In two weeks, a patch of pastureland near a small Montana town will be transformed into one of the premier music festivals in Big Sky Country, as the Red Ants Pants Music Festival kicks off in White Sulphur Springs.
This festival has become a mainstay on the festival trail in the northern Rocky Mountains in just a few short years. Sarah Calhoun, owner of the Red Ants Pants Company and founder of the event, said in early July that the success of the festival, which had its maiden run in 2011, has been somewhat of a surprise. What began as a chance idea in her head now draws well over 10,000 attendees the last weekend of July.
“As you know, from the ground up it was somewhat of a crazy idea, and definitely a risky venture for a little pants company in the middle of nowhere,” Calhoun said. “We had no idea what we were creating but I think we hit on something that people needed…really yearned for.”
The Red Ants Pants Music Festival kicks off on Thursday night, July 23, with a street dance in White Sulphur Springs. The action moves just outside of town to the Jackson Ranch festival venue on Friday, and wraps on Sunday evening.
“It’s pretty straight-up Montana,” said Calhoun, “and even the things that are challenging logistically–lightning storms, evacuations, dust, grit–all things that are very much Montana and sometimes can be a bit of a nuisance–are part of the whole experience. We’re certainly rewarded by the sunsets, sunburn, and all the rest. It just feels pretty down-home.” Calhoun said that the “down-home” feeling the festival produces definitely draws people to the event.
“And good people are the root of it all,” she said. “It’s definitely a community event where everybody [in White Sulphur Springs] pitches in and shows a little hometown pride. Everybody works really hard. It’s certainly a genuine event that speaks to this place and these people, and I think it rises up from that. Authenticity goes a long way. And I think the crowd recognizes that, and really appreciates the nature of it.”
The Red Ants Pants Music Festival was not only designed to bring people together for great music and more, but also to raise funds for the Red Ants Pants Foundation, a non-profit organization which supports women in leadership roles, working family farms and ranches, and rural communities. Proceeds from the festival fund the Foundation’s grant cycle and some of the extra activities at the festival, which center on farm and ranch life.
“The demonstration area, the traditional ag and work skills that go into the mission of what we’re doing with rural communities…it’s just fun to see it all come together, to see folks come and have a good time, and without even really knowing it be supporting a good cause,” said Calhoun.
Good people may be the root of the festival’s success, but good music is the theme. The Red Ants Pants Music Festival has gained such a reputation among entertainers that bands actually seek this event out.
“That’s the greatest compliment,” Calhoun said. “They’ve heard through other artists that it’s a good festival to play, and that we treat them well, with great hospitality and an excellent crowd. The bands that have played here all want to come back. It says a lot that they appreciate the festival as well.” Over the last four years, those acts have included country music legends like Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Charley Pride, and Guy Clark. Americana artists Robert Earl Keen and Hayes Carll have also graced the Red Ants Pants stage, as well as emerging stars like Brandi Carlile, Corb Lund, and Jason Isbell. Regional bands also entertain on a side stage between main stage acts. And the music doesn’t all have that country bent: Taj Mahal played the festival in 2012, and this year, Keb’ Mo’ will be entertaining the Red Ants Pants crowd.
“Keb’ Mo’ I’m thrilled about,” said Calhoun. “He is a gem to work with. Folks like Red Molly are coming back this year–they’re just so much fun. And Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis–I’ve seen them down in Texas a few times, and I think they are going to love this show as well. Booking bands is fun. I took that on in-house this year. It’s like a big puzzle putting it all together, to see how different acts can compliment each other. It’s fun to see it all come together on the main stage.”
Other musicians entertaining the Red Ants Pants audience this year on the main stage include the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lee Ann Womack, Ryan Bingham, the Turnpike Troubadours, Lucero, Holly Williams, and more.
“It’s such a great thing to be able to throw a big party in a cow pasture and raise money for a good cause,” said Calhoun. For more information on the Red Ants Pants Music Festival, go to redantspantsmusicfestival.com/
Photo by Pat Hill: James McMurtry at Red Ants Pants Music Festival 2014.