• Sunset near Wolf Point. Photo by Laura Treese

    Dreaming of the day I return home

    Submitted by Barbara Merriman

    I had no choice but to leave Montana to attend medical school in the summer of 2009. It was so stressful to be away from such a beautiful place, for four years of grueling studies taking 28 credits per semester… but I have stayed in touch with my friends in Montana and subscribed to Montana Magazine as a reward.

    Now, I am two years into my residency training in Pennsylvania, and dreaming of the day in two more years when I can return to the state I love once again.

    For now, I dream of Montana’s sunny skies, white-capped mountains, clear, dry air, healthy residents, outdoor recreation, and perfect climate, until I can return for the last time and finally be home.

  • Newton Old Crow. Photo by Erika Haight

    Beautiful Connection: An intimate glimpse of the Crow Nation

    Photography of Erika Haight

    Erika Haight is often asked why she makes her photographs – including a sweeping set of portraits of people from Montana’s Crow Nation – in black and white.

    In a world full of Instagram filtered and digitally altered images exploding with colors, Haight’s answer is simple.

    “You actually are forced to see the person,” she said.

    The Montana native and Roundup resident has long photographed Western life around Montana, taking her stay-at-home mom hobby to the professional level when her work began being published in publications like Cowboys and Indians Magazine.

    “Being a stay-at-home mom kind of gave me the liberty to go out and do other things. I got stuck on photography and bloomed from there,” she said.

    Haight’s set of black and white photographs from the Crow Nation, currently on display at the Western Heritage Center, was created after Haight forged a special bond with the Real Bird family of the Crow Nation.

    Photo by Erika Haight

    Photo by Erika Haight

    Haight’s “Apsaalooke Beauty” exhibit will be on display at the Western Heritage Center through Sept. 12.

    Apsaalooke Beauty exhibit

    “Apsaalooke Beauty,” a fine art photography exhibit by Erika Haight honoring the people of the Crow Nation will be on display at the Western Heritage Center in Billings through Sept. 12. An artist reception will be held at the museum on Aug. 7, from 5:30-8:30 p.m.

    The Western Heritage Center is located at 2822 Montana Avenue in Billings. For more information, visit ywhc.org.

    To view the entire Beautiful Connection Portfolio, subscribe today

    • Donaldson_20130625_5514

      Catfish fingers with lemon tarragon sauce are often served at the Kestrel Prairie Camp. Photo by Lynn Donaldson

    • Donaldson_20130625_5796

      Bison short ribs Provencal with creamy polenta and French green beans. Photo by Lynn Donaldson

    • Donaldson_20130625_5866

      Chefs serving food at the Kestrel Prairie camp have to haul food down miles of dirt roads. Photo by Lynn Donaldson

    • Donaldson_20130625_5919

      The Kestrel Prairie Camp, including yurt housing, is on the American Prairie Reserve in north central Montana. Photo by Lynn Donaldson

    • Mustang Catering -- American Prairie Reserve June 2013

      Guests are served gourmet dinners at the Kestrel Prairie Camp. Photo by Lynn Donaldson

    • Mustang Catering -- American Prairie Reserve June 2013

      Campfires and s'mores are often included in Kestrel Prairie Camp dinners. Photo by Lynn Donaldson

    The Last Best Plates explores the Kestrel Prairie Camp

    This is the fourth piece in a six-part The Last Best Plates series about food and eating in Montana featuring the photography of Lynn Donaldson and the writing of Corinne Garcia. For more information, visit thelastbestplates.com.

    By Corinne Garcia

    Photos by Lynn Donaldson

    Encompassing a large stretch of land with few people residing on it, Montana is arguably best known for its high mountain peaks and glacial lakes in Glacier National Park, and its neon colored, steam-gushing geothermic wonders in Yellowstone.

    Another astonishing viewshed is the Great Plains of eastern Montana, a prairie landscape that stretches for miles upon miles.

    This is the setting of a Montana dining adventure like no other, and the venue is a yurt camp on what’s known as the Kestrel Prairie, sometimes called the “American Serengeti.”

    The land is owned by the American Prairie Reserve, or APR.

