shapes was a cone. So if you look straight at it, you don’t get blinded by the light, but it’s just this ring color that’s zooming in and out. So that’s one of the new toys we get to play with at this festival.”

Just like the musicians on stage, Schultz said he’s playing along, trying to create a look that matches the sound moment to moment. 

“It’s all about listening to the beat and you are improvising with the band at all times,” said Schultz. “You’re trying to give some energy to the crowd.”

Soon Billy Strings finished the sound check and then, the plan was to pump in some mist as if it had just rolled off the Appalachian Mountains and into the eyes and ears of Big Sky bluegrass fans. 

 

—DM

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