For a year or two, times really were hard for the Hardtimes Bluegrass Festival. According to organizer Mike Conroy, in 2018 the event lost money and was in jeopardy of closing down for good. But then, “we gave 2019 a try to see if we could make a profit,” said Conroy. “A big crowd showed up, it was just awesome. So, we’re still here and going strong.
The festival will be held Friday, July 23 through Sunday, July 25 on the Heiland Ranch, south of Hamilton.
“We’re all excited because this is our first festival at the new location,” said Conroy. The festival is still on the Heiland Ranch, 10 miles south of Hamilton, but now it’s further up the hill on Forest Hill Road. Turn off Hwy 93 at the 37-mile marker and go up to the end of Forest Hill Road. It’s on the left, just a little further than it was before, right near the Heiland Ranch house.
Conroy has spent a lifetime in the Bitterroot and has been involved in music for most of it. He was born in Hamilton. His grandfather came to the valley in 1904 to run the creamery for Marcus Daly.
“I’ve been in bluegrass for years. I’m the president of the Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association,” said Conroy. But his music career started much earlier than that. “In 6th grade, we got a band together and played music for sock hops. Every time we got a job we’d change our name. That way we kept getting more jobs!” He got into bluegrass when he was 17 and has been playing it ever since. Conroy gives music lessons for a living – teaching fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass. “And actually, dobro too,” he adds.
Mike and Tari married in 1974. “I played the fiddle,” recalls Conroy, “and I’d ask Tari to play with me. She says she learned to play guitar against her will.”
Mike and Tari Conroy are one of the acts that will be performing at the festival. Conroy said they have 11 bands in all, with five new bands this year. “We’ve been really blessed through the years because we have so many bands that stick with us and support us,” he said. “All bands get paid the same, no matter where they come from. This year they come from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, and of course Montana.”
A popular feature, “Kids in Bluegrass” starts at 12 noon on Saturday, featuring young musicians from around the Northwest. There’s also an open bluegrass gospel show on Sunday, with Mike and Tari hosting it. Mike said people sign up to play and the musicians can do what they want, singing and playing. “It could be one of my most favorite parts of the whole festival,” said Conroy.
Conroy is very excited about the new location. “We were homeless after the festival two years ago because it was getting too big,” said Conroy. “Then the Heiland family decided to allow us to use their ranch in a new location further up the hill. It’s an awesome location, more trees, you can look right up at Como Peaks from the stage. A little ditch goes right through where the audience sits, so kids and dogs can cool off anytime while the music is happening.”
Dogs are allowed at the festival, on leashes. Camping is also allowed with no reservations needed. Food vendors will be on site. All tickets are sold at the gate. The gate opens Thursday morning, July 22 at 10 a.m. for campers to come in. Shade is first come, first served. Bring your own lawn chairs.
Ranch owner Janice Heiland handles all the decorating at the festival. She puts out flowers, and decorates the stage to uniquely represent the “Hardtimes” Bluegrass Festival. For example, she strings an old-fashioned clothesline across the stage and hangs up long johns, etc. “She puts a lot of effort into getting everything looking just right,” said Conroy.
Heiland said she’s happy that she can offer the land the festival is on. She said she’s not a musician herself, “just a supporter of musicians.” She has been decorating the event site ever since it started. “This is my 12th year of doing it,” she said. She also makes a quilt out of old jeans, then has it embroidered by a friend with musical instruments. Then in the center block she puts the Hardtimes Bluegrass Festival and year. “We raffle it off and then the proceeds go to the bluegrass festival.” The quilt has become quite a coveted item.
“We enjoy the festival a lot,” said Heiland. “Our family is quite involved with music. My daughter and son and granddaughter all play, they are the first ones on stage Friday night. They call them ‘The Landowners.’ I’m pretty proud of them.”
Heiland said the festival is really getting big, which was why they moved it up the hill away from the neighbors. “I think it’s going to be huge this year,” she said.
Weekend admission for adults is $30; $15 for children. Day passes for Friday or Saturday are $20 for adults; $10 for children. Sunday admission is $15 for adults, $7 for children. Camping is $25 for the weekend. And, don’t forget to bring your lawn chairs!
For more information visit www.hardtimesbluegrass.com or call Mike at 821-3777.
5:45 to 6:00. Landowner musicians, Ted Heiland, Ramona & Rachel Potter
6:00 to 6:45 Pinegrass
6:50 to 7:35 Song Dog Serenade
7:40 to 8:25 Dry Buck
8:30 to 9:15 Kevin Pace
9:20 to 10:05 Lochwood
12:00 to 12:35 Kids in Bluegrass
12:40 to 1:25 Pinegrass
1:30 to 2:15 Darby Sireens
2:20 to 3:05 Brothers Parker
3:10 to 3:55 Dry Buck
4:00 to 4:45 Song Dog Serenade
4:50 to 5:35 Montana Standard
5:40 to 6:30 Throw together band contest
6:35 to 7:20 Mike & Tari Conroy & special guests
7:25 to 8:10 Kentucky Sky
8:15 to 9:00 Ladd Canyon Ramblers
9:05 to 9:50 Kevin Pace Band
9:55 to 10:40 Lochwood
10:00 to 11:55 Open Bluegrass Gospel Stage
12:00 to 12:45 Kentucky Sky
12:50 to 1:35 Ladd Canyon Ramblers
1:40 to 1:55 Raffle drawing
2:00 to 2:45 Montana Standard