    The organization hopes to create the largest wildlife reserve in the continental United States by linking more than three million acres of private and public land on north central Montana’s legendary Great Plains.

    Its mission is to preserve and rehabilitate the land to an oasis for a unique natural habitat that includes wildlife and native grasses and plants.

    “We’re building the next great national park with a twist,” said Hilary Parker, APR communications manager. “It will be privately owned for public benefit.”

    If it were a success, the reserve would be larger than Yellowstone National Park and equivalent to the size of the state of Connecticut.

    Now in the development stages, APR hosts fundraising and volunteer stays at the Kestrel Prairie Camp.

    Many have featured meals catered by Livingston chef Carole Sullivan of Mustang Catering. Here, people from all over the world convene to celebrate the wild landscape and its potential revival.

    For a signature outdoor feast that is typically held on the final evening of a stay, guests dine on dishes that are representative of the West, such as a salad of local greens and braised bison short ribs served Provençal style, with kalamata olives and fresh herbs.

    • Scroll down to view the recipe for bison short ribs Provencal

    Other dishes capture good old Americana flavors, such as a southern dish of fried catfish fingers with a lemon tarragon sauce.

    Sullivan finishes the meal with a lemon goat cheesecake, made with organic goat cheese from the Bozeman based Amaltheia Dairy.

    Getting the food there and preparing it is no simple task.

    “Many times, I’ve had to pack food for five days worth of meals for up to 12 people,” Sullivan said.

    She has been catering events at the camp since before electricity was hooked up, and travels with food in tow down miles of dirt roads to reach the Kestrel.

    But the travels there are well worth it for the views.

    “It’s at one moment both exhilarating and peaceful, which is a rare combination,” Parker said.

    The final dinner typically involves flavor combination that coincides nicely with the landscape, a special treat after a long day of tearing down fences and moving rocks.

    And after a campfire – with s’mores included – guests can fall into bed in nearby yurts, drifting off to the sounds of the grasslands blowing in the cool summer breeze.

    Corinne Garcia and Lynn Donaldson are frequent contributors to Montana Magazine. Garcia writes from Bozeman. Donaldson is based in Livingston.

    Recipe: Bison Short Ribs Provençal 


    5 to 6 pounds bison short ribs

    2 tablespoons olive oil

    1 ½ cups red wine

    2 cups beef broth

    ½ cup yellow onions, diced

    ½ cup medium carrots, peeled and diced

    ½ cup celery, diced

    1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

    2 cups canned diced tomatoes

    1 bay leaf

    2 fresh thyme sprigs

    2 fresh parsley sprigs

    1 cup Kalamata olives, sliced

    1 tablespoon lemon zest

    ¼ cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

    ¼ cup fresh thyme, chopped


    Salt and pepper ribs.

    In a large oven-safe pot, on medium-high heat, brown ribs in olive oil on both sides, about 8 minutes. This needs to be done in two batches. Once browned, use tongs to remove ribs and set aside.

    In the same pot, add red wine, and scrape up brown bits collected from the ribs on the bottom of the pan.

    Add beef broth to wine and stir for another minute. Next, add all of vegetables, including canned tomatoes, garlic and bay leaf. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes.

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

    Add ribs and fresh herbs to the boiling liquid. Cover pot with foil and place in preheated oven.

    Bake for 2 ½ hours, and occasionally change position of the ribs for optimum cooking. It’s ready when the meat is falling-off-the-bone tender.

    Ideally, you’ll need a large over pot or roasting pan with a lid. If you don’t have one, before baking, transfer ribs to a large baking dish and cover tightly with foil.

    Top with Kalamata olives and lemon zest, then garnish with flat leaf parsely and fresh thyme.

    -Courtesy of Carole Sullivan, “Gatherings Friends and Recipes” from Montana’s Mustang Kitchen

  • Montana Book Review: Bookshelf gems

    By Doug Mitchell

    A pair of outside-the-box mysteries by a veteran writer and local newcomer. The story of one man’s lifelong quest to find Sasquatch – who ran off with his mom. A superhero picture book perfect for bedtime, the story of a boxing warrior, a historical look at Montana roadways and great gardening tips. Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a versatile set of books that should be on everyone’s reading list.


