HAMILTON – "...while the sounds of bluegrass wash over these hills," read the last sign on the dirt road leading up to the Hardtimes Bluegrass Festival.
It's the festival's eighth year, tucked among the trees on the ranches of Janice Heiland and Pat and Mary Thomas about 10 miles south of Hamilton.
The organizers, Mike and Tari Conroy, of Conner, said the festival seems like a scene out of the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The film is set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, and is based on Homer's "The Odyssey." The soundtrack is full of bluegrass.
Tari joked that her band of women took a page from the Sirens in the film – minus the toad, and the seduction.
"We always had this idea for a back-in-the-woods, 1930s-style festival," Mike said.
There were a few silent years after the bluegrass festival ended at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds. So the Conroys talked to their friends, the Heilands, who then brought the idea to their neighbors, the Thomases. The festival was born.
"After the first year, everybody was hooked," Mike said.
Now they're getting kids hooked on bluegrass.
"They're the future of this music," Tari said. "We assume they'll keep it going, 'cause we're all about the same age and we've been playing for 40 years."
"– you know that because everybody's got a bad back," Mike said.
The past two years, the festival has drawn about 1,300 people over the three-day weekend. They seemed to be on track to meet or break that record this year, as RVs filled the property and lawn chairs were spread out for the first show of the day on Saturday: Kids in Bluegrass.
The program, led by Raynae Redman, gave 15 kids time in the spotlight, playing 15 songs.
Finn Kemp, a quiet 8-year-old, wowed the crowd with his fiddle skills. He's only been playing about a year and a half, he said, but he already knows 40 songs and his nimble fingers slid easily over the strings as he played "Southern Flavor." Kemp is one of Mike Conroy's 40 students.
“My binder’s pretty much stuck open,” Kemp said of his practicing habits.
Mike and Tari want kids to see how much fun they can have with bluegrass.
"It just does something to you," Tari said. "Bluegrass is an inviting sort of music. It's people at their best."
Jen and Jim Adams, of Reardan, Washington, brought their six children to the festival. Charity, a 4-year-old, got nervous and tearful before the show, opting to sit with dad in the audience. But the others hit the stage with their fiddles and guitars, including 6-year-old Karis, winning over the crowd with a goofy grin, and 2-year-old Daniel, who's been jamming since before he was born (he was born in an RV during a bluegrass camp).
The family was on a month-long trip that will end at grandma and grandpa's in Colorado. They decided to make Hardtimes a stop on the way, so the kids and Jim's band, Kevin Pace and The Early Edition, could play.
"Music has always been really important to him," Jen said of her husband. "But we're fairly new to bluegrass."
Their 15-year-old daughter, Micaiah, played violin off and on for years, but really got serious about violin and fiddle (same instrument, different styles) five years ago. On Saturday, she played the violin her grandfather built – the only one he ever made.
"In the summer, it's bluegrass," Jen said. "During the school year, it's Bach, it's Beethoven."
Kids in Bluegrass is the type of program that makes learning an instrument fun and gives kids confidence, both Redman and Jen Adams said.
"When you're not good yet, it's not fun," Adams said, but ability doesn't matter in this program. Even if kids can't play an instrument, they're allowed to get on stage and sing.
"If grandma or grandpa is dragging them to this, they sit there and go, 'I don’t get it, this is your generation, I want my iPad.' But now I’m getting it as a parent," she said. "An instrument is real. It gives them a sense of self-confidence.
"In Reardan, they’re rabid about sports. You talk to someone in their 60s who said their knee gave out from playing sports in their 20s. But you’ll never meet anybody who blew out their knee playing the mandolin."
Redman, who now lives in White Bird, Idaho, takes Kids in Bluegrass to several festivals. About 15 years ago, she was inspired after a trip to California, where she saw a similar program.
So she brought it home, when she was living in Missoula.
"How it works is any kid that's learning to play, they meet me at the camper at 10 a.m.," she said. "We see what songs they like to do and then we practice, seeing what the other kids know and teaching them how to play to the mic, how to take turns, come in and fade back."
Two hours later, they take the stage.
One boy stands out to Redman. He was a high school freshman and rode her bus to school. He was struggling: his parents had divorced, he had stolen a car and he was failing all of his classes. But he mentioned that he knew how to play guitar.
She encouraged him to come to Wheat Montana on Tuesday night, where kids got a chance to play a half hour before her band. He came one Tuesday, and watched. Next time, he brought his guitar and played one song. Then another. And he never stopped.
"He graduated with straight As and his senior project was building a guitar," Redman said.
He went on to the U.S. Air Force. Redman caught up with him after high school, when he was playing in his church's band. He was happy and successful.
"I credit music for saving this boy's life," she said.