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Finger picking good

Kootenai River Bluegrass fills the void



The Missoula Coyote Choir, with drummer Allison Miller, gets their biomimicry on during a recent rehearsal. “Kids move, they just totally move, and there were some great moments when I’d be teaching them a new song, and they’d just instantly start to jam out,” says Amy Martin, with guitar at left.
Photo courtesy of Bryony Schwan
In the absence of Hamilton’s long-running Bitterroot Valley Bluegrass Festival, dormant for the first time in 18 years, the inaugural Kootenai River Bluegrass Festival becomes the one chance for regional pickers and harmonizers to gather together in western Montana this summer.

The festival takes place alongside the Kootenai River in Troy’s Roosevelt Park, and features some of the most significant bluegrass acts from both the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies regions. The fact that this first-time event will help fill a major void in the summer music scene is mostly coincidental. But organizers were looking for something that would bring the community together, and figured this type of music festival fit the bill.

“In Troy, Montana, bluegrass brings out the widest variety of people,” says Ralph Stever, director of the Troy Fine Arts Council. “We’ve noticed that folk music and blues bring out certain groups, but that bluegrass somehow breaks down the barriers of religion, politics—of everything, really. Bluegrass provides the most common ground.”

Stever admits that although he likes bluegrass, he doesn’t listen to the genre that often. So he did what many arts-minded western Montanans do—he looked even farther west for inspiration, namely to major winter festivals in the Seattle and Portland areas.

“I got a hold of Wintergass [in Tacoma] and River City [in Portland] Festival programs,” he says. “Then followed my instincts.”

Those instincts led him to a diverse list of performers including Lyons, Colo.-based all-star band The Billy Pilgrims, whose lineup boasts former members of recent heavy-hitting bluegrass bands Open Road and Hit & Run Bluegrass.

“We’ve received many calls from folks excited about the Open Road connection,” Stever says, “but we also have Bryan Bowers, a man who’s been on the music circuit for 45 years and is the only living person in the Autoharp Hall of Fame.”

Also booked at the festival is Portland, Ore.’s songwriting and instrumental powerhouse, Jackstraw. The band rarely leaves the Pacific Northwest to gig in Montana, but Stever came across their tour lineup. “I saw that they were playing in Babb and then in northern Idaho,” he says, “and thought, ‘They have to drive right through here on their way.’ And we got them.”

Washington bands Prairie Flyer and Big Red Barn will also play multiple sets. And The Panhandle Polecats—a five-piece band comprising siblings from the rather large Little family—will come from Rathdrum, Idaho. There are just two Montana acts on the lineup: Lincoln County’s own Sheldon Mountain Boys and Bitterroot stalwarts Mike and Tari Conroy.

Financing the festival was a collaborative effort. A small portion of the Kootenai River Bluegrass budget came from pre-sale tickets, but a $10,000 “Travel Montana” grant from the Department of Commerce provided the majority of funding. The Troy community then responded by matching the grant with $6,000 of its own to help get the clusterpluck on its feet.

The festival’s arrival couldn’t come at a better time for local bluegrass fans. So far, no one has stepped in to coordinate the traditional Hamilton event after its organizer, Perry Vose, passed away last winter. And even when that event was thriving, some found its rules a little unkind. Last year, for instance, a large wooden sign that read “No Dancing” greeted audience members.

Hobbyist bass and guitar picker Ben Essary from Stevensville attended the Bitterroot Festival every year since he moved to Montana in 2001. He sums up the void that the Bitterroot Festival has left behind saying, “A festival is more than just the music—it is an opportunity to reflect on other things. Any loss of that opportunity is a sad loss.”

Essary will try out the Kootenai River event this weekend, noting the biggest draw for him is that it’s “not like the big festivals. I’ll get to listen to groups like Prairie Flyer who I know and admire, and then have the opportunity to jam with them later on.”

As for Stever, he looks forward to folks coming to check out an area, Troy, that often goes unappreciated in western Montana .

“This place is more of a feeling than anything else,” he says. “We’re at the lowest elevation in Montana here—1,800 feet. We have at least one of every tree in the state. Troy is sort of funky, like Bigfork was 30 years ago. The more people we get to show up will assist our shift from being a working forest to becoming a looking forest.”

And the dancing?

“Music moves all people in one way or another,” Stever says. “In reality, this festival is for dancing.”

The Kootenai River Bluegrass Festival runs Friday, July 18, through Sunday, July 20, at Roosevelt Park in Troy. Three-day passes are $20/$45 family and $15 teens. One-day passes for Friday and Sunday are $10, and $15 for Saturday

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