    William Hjortsberg

    Open Road Integrated Media, New York – 2015

    The best way for me to describe how I consumed William “Gatz” Hjortsberg’s latest book, Mañana, is that I devoured it. The act of reading the first page is an almost conspiratorial act that had me grabbing for the coffee pot to prepare for what promised to be a long evening of reading.

    As I did so, I harkened back to Bette Davis’ famous line in All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

    Hjortsberg is one of Montana’s premier writers. His 1978 classic, Falling Angel, launched a career that has included the publication of a broad spectrum of work including significant success as a screenwriter with major Hollywood films Angel Heart (Robert De Niro) and Legend (Ridley Scott, Tom Cruise).

    With Mañana, Hjortsberg roars back on to bookshelves with a book that I believe will find both critical and commercial success.

    Let me be clear though, this book will not be for everybody. Within the first pages we meet the book’s main character (Tod) as he wakes up in a cabana in Mexico next to a dead prostitute (Frankie) – and remembering that the previous evening he had taken heroin for the first time. Bazinga!

    Set in the 1960s in the Mexican beach town of Barra de Navidad, Mañana is a novel over 40 years in the making and in part comes from the first-person places and experiences of the author. Hjortsberg actually owned a bright yellow Volkswagen bus called “Bitter Lemon” and used that memorable vehicle, and icon of the 1960s, to transport Tod as he careens through the pages of this amazing story.

    Part murder mystery, part tale of discovery, Mañana is filled with unapologetic prose that transports the reader to a different place and time with characters that will more likely repulse than charm most readers.

    You’ll meet Linda and Nick, Doc and Shank, and the mysterious Freddy.

    You’ll go to bull fights and chicken fights as Tod tries desperately to find both Linda and the answer to exactly who killed Frankie – hoping against hope that it wasn’t him.

    I described my feelings about the writing in a conversation with the author as though T.C. Boyle and Hunter S. Thompson had run headlong into each other and created a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-type combination of styles that turn out to be delicious.

    The sculpted, elegant prose of Boyle colliding with the revolutionary urgency and honesty of Thompson to create something only a truly gifted author like Hjortsberg could fashion.

    On its face, Mañana is a murder mystery – and a good one at that.

    But in Hjortsberg’s elegant hand, the job of unravelling this potentially one dimensional story quickly becomes a game of three dimensional chess. If this makes the book sound complicated, I’ve misled you. A better word for it is “unexpected.”

    My guess is that for many readers of this magazine, Hjortsberg may be one of the best writers you’ve never read. If true, I highly suggest changing that.

    BigSkySiren3CBig Sky Siren

    L.A. Ramirez

    San Bernadino, California – 2015

    • Read an author Q&A with Ramirez here 

    I had arranged to meet a friend at the Blackfoot River Brewing Co. for an IPA after work one day and stumbled upon a book signing.

    It turns out L.A. Ramirez was at the brewery that day to sell and sign copies of her first novel Big Sky Siren.

    I bought a copy on the spot and started it that night.

    Consumer warning:  Big Sky Siren is a bit like eating potato chips – once you start it’s hard to stop.

    For me, one of the charming parts of this book was that it is clearly set in my town, Helena.  Although Ramirez uses the moniker “Capital City” to officially describe the location, there’s no doubt where the novel is set.

    Big Sky Siren is to be the first in a series of novels for Ramirez and you can tell from the outset that at least a couple of the characters, and the relationships between them, can be a strong recurring theme.

    This book is a good, old-fashioned crime mystery. A little bit on the dark side, I would give the book a TV equivalent of Criminal Minds.

    In Big Sky Siren, we encounter a troubled stalker bent on kidnapping the “siren” of our story – Keeva Ryan  – in a manner and psychology reminiscent of the Dan Nichols/Kari Swenson odyssey of the early 1980s.

    Thankfully, the Capital City police department has the talented and handsome single parent, Detective Tony Salazar on the case.

    Ramirez avoids the obvious traps that ensnare too many lesser writers. The romance you are predicting just from these few paragraphs does indeed develop, but it does so in an interesting way with a well-crafted and compelling supporting cast.

