Missoula has the capacity to surprise residents of the bigger—if not necessarily better—cities in America. I’ve known dedicated urbanites who’ve been amazed at the quantity and quality of music, art and community events that this small Montana city produces.
I imagine my reaction to tiny Troy’s unexpected sophistication is somewhat similar. The town’s certainly not strange to me. Growing up in sister city and county seat Libby, I thought of Troy as our weirder, smaller, younger sibling that we usually beat in sports. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how ambitious the town could be.
Case in point: last weekend’s third annual Kootenai River Bluegrass Festival. I showed up on Saturday to sample the three-day event, check out the tunes and enjoy the weather. By the end of my stay, I was full to bursting on sun but only craved more music.
Not that the festival didn’t try its damnedest to overdose the crowd on bluegrass. A steady stream of superb musicians played from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. The line-up, a collection of both Montana and out-of-state bands, consisted of Derailed, Pinegrass, Ramblin’ Rose, Vachon Family Band, Bridger Creek Boys, Broken Valley Roadshow, Dirty Kitchen, Jackstraw and Foghorn String Band. Saturday also commenced with instrument workshops and open mic opportunities.
Despite the singular focus on bluegrass, the festival maintained solid variety throughout the day. The harmonizing duets of Ramblin’ Rose balanced out personnel-heavy acts like Vachon Family Band. Most bands played diverse sets that included everything from blazingly fast instrumentals to mournful folk ballads to jaunty square-danceable drivers. And dance the crowd did, albeit sporadically. Some even brought hula hoops.
While every band justified their place on the stage, Derailed, above, proved the biggest surprise. Comprised mostly of Missoula teenagers, the band hit the stage and nearly blew a hole in the fabric of time and space with their exuberant picking. As the first to play, they set the tone and the bar for the rest of the day.
Foghorn String Band was another personal stand-out. Following the method that made them a national name in traditional music, they bunched together around a small hive of microphones and simply let loose. I don’t know if the tightness of their cluster contributes to the tightness of their playing, but it certainly adds a charm to their stage presence. Missoula-dwelling bluegrass fans that missed their Monday show at the Top Hat made a tragic error.
If this festival’s existence is news to you, consider making the migration next year. The music is certainly worth the trip, as the Idaho and Washington plates in the parking lot this year indicate. It’s also a worthy reminder that Missoula hasn’t monopolized Montana culture after all.