Prairie Lights: What did we do to deserve all this music?

Looking back at the summer of 2015, these are the things I’m most likely to remember.

There was Sheila Kay Adams, a storyteller and musician from Sodom, N.C., giving a brief history of the past 400 years as told by her Scottish grandmother, whose people have been living in the same corner of North Carolina since 1731.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

That was at the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, on Saturday, July 11. Adams was by turns hilarious and profound, and her deep backwoods accent was so beautiful that I could have listened to her reading from a dictionary.

Not quite two weeks later, on Friday, July 24, I got to watch and listen as Keb’ Mo’, one of the best living bluesmen we have, brought his unmistakable cool to the Red Ants Pants Music Festival.

We had been up front, jammed in among the people standing near the stage, but I took a break and walked all the way to the back edge of the immense festival grounds in a cow pasture outside White Sulphur Springs. There in the distance was tall, lanky Keb’ Mo’ on a huge stage with the Red Ants Pants logo for a backdrop, with the Big Belt Mountains looming to the southwest, and above us the phosphorescent arc of the Milky Way.

And then, just nine days later, on Sunday, Aug. 2, a few blocks from home, I stood in South Park with a few thousand other revelers and let myself get lost in the music of Lucinda Williams, a singer-songwriter of uncommon power who was finally making her debut, as far as I know, in Billings.

Lucinda

John Warner

When Lucinda Williams is happy, I’m happy.

The South Park show was part of the Magic City Blues festival, which in 14 years of steady, deliberate growth has become a Billings institution it is hard to imagine doing without. Also deliberate was the expansion to South Park for two of the three festival days, reminding people of that neglected gem on the South Side.

What did we do to deserve all these great festivals?

There were other multiple-day concerts, too, of course, but there is only so much time in one summer, and the festivals mentioned above were the ones that most appealed to my love of traditional, Americana, folk and world music.

There is nothing wrong with straight-on country music or even has-been, head-banger rock, both of which genres seem to attract good crowds, but your Last Best News correspondent thinks he has the right, under the First Amendment to the Constitution, to state his preferences.

In that spirit, allow me to say a few more things about those festivals.

The Montana Folk Festival has been around since 2008, though for the first three years of its life it was the National Folk Festival, mostly organized by the National Council for the Traditional Arts. Since then it has been run by a group of volunteers that, even for Butte, has done an impressive job.

I have written about the Montana Folk Festival already, in advance of last year’s festival and then during the thing, but every time I get around people who have not yet been there, I swing into what can only be called an evangelical mode. About other festivals, I might say that you’d really enjoy it, that you would really have a great time.

But the Montana Folk Festival? It’s like compressing three or four weeks of international travel into a single weekend. It brings together so many kinds of music, unknown to most everybody in attendance, all played by people who are the best in their genre.

Most of the musicians come from somewhere else but now live and perform in the United States, and every year the lineup has plenty of homegrown performers too, like the storyteller described above.

Martha

Anna Paige

Martha Spencer of the Whitetop Mountaineers, performing at the Montana Folk Festival, sang like an angel.

I don’t know how else to say this: Just go. It’s always the second weekend in July in Butte and the whole thing—dozens of solo performers, bands and troupes playing on seven or eight stages in the intoxicating environs of Uptown Butte—is free.

I’ve also written about the Red Ants Pants Music Festival, which celebrated its fifth birthday this summer, but I had never attended until this year. It wasn’t that there weren’t plenty of good acts in the past, but Red Ants is always squeezed in between the Montana Folk Festival and Magic City Blues, and too much fun can be a problem.

But this year we just had to go, having heard so many good things about the festival, and because we have loved Keb’ Mo’ for years but had somehow never seen him live. The verdict: One night was great, but it was probably not enough.

The friends whose encampment we joined were there for the whole shebang—Thursday through Sunday—so I felt like a lightweight just parachuting in for the Friday-night show. But after driving to White Sulphur Springs, listening to music for six or seven hours and then wandering the sprawling campground until nearly 4 a.m., dropping in on a variety of impromptu jams, I felt I had paid my dues.

Behind

John Warner

These two were dancing behind the stage during Buddy Guy’s Magic City Blues performance.

And it’s for a good cause. The festival was founded to raise money for the Red Ants Pants Foundation, which supports women in agriculture, female entrepreneurs and related causes. So be a hero and have fun.

Magic City Blues has always paid it forward, too, giving money to schools and music-education programs, among other beneficiaries. But mostly it’s just a big old good time, and a logistical colossus that founder Tim Goodridge seems to make more challenging every year, just to keep his head in the game.

Challenging for the organizers, that is. For the rest of us, it’s a painless experience. And like the Montana Folk Festival, there are always bands you’ve never heard that leave you feeling privileged to have caught on the way up. Or you can enjoy the seasoned professionalism of musicians like this year’s headliners: blues legend Buddy Guy, swamp king John Fogerty and Americana queen Lucinda Williams.

I have just hit 1,000 words, so I’ll let photographers Anna Paige (Red Ants and Montana Folk Festival) and John Warner (Magic City Blues) tell the rest of the story. And you can go here to see more of Anna’s great work, and here to see more of John’s.

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