    One warning though, this is not young adult fiction. There are a couple of what I’ll call “romantic” scenes that, to use movie vernacular, are “intended for mature audiences only.”

    You will not find Big Sky Siren in the “literature” part of your local bookstore, but that shouldn’t be the measure for whether it belongs on your summer reading list. I am a big believer in spreading my reading time between genres, and with Big Sky Siren, Ramirez gives us a page turner that, for me, compares best to the Kay Scarpetta series of novels by Patricia Cornwell.

    ESHTS_CoverEven Superheroes Need to Sleep

    Sara Crow

    Self-Published, Bozeman – 2015

    Bedtime reading to our kids ended long ago at the Mitchell household, but that doesn’t mean I’m still not a sucker for a good children’s book. Bozeman mom, entrepreneur and now author, Sara Crow, has just published Even Superheroes Need to Sleep, a picture book that does a neat job of sharing with kids how mom and dad’s day job really just might be the work of a superhero. Summer is baby gift season and this is a good one.

    9781627791991_SasquatchHun_CV.inddThe Sasquatch Hunters Almanac

    Sharma Shields

    Henry Holt and Company, New York – 2015

    Another of the University of Montana’s talented master’s of fine arts graduates, Sharma Shields presents a fascinating and beautifully written story in The Sasquatch Hunters Almanac. The book is about the life of a boy whose mother runs off with Sasquatch – known in the book as Mr. Krantz – when the boy is 8 years old. We follow the boy to adulthood, through two marriages, while he continues his life journey to find Sasquatch. The writing is top notch and it’s neither a story nor a style of writing that you’ll come across every day.

    warrior-in-the-ring-hc300dpiWarrior in The Ring

    Brian D’Ambrosio

    Riverbend Publishing, Helena – 2015

    I’ll admit up front that I am a boxing fan – or at least used to be in the halcyon days of Ali and Frazier and Leonard and Hagler. In Warrior in the Ring, Montana writer Brian D’Ambrosio brings out of the shadows a story more Montanans and more boxing fans ought to know; the story of Native American world champion boxer Marvin Camel. Camel’s mother was Salish and Marvin grew up in Ronan with 13 siblings. Camel won the first cruiserweight Championship of the World in 1979. In this compelling biography, D’Ambrosio tells Camel’s story in a forthright and compelling way that makes this not only a good read but an important one too.

    TamingBigSkyCountryTaming Big Sky Country

    Jon Axline

    History Press, Charleston, South Carolina – 2015

    Making history accessible through the written word is a gift, and Jon Axline has it. You have read in these pages many of Axline’s compelling articles and in Taming of Big Sky Country, Axline brings us a feature length look at the story of the construction of Montana’s highway system. If this sounds boring, think again. Axline’s incredible ability to tell a story makes this book a must have for anyone even slightly interested in Montana history.

    Montana Gardener's CompanionThe Montana Gardener’s Companion

    Cheryl Moore-Gough and Bob Gough

    Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut – 2015

    It’s that time of year. Gardening is in full swing and I’ll admit to being somewhat intimidated by gardening books. You see, I’m more “weeder” than “gardener” and my experience with hobbyist books like this one is that they make the reader who most needs the information, the novice, feel stupid. The Montana Gardner’s Companion does the exact opposite. From the first pages, I felt empowered by the common-sense approach and the can-do spirit the writers take to approach the often daunting and unpredictable task of gardening in Montana. My copy is dirty and dog eared already and I’m betting yours will be too.

    Doug Mitchell is the Montana Magazine book reviewer. He writes from Helena.

  • LA Ramirez

    Author Q&A: ‘Big Sky Siren’ author LA Ramirez

    By Doug Mitchell

    Montana Magazine: Congratulations on your book.  How did you become a writer?

    L.A. Martinez:  Thank you and thank you for this interview Doug. That is a good question. I never imagined I’d be a writer, but I cannot remember not being a story teller.

