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Music, dance, tradition come to Big Sky country

The National Folk Festival comes to Montana this summer, bringing the event's mix of "music, dance and tradition from across America" to historic Butte in Big Sky country.
Image: National Folk Festival in Richmond, Va.
The Junkyard Band plays under a tent at the National Folk Festival in Richmond, Va.Skip Rowland / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The National Folk Festival comes to Montana this summer, bringing the event's mix of "music, dance and tradition from across America" to historic Butte in Big Sky country.

The three-day festival changes venues every three years. For the past three summers, it was held in Richmond, Va. The National Council for the Traditional Arts chose Butte over 22 other cities that bid to host the multicultural event for the next three summers.

The dates for this year's festival are July 11-13. The 24 acts, which will perform on seven stages, will include Washington's Wylie & the Wild West, a Western music group featuring Yahoo! yodeler Wylie Gustafson; Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas from Louisiana; the Alex Meisner polka band from Pennsylvania; and New York's Yuri Yunakof Ensemble, performing Bulgarian wedding music.

There is no charge for admission to the festival, which features continuous performances, participatory dancing, children's activities, ethnic foods and craft exhibits.

The main stage in Butte will be a 10,000-seat amphitheater at a former mine yard left from the town's heyday as a world leader in the copper industry.

The festival will be centered in Uptown Butte, a picturesque area with a National Historic Landmark District that includes mansions, Victorian homes, boarding houses, miners' cottages and old 100- to 200-foot mining frames, which were used to bring workers in and out of the mines.

Many of the buildings date to the late 19th century, including the 34-room Copper King Mansion at 219 W. Granite St., built in 1888 for mining magnate William Andrews Clark, one of the wealthiest men of his day.

Tucked along the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains, Butte for years was known as the "Richest Hill on Earth" because of the city's mineral wealth. Today, copper mining continues on a smaller scale and tourism is growing, strengthened by Butte's location between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Glacier's west entrance is 270 miles north of the city. West Yellowstone and its park gate are about 160 miles southeast of Butte.

The Folk Festival will be followed by Evel Knievel Days, the city's annual party July 24-26 celebrating the late motorcycle daredevil and native son. Butte's An Ri Rah celebration of Irish culture is set for Aug. 8-10.

"We're encouraging people to just hang around" and take in all of them, said George Everett of Mainstreet Uptown Butte, a not-for-profit organization working on festival arrangements.

The private, not-for-profit National Council for the Traditional Arts produces the Folk Festival in cooperation with host communities.

Butte organizers hope to attract at least 100,000 people to the event. Richmond drew a record attendance of 175,000 for the festival in 2007.

Butte must also raise $3 million to cover the three-year run and organizers say the financial need is divided roughly into thirds, with first-year expenses perhaps a bit higher. Some $675,000 has already been raised.

"It's coming in pretty well," said Everett, who added that he is optimistic the goal will be met.

The costs include payment, food and lodging for the performers, along with sound systems, stages, seating, tents and insurance. Hundreds of volunteers to work at the event are being recruited.

Richmond, with a population of some 1 million in the city and surrounding area compared to Butte-Silver Bow County's 32,000, had a first-year budget of about $1.3 million. Butte's fundraising progress appears comparable to Richmond's, said Lisa Sims, who worked on festival promotion.

"We had the money each year and it's been almost totally a wash," said Sims. "The festival is not a money maker. That's not the goal."

Sims said it put a spotlight on the Richmond waterfront and left the city "impressed with itself because it was such a volunteer effort." Like other past hosts, Richmond now plans an annual event along the lines of the National Folk Festival, but under a different banner.

Given economic slowdowns faced by some potential donors, the seven festival stages in Butte are more likely to be funded through joint sponsorships than by supporters prepared to make big outlays by themselves, said Barbara Miller of the Butte fundraising committee.

"Many of our national companies that we are approaching are in a much different situation than they were six months ago," Miller said.

A check for about $75,000 would cover sponsorship of the main stage and other stages are also still available for sponsorship.

Support so far includes $50,000 from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, $50,000 from Butte-Silver Bow County and $40,000 from the state tourism agency. SeaCast Corp., a Marysville, Wash., company preparing to open a foundry in Butte, has committed $25,000 for First Peoples' Marketplace, a showcase for juried art by American Indians. Energy company PPL Montana is paying for golf-cart shuttles to transport the elderly or tired, and the Montana Historical Society will sponsor an information booth.