Thirty-three years and 49 weeks ago, Swami Satchedananda gave the invocation that opened the Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, N.Y. It started to rain and organizers were unprepared for the half-million hippies who crashed the gate, lived in the mud for three days and listened to Arlo Guthrie, Santana, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker and many more.
The closing act was Jimi Hendrix, who changed the name of his band three times during the performance. Many of the groups went on the become household names.
Last weekend Montana had its “Redneck Woodstock” when the Red Ants Pants Co. of White Sulphur Springs hosted its third annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival. Unlike Woodstock, it was well planned and executed. Like Woodstock, it was populated by music lovers just coming together for a good time and a celebration of music.
Yes, a few hippies in sandals and dreads represented Missoula, but it was mainly footwear by ACME and hats by Stetson for the guys and shorts, halter tops, cowboy boots and unlikely cowboy hats for the younger set with XX chromosome composition.
It was nothing like the cowboy and hippie wars at the University of Montana (circa 1968), in which impromptu haircuts were given, everybody was greeted with a nod, and if personal space was violated an “excuse me” with a smile was offered and accepted. And, officially, there were zero incidents involving law enforcement.
The three-day show was blessed by cloud cover as a tent city steadily grew out of the gopher populated, cow-patty laden, rock-strewn prairie. Half-million dollar motor coaches were interspersed with pull trailers, tents and sleeping bags on the ground.
Many pulled their campers into circles like wagon trains to form a wind-proof common area, and everyone partied like old friends. Impromptu Frisbee games broke out. Participation ebbed and flowed as schedules allowed. Bean bag games abounded. To say this was the largest tailgate event of the season might be an understatement.
The campgrounds were divided between Families/Fogeys and General, which was better known as the “Party Section.” Regardless of section, walking down the rows of campers brought a constant serenade by guitar pickin’ ballad singers sharing their music with the world.
The festival may be credited to the Red Ants Pants Co. (makers of form-fitting female work clothes and housed in White Sulphur Springs), but it seemed the entire town of White Sulphur Springs (population 950) was wearing “volunteer” shirts and making it work as they directed traffic, managed crowds, picked up trash, hauled water and did everything that needed to be done to serve a three-day-old town of 10,000.
The Meagher County Cattle Women put on the breakfasts. A plate overflowing with scrambled eggs and pancakes was $4. That included a centerpiece of fresh picked wild daisies.
Portable showers were $5; change was made from a Folger’s can. Wash stations were free. Though there were 10,500 (up from 8,900 the year before) attendees, there were no politicians to be found, which was cause enough to celebrate.
Each morning started with an offering of Yoga on the Prairie as Yogi Hfledderjohn of Indianapolis, Ind., led limber devotees in welcoming the morning sun from mats strewn on rock and cactus. With a thousand acres to use for yoga, the Yogi wound up on the wrong side of the fence and was notified she was trespassing. That night the rancher put a gate in so the lessons could easily be held in the same location.
Unlike Woodstock, during intermission lessons in horsemanship, beef slaughtering, and cheese making were offered. Also a cross-cut saw competition for men, women and mixed teams was held with winners getting passes to next year’s music festival and runner-ups getting Red Ants Pants T-shirts.
Ann Rickbell and Jess Carrol, employees of Red Lodge Mountain, won their third title in cross cut. The state finals for competitive moustache and beard growing were held on the grounds as well. I have no idea where the semifinals were held.
If watching women saw, horses cut, beef get sliced and cheese churn was not your first choice, the “Side Stage” featured music acts that were not ready for prime time but very talented. They were competing for the chance to appear on the Main Stage next year.
The crowd voted with a red coupon they received upon entry. My personal pick was Seventeen Mile, a two-man group whose eldest member was, literally, a one-armed guitar picker.
The act was not that he was a one-armed guitar picker but rather that he was a great guitar picker with a full and rich voice coming from behind his chalk-white beard.
Also worthy of note was 17-year-old Mariah Page of Townsend. This crooning country cutie has written 30 songs and is putting together her first CD. When she sings she sounds like Miranda Lambert, or Dolly Parton or Carrie Underwood. But soon she will have her own style and hopefuls will be mimicking her.
On the main stage, not every act was not my favorite (I still listen to the Kingston Trio and figure Johnny Horton will make a comeback) but every act kept the crowd dancing, cheering and staying till the lights went out.
The best talent on the Friday lineup, in my humble opinion, was Korb Lund of Alberta, Canada. Not only were his band, voice and showmanship above the cut, his choice of songs appealed to every spectrum gathered there.
How can you miss with songs about Canadian saddleback whiskey smugglers during Prohibition being a social service? Or lyrics like “I want to be in the cavalry if they ship me off to war” or a song about a man constantly being reincarnated as a soldier who must always go off to a new war and sings “Now I’m in the Special Forces riding Afghan skittish horses.” All of his CDs sold out.
Robert Earl Keen, was the headliner on Saturday night. Singing his hits “The Road Goes on Forever but the Party Never Ends” and “Merry Christmas from the Family” and telling stories about hanging with Arlo Guthrie back in the day (“But we didn’t write no songs together, dang it”) Robert Earl Keen was a crowd pleaser. Montana was blessed to have him.
The big draw was Merle Haggard. New arrivals swelled the ranks starting at 11 a.m. Sunday and continuing until he started at 4:30 p.m. Basically they paid the $100 gate fee (per person) just to hear Merle and go home.
I shared a shady spot with Vickie, a retired teacher from Helena. Vickie was a dedicated “Hag” (a country-western version of a “Dead Head”) and had been to 37 Merle Haggard concerts. She was patiently waiting for number 38 with recently purchased Merle memorabilia stacked up beside her.
I lamented to Vickie that I was not able to interview Merle. She said that he rarely gives interviews and recently most of his performances have been instrumentals with just a few songs and that he rarely interacts with the press or the audience.
I’m sure that’s true as Merle beat lung cancer in 2009 by having a large portion of lung removed. But he must have been feeling his oats because he sang his heart out to a very appreciative crowd and only played one instrumental.
As Merle sang, the crowd mouthed the words “Turn me loose set me free, Somewhere in the middle of Montana,” “Silver wings, shining in the sunlight, Roaring engines, taking her away.” At the end of that one, I tipped my hat to Merle and he gave me a strum, two honky-tonkers acknowledging that we store our pain in our music; we do not carry such in our hearts.
Lyrics also included, “I was born the running kind,” “The night the bottle let me down,” “Rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell” and “If you got the money, Honey, I got the time.”
Every Vietnam vet in attendance had his fist in the air while singing “When you’re running down our county, man, you’re walking on the fighting side of me.” Many silently mouthing the words were not born when the songs were already “classics,” but his songs of life’s bruises and core values have proven timeless.
Merle asked if there were any ex-convicts in attendance. More than a few hands went up. Merle thanked them for their honesty then sang “Sing Me Back Home.” I saw two who had raised their hands stand unashamed as tears streaked the dust on their faces.
By the time “Okie From Muskogee” ended the show, I was the only one in the media strip next to the stage. The others were mainly paparazzi and had rushed off to sell their pics and notes. With a huge smile on his face etched by life, Merle took off his sunglasses, tipped his hat to the crowd, exposing chalk-white hair and escorted his wife of 20 years to their waiting bus.
Why did New York get Swami Satchedananda and Montana get Merle Haggard? Montana drew the long straw.