    My father had been a merchant seaman, and in his seafaring years, he spent much of his time on cruise and cargo ships. He would regale me with adventures of the high seas and travels to exotic ports. He met many interesting people along the way, including Bogart, Bacall and Hemingway. His accounts ignited my imagination, and I conceived my own tales of far-off places and intriguing characters.

    Money was tight and we lived simply, but we always had books. I dreamt of seeing some of the places my father had spoken about, and through reading I have been able to feel the experience of those places and stories. By junior high I amused myself with Frost, O Henry, Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and L’Amour. Quite a list for a young mind.

    During our childhood, my brother and I would make up dramatic yarns, one would start with an idea, and the other had to expand on it. He steered toward sci-fi, while I always added suspense and mystery.

    After getting married and raising a family I found the time to jot more of my stories on paper. One of my children read a short story I wrote, and he said, “Mom, if that were a book I’d read it.” His words inspired me to expand that one short story into my first full length novel. I never published it, but it provided the muse to write my second novel, filling four composition books.  My husband, my biggest support through all this, encouraged me to turn it into a publishable book. Big Sky Siren, first of The Big Sky Series was born.

    MM:  So do you write your stories longhand? Or are the composition books just a brainstorming venue?

    LAM:  I started out writing everything long hand, but found when I typed it into the computer, it took too much time. On my current work in progress, I type it out, and use long hand to write inspirations and brainstorming.

    MM:  So tell us a bit about the inspiration for Keeva.

    LAM:  Keeva’s character is a combination of many women. My first feminine role model was my paternal grandmother, who arrived from Austria as a teenager and later worked in kitchens to raise her three sons. Other elements of Keeva come from my daughter and daughter in-law, who inspire me with their hard work and intelligence. Finally, the many assertive women I’ve met in Montana, particularly those farming and ranching women who have shown me being feminine can be possible, while still being strong and resilient. Keeva’s Irish heritage is an homage to my own ethnicity, and to the many women I have met in Montana, whose roots can be traced to Ireland.

    The conceptualization of the antagonist in the story came to me at the same time Keeva did. I realized then that the brave and assertive protagonist would fit very well in contrast with the antagonist’s flaws.

    MM:  What was the hardest part of writing Big Sky Siren?

    LAM:  For me the hardest part of writing Big Sky Siren has been the nuances of producing a novel. I am a storyteller, and editors want to make sure I got it all right.

    Keeping my “voice” has also been important and challenging. I have my agenda, editors have theirs, and sometimes that has been a struggle. I have been very fortunate that the two editors who worked with me understood my needs until we were all satisfied.

    MM:  What was the most fun?

    LAM:  So much of it was enjoyable. Once I had sketched the story, I had a lot of fun developing the characters, and getting to deeply understand them by the time I finished the manuscript. Breathing life into ideas and characters is a very exciting process.

    Research was also enjoyable. Among several research topics, I learned about firearms, and studied personality disorders. I drove around the locations where the story takes place in order to construct the scenes realistically.

    I have to admit, holding the first paperback was the most satisfying moment. It still feels surreal.

    MM:  Well, congratulations again on your first novel and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions.  We’ll keep an eye out for the next installment of the series.

  • Terry Sherburne, owner/operator of Mountain Pine Motel near East Glacier, takes care of a potential guest. Photo by Kurt Wilson

    The Sherburne family creates home away from home for Glacier guests

    By Keila Szpaller

    Photos by Kurt Wilson

    Since it opened in 1947, the Mountain Pine Motel has offered respite to royalty from Europe and a llama on a trek along the Continental Divide.

    The llama remained outside, of course, but it’s probably one of the rarer creatures to stay overnight at the homey inn just down the road from the train depot in East Glacier Park.

    “It’s kind of a place where you can tell somebody, I’ll see you in the morning, but I’ll leave the key in the door for you,” said Terry Sherburne, owner and operator.

    Terry’s parents opened the motel – then with 10 units – tucked under several stands of tall pines at the edge of Glacier National Park.

    Adventure fueled the decision by the couple, Doris and Fred Sherburne, to run the business that’s grown to 25 rooms, and an appreciation for the people who stayed at the motel kept their love for the work alive.

