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Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival 2013

Mark Holston By

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Rit played amazingly the other night. Maybe it had to do with Metheny being here. In any case, he played his balls off! —John Zoltek
Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival
Bigfork, Montana
August 26-31, 2013
"Either I'm imaging things, or this festival has grown just a little in the four years since I was here last," Pat Metheny laughed as he squinted into the glare of a brace of theater lights. An SRO crowd of over 900 ecstatic fans crammed into a high-arching, rectangular tent fit for an emir's wedding hooted and clapped in response. The guitar icon's telling comments during his recent concert at the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival in tiny Bigfork, Montana provided a quick way to gauge the how the weeklong event has grown in size and stature in such a short time. Metheny's first festival appearance in 2010, the inaugural edition of the event, was cozy in a Montana-style way; he performed in front of a fireplace in a rustic lodge built for wedding receptions and barbeque dinners for a few dozen people. How things have changed.

The combination of workshops, focusing on a wide variety of styles for both professional and student-level guitarists, and evening concerts by the guest faculty members, some initially held in the nearby Lutheran Church, proved to be a winning combination. Each year the festival has grown in the number of workshop participants and concert goers. The event is also attracting big name artists. Last year, pianist Dave Grusin, a part-time resident of the state, dropped in to perform with guitarist Lee Ritenour, who has been present for all four editions of the festival. This year's headliners included classical guitarist Scott Tennant, the LA Guitar Quartet, blues picker Robben Ford, Genesis rocker Daryl Stuermer, and singer-songwriter notables Livingston Taylor and Mac McAnally.

Like many successful music festivals, location has as much to do with success as programming. Consider the stunning scenery and atmospheric magic associated with such famed festivals as those staged at Monterey, Mount Hood, Aspen, Banff, Montreux, and Rio de Janeiro. While Bigfork isn't Rio or Monterey by any stretch, it is privileged real estate. The village sits snuggly on a small bay where the rushing Swan River empties into the largest body of freshwater in the U.S. west, Flathead Lake. Glacier National Park is but a scenic hour-long drive away. The immediate vicinity is bordered by towering mountain peaks, pastoral valleys and quaint small towns. The student guitarists, who this year numbered over 80, came from throughout the country and as far away as Singapore. In addition to attending workshops with the storied pros, they are encouraged to take a few hours here or there to do some whitewater rafting, ride horseback into the nearby hills, or try their luck at catching a trout.

Although Montana has not spawned any guitar talent of national prominence, the rugged and remote state has produced its share of jazz talent either born or reared here. Among the most prominent are pianists George Winston and Philip Aaberg, trumpeters Allen Vizzutti and Jack Walrath, saxophonist Gary Herbig, and vocalist Eden Atwood. Yet for many reasons, the concept of a guitar-focused festival turned out to be a natural fit.

The concept was born when David Feffer, a genial retired healthcare industry executive, moved to Bigfork and began to ponder what to do with his enviable combination of time to burn and a passion for the guitar. Several years earlier, he had begun to study classical guitar technique and often disappeared into his study for countless hours of practice. Then, while sharing a bottle of bourbon with some confidants, the idea was hatched of a festival where world class guitar talent would be complemented by equally impressive natural beauty and the slow-paced ambiance of a rustic small town in the Northern Rockies.

Bigfork itself has morphed in recent decades from a working class wide spot in the winding, two-lane road to an upscale retirement destination, with a golf course, gourmet restaurants, summer stock theater, high-end art galleries and multi-million dollar estates. As a kid attending the local high school in the 1960s, one of my hangouts was the old bank building, which at that time led a lonely life as a Laundromat with a pinball machine in one dingy corner. Today, the same building is one of the area's finest eateries.

The actual festival venue, the historic Flathead Lake Lodge, is also a drawing card. The highly rated classic dude ranch has been in operation serving an elite clientele from throughout the world for close to seven decades. It masterfully blends luxury accommodations and hearty cuisine with down-home, Western-style hospitality.

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