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Northwest music fest offers indie artists a platform after long pandemic break

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

One of the biggest indie rock festivals in the Northwest is back this weekend after a couple of years of pandemic delays and schedule changes. Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho, has had its share of big-name headliners. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, it's also a platform for small-town artists who have had much less exposure during the pandemic.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's an eight-hour drive to Treefort from Christian Wallowing Bull's home near the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming - enough time for him to reflect on all he's been through to get here.

CHRISTIAN WALLOWING BULL: Like, I was a young kid on a reservation and never dreamed that I'd be doing something like this, being able to play a festival like this.

SIEGLER: Wallowing Bull is a Northern Arapahoe tribal member. He's 28 with a shaved head and a tattoo of a leaf extending off his left eye. And growing up on a reservation, he says he could have easily become a statistic. He struggled with addiction, got into trouble with the law. But he battled back, turned his life around. These are themes that come up a lot in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALLOWING BULL: (Singing) I was a young man, and I was on my own in a land of wolves.

In mainstream media, there's not a lot of coverage on a young Indigenous person growing up and, you know, overcoming certain hardships and making success, I would say, in modern society.

SIEGLER: It's also just hard to get exposure if you're an artist from a rural area. Wallowing Bull's big break came when he won Wyoming's singer-songwriter competition last year, so playing at Treefort in a city is a bit surreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALLOWING BULL: (Singing) I held my head high.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

WALLOWING BULL: I have never been to a music festival in my entire life - just missed opportunities and maybe just hardships. So to be able to play a festival, let alone attend one, is huge for me.

SIEGLER: The pandemic has been especially rough for small-town musicians without big fan bases who couldn't easily pull off virtual shows. And now that everything's opening back up, it's even harder to get gigs in the smaller venues they usually play in because every band is back on tour trying to make up for the last two years. Sean Lynch owns a club in Billings, Mont.

SEAN LYNCH: I think most of them are getting on support slots now if that's available. But it's a struggle for small bands. The starter bands are having - we call them baby bands. They have a really - they're having a really hard time getting into markets right now.

SIEGLER: Which is why Treefort can feel make or break if you're an emerging artist trying to get noticed by a big-city promoter. Lynch manages two Billings bands that are playing here, including the indie pop quartet Joyce from the Future.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOYCE FROM THE FUTURE SONG, "THE SOUND OF BEING ALIVE")

SIEGLER: They're fronted by 22-year-old Lyric Horton.

LYRIC HORTON: More so than anything, people are always kind of surprised when they find out that we're from Montana. I think in a lot of ways it's helpful because it makes people pay attention a little bit more than if we were to say, yeah, we're from, you know, New York City or LA or something like that. I think it's cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUND OF BEING ALIVE")

JOYCE FROM THE FUTURE: (Singing) Tonight I'm dancing till I feel all right. Let the rhythm take me to a place I haven't been in a while.

SIEGLER: Her band has barely played a dozen gigs. This is her first ever festival, too.

JOYCE FROM THE FUTURE: There's a couple of people in the lineup of Freefort that I've been listening to for years, you know? So even just being on the same, you know, lineup as them is crazy.

SIEGLER: Crazy, she says, but hopefully a launching pad for the future. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION:In this report we incorrectly described Christian Wallowing Bull’s face tattoo as depicting a leaf. The tattoo depicts a feather.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 31, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we incorrectly describe Christian Wallowing Bull's face tattoo as depicting a leaf. The tattoo depicts a feather.