    Mountain Pine Neighbors

    Mountain Pine Hotel is no doubt surrounded by spectacular scenery, but its neighborhood also includes more than a handful of must-stop food and local shops that are full of Montana goodies.
    Here’s a few of our favorites:

    • At Luna’s Restaurant, about a block away from the hotel, the menu offers huckleberry pie, and it’s listed as a breakfast staple. In case you wondered, a slice costs $5.50, and it’s “a perfectly respectable breakfast!”

    • Also just across the street? The world’s largest purple spoon. You won’t want to miss it. Actually, the enormous utensil will lead you to The Spiral Spoon, a small shop with great beauty in its handcrafted spoons.

    • Sure, East Glacier is closer to Canada than it is to Mexico, but for some delicious enchiladas, burritos, guacamole, and other Mexican fare, head to Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant, across the railroad tracks. Beverage of choice? The house margarita, with salt on the rim.

    To read the entire feature on Mountain Pine, subscribe today!

    • 8-x-10-Roosevelt-at-Depot

      President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt speaks to a crowd at then Union Depot circa 1911. Courtesy image

    • 1991_Far-and-Away

      Several scenes from the 1991 production of “Far and Away” were filmed in the Billings Depot—like Tom Cruise’s boxing scenes shown here. Courtesy image

    • 2005.13

      The Billings Depot was originally called the Union Depot. Courtesy image

    • Buffalo-Bill-Cody-and-Austin-North-in-front-of-the-Depot

      Famed Buffalo Bill Cody and Austin North pose for a photo in front of then Union Depot. Courtesy image

    • Steam-engine-at-Depot-1932

      A steam engine stops in front of the Depot in 1932. Courtesy image

    Updated Depot: Historic Billings Depot thriving as events center

    By Allyn Hulteng

    Jennifer Mercer’s eyes light up as she guides a newly-engaged couple around the historic Billings Depot. As executive director of one of the city’s most iconic buildings, Mercer delights in showing off the beautifully restored edifice, weaving bits of local lore into her tour.

    “It’s encapsulated history,” Mercer said. “There’s no other place like this.”

    Elegant, with ornamental columns, articulated beams and plaster relief, the interior bespeaks of another era, evoking a sense of timeless grandeur.

    The authentic vintage appeal is perhaps one reason the Depot has become a popular venue for weddings and other community events. Yet the fate of this legacy landmark could have been far different had a handful of visionaries not intervened.

    To read the full feature on the Billings Depot, subscribe today!

  • The Red Ants Pants Music Festival will run July 23-26 in White Sulphur Springs. Photo by Erik Petersen

    Red Ants Pants Music Festival quickly becoming a Montana summertime favorite

    By Kelsey Dayton

    Photos by Erik Petersen

    The stars radiated in the sky as they do only in Montana, flaming, shooting and omnipresent, far from any competition from man-made light as singer Brandi Carlile came back to the stage.

    The indie folk rocker had started her set under a true Montana sunset that faded into a night of stars as she sang.

    It was the type of moment that makes Montana’s vast sky so famous.

    Rising from the prairie near the base of the Castle Mountains, just past the small town of White Sulphur Springs, stacked bales of hay and livestock equipment fill much of the space along one of Montana’s trademark stretches of highway – until a miniature tent city appears each July.

    “It’s the middle of nowhere, and as I kind of like to think of it, the middle of everywhere,” said Sarah Calhoun, the founding owner of Red Ants Pants and producer of the same named music festival she decided to host in a local rancher’s field outside White Sulphur Springs, a town of about 900.

    For three days each July, well-known musicians like Carlile – and this year, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Lee Ann Womack – play the main stage at the Red Ants Pants Music Festival.

    Music from up-and-comers fills the air from a second stage nearby on festival grounds.


    Calhoun started the festival in 2011 as an interesting offshoot of her manufacturing company that makes work pants for women.

    She grew up on a farm in Connecticut and moved to Bozeman in 2004, following a dream to live in the West. When she couldn’t find a pair of durable work pants designed specifically for a woman’s body, she designed her own and started Red Ants Pants in 2006 without any business experience.

