Next weekend at Red Ants Pants in White Sulphur Springs, Montana’s high plains will be awash with live music. This year, at Crazy Mountain Music in Melville, the music got a head start.
On Friday, July 22, the inaugural show at the new outdoor music venue featured Travis Linville, Curtis Grimes and Hayes Carll. It brought nationally known, Grammy-nominated artists to a former cow pasture in tiny Melville.
To call Melville a town feels like an overstatement. It’s a little speck of a place on Highway 191, about equidistant from Harlowton to the north and Big Timber to the south. Exceed the speed limit and you might miss it.
What Melville lacks in size it makes up for in views. It’s right next to the Crazy Mountains, where the prairies suddenly turn to rocks that jut upwards about 6,000 feet above the valley below.
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The town’s most notable landmark, other than its oft-photographed Lutheran church and modest post office, is Café 191, a small eatery.
The Crazy Mountain Music venue is the field behind the café. On Saturday, it featured a stage built out of a semi-trailer. And it is truly in a pasture, complete with a dirt road separating standing room from the area for chairs. There were cattle in an adjacent lot, maybe they could hear the music if the wind broke right.
Bonita Cremer, who owns the café, the venue and the surrounding pastures, explained that the land has been used for a few different things in the past.
“We would get a little bit of hay crop off of it, but it was always a real troublesome spot to work with,” she said. “It’s just a real gravel bar under there so it’s not easy to irrigate, or very productive.”
You know what it is productive for? Music. In just one night, Crazy Mountain Music announced itself as a prominent force on Montana’s music scene.
Travis Linville’s opening set was subdued and pretty, highlighted by a song he recently wrote with Natalie Hemby of the Highwomen.
The quiet nature of Linville’s singing gave attendees a good opportunity to mill around and check out the surroundings. A VIP area offered covered seating and snacks. Bill’s Place Catering, who used to occupy the Café 191 building and now works out of a food truck, provided barbeque in the form of pulled pork and brisket tacos, and the local Future Farmers of America group sold kettle cooked French fries, $5 for a heaping plate of them.
Curtis Grimes followed Linville. It was a safe country set, plenty of covers sprinkled in. “We want to give you something to sing along to,” Grimes said, before going into a Johnny Cash medley that eventually turned into a version of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”
“This song is about a guy from the Bible named Noah,” Grimes said while ramping up into another number. “This is a true story, ya’ll” he interjected after the chorus.
Cowboy isn’t a fashion statement around here as much as it’s a way of life. After all, we were listening to the music on an active ranch. One audience member had on a team roping championship belt buckle, and from the looks of him, it probably wasn’t bought in a pawn shop.
Grimes was a big hit. People started swing dancing and didn’t stop. One dancer took off her rings and put them in her pocket beforehand, lest things get too vigorous out there.
Grimes is the type of act you might expect to find in nowheresville, Montana. Hayes Carll is not.
If country music has a set of rules, Carll does not follow them. His approach to this is a lot closer to John Prine’s, funny and observant with a lethal cynical streak. He writes about religion like Jerry Lee Lewis used to, constantly walking and occasionally dancing on the knife’s edge between the sacred and the profane.
Early on in his set he played “Nice Things,” a searing indictment about god coming “down to earth to see what she created.” Hayes’ god is repulsed by our world. She goes fishing and catches an oil barrel, gets arrested for smoking pot and winds up getting spit on by protesters who deride her as a freeloader.
“This is why your whole world is on fire,” Carll sang, his words made all the more poignant by the haze that obscured the horizon beyond the stage. It wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy look at American religion. But the whole thing is styled like a barroom anthem, and everyone sang along with the booming chorus anyway.
That’s what kind of an artist Carll is. His songs are so organic they sound like they’re being breathed, not sung. At one point he played a new song and you’d have sworn you’d heard it before.
Carll’s inbuilt skepticism can be difficult for some, but he’s found plenty of success without ever compromising. He’s been nominated for a Grammy and has a rabid cult following. He’s also had some songs featured in TV and movies.
“How do ya’ll feel about that ‘Yellowstone’ show?” he asked from the stage.
A big roar went up in the crowd. There were some boos. One man yelled “It’s bullshit!” and the people around him chimed in agreement.
Carll took a step back. “Mixed,” he said, shrugging. “I was wondering how that was going down out here. That’s informative.” He then launched into a song featured in “Yellowstone,” but he didn’t mention the connection.
The biggest crowd reaction was for “KMAG YOYO.” The song, which is military slang for “Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own,” is a whiplash inducing tale about the real cost of war, a relentlessly funny dirge about a teenager who goes to fight in the Middle East, gets into the drug trade and winds up being blown up half the world away from home, sort of like “Sam Stone” if it were played as a farce.
But the thing moves, grooving like electric-era Bob Dylan after too much coffee. When he played it in Melville, it got a huge cheer. The dance floor opened and people in a small western town boogied to an anti-imperialist boot stomper.
The music was altogether excellent, but the sky above was as much a part of the show as anything. It was windy and threatened rain, making the VIP tent look like a nice option. But that storm never came, it merely transformed the sky into a light show, technicolor pinks and purples illuminating the cottony clouds. Beneath them stretched Montana in miniature. There were the dominant Crazies, but the Absarokas were visible as well, with miles and miles of untouched plains stretching towards the peaks.
That view inspired the whole venue, Cremer explained. After realizing the land wasn’t good for growing anything, she said “we just quit looking down at the ground and looked up a little bit to see what we’ve got there to offer, with the wide open space and that beautiful uninterrupted view towards the Crazies at sunset. That’s the experience.”
She’s right. And the gamble of turning it into a space for music worked. Around 400 people came out to see the show on Friday.
There’s a future there, too. Cremer said she’s working with VI Productions, the Big Timber based company run by Leif Oiestad that usually books the Old Saloon in Emigrant. The team is looking forward to booking more shows at Crazy Mountain Music.
Cremer mentioned Sarah Calhoun at Red Ants Pants as a big inspiration. That festival is an example of how “you can take an empty field and do something pretty incredible with it,” Cremer said.
Crazy Mountain Music probably won’t ever see big, multi-day events. But Cremer would like to turn it into “a bit more of an event venue, where we would do outdoor, real top notch live music concerts.”
They’ve got one top notch concert under their belt.
“I’ve played a lot of stages over the last 20 years,” Carll said at one point, “but it’s hard to beat this view.”
“And I’m talking about y’all,” he added, beaming into the crowd. “Not all my gigs are as cool as this one.”