    Wanting a more authentic Montana experience and inspired by Ivan Doig’s famous novel “This House of Sky,” she settled in White Sulphur Springs.

    The problem was Calhoun never wanted to simply run a business.

    Instead, her passion lies with supporting women in leadership and helping ensure the future of the agricultural industry and family ranches, the mission of her Red Ants Pants Foundation, which since its inception has given away around $45,000 in grant money raised through the music festival.

    Along with drawing artists like Josh Ritter and James McMurtry, the festival features demonstrations of traditional agricultural skills like roping, sheering, grain milling and meat processing. It’s a family affair with young kids exploring on bikes and lined up for hay rides.

    The same things that drew Calhoun to the area – the vast sky, the mountains and the strong agricultural community – is what makes it so incredible to hear artists like Carlile playing in a field under a Montana sky.

    Even with about 11,000 people at the festival in 2014, it’s incredibly intimate and the artists respond to the atmosphere.

    “You can see them come alive on stage,” Calhoun said.

    All told, Red Ants Pants is a celebration of Montana, its agricultural traditions and values, and great music.


    Scott Benson, of Pocatello, Idaho, returned to the festival for his third year last summer, bringing his visiting daughter, Chloe Benson, of Dallas, Texas.

    There’s something about hearing an artist like Carlile play an acoustic, stripped down set in a dusty field, he said.

    “It was brave and special,” he said.

    He comes for the headliners, but also to discover new bands and music.

    Donna and Steve Tobin, of Billings, came to the festival for the third time in 2014. The first year they came to see Lyle Lovett and since have discovered other musicians they like, such as Martha Scanlan and Matt Andersen.

    The Last Revel, a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota, played in the emerging artist contest last summer.

    “It was by far the coolest music festival I’ve been to,” said Ryan Acker with the band. “That one just has a really special vibe to it and it’s the most amazing setting I’ve ever seen.”

    After listening to music all day, Acker and other musicians jammed in the nearby campground that is set up for festival goers each year.

    “It was this really euphoric feeling the whole time,” he said.

    The Last Revel’s performance on the smaller side stage netted them enough votes from festival attendees to play the main stage this summer. They’ll perform the Friday of the festival and Acker said they can’t wait to return.

    It’s an eclectic mix of people, he said. There are college kids and old cowboys, rural ranchers and people from cities.

    Calhoun’s aim has always been to bring people together, and music is a powerful tool for that, she said.

    “(The festival is) one heck of a party that brings folks together,” she said.

    Calhoun loves seeing people from obviously different places connect through music.

    “You see them being the best versions of themselves,” she said.


    Rikki and Alan Serfoss, of Vaughn, have been to a lot of festivals and gatherings. They came to Red Ants Pants for the first time in 2014, after hearing about it via word of mouth. They loved the location, music and atmosphere.

    They planned to return this summer with a caravan of friends.

    “This is much more low key (than other festivals),” Rikki said.

    As the festival grows in popularity, Calhoun hopes to maintain the important homegrown vibe, which she knows draws people just as much as the music.

    It’s become a community event, Calhoun said. Local cowboys on horseback park cars. Horse teams provide rides in wagons and the Meagher County Cattlewomen serve breakfast as a fundraiser.

    All in all, the festival is a reflection of the small town life Calhoun loves.

    It’s friendly and tight-knit, while never feeling crowded – something special that brings people together.

    Shooting stars crossed the sky as Carlile returned for her third encore at the 2014 festival.

    “It was so powerful,” Calhoun said. “Everyone was dead silent. She just had us all in a trance.”

    Carlile played into the night, mixing original songs with covers of songs like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

    Each time she finished and left the stage, she returned.

    “Some nights,” she said, “are just too hard to leave.”

    Kelsey Dayton is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Missoula.

    If you go: Red Ants Pants Music Festival

    The Red Ants Pants Music Festival is July 23-26 in White Sulphur Springs, featuring the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Keb’ Mo’, Lee Ann Womack and Ryan Bingham.

    A weekend pass costs $125 in advance; single day passes cost $50. Camping near festival grounds costs $20.

    For more, click here.

    To read more about Montana year-round, subscribe today!

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