Late in July, drivers cresting Highway 20’s hill near Pine, Idaho, can often be seen doing a double take. There before them, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a small valley hosts a giant stage, dozens of white tents, 1,600 camping spots, and 7,000 feet of fencing.
These are the makings of the Mountain Home Country Music Festival, this year being held July 27-29. While high temps, wind, pouring rain, intermittent lightning, insects, occasional dehydration, and the unavoidable dust can impinge on the fun, most of the 20,000 fans are undeterred. “You really have to experience it to understand it,” said Elmore County Extension’s Nadine Cook, a 4-H Program Assistant coordinator of volunteers.
For three days, attendees flock to the base of the Sawtooth National Forest in remote Elmore County, approximately 30 miles from Mountain Home. With added vegetation and nearly 700 loads of decompressed granite, the venue can still be somewhat of a dustbowl, which, in a strange way, increases the rugged charm. Misting tents, free Gatorade, and medical stations for those succumbing to the heat help. What’s more, there are no water restrictions during the event, which allows for the filling of small swimming and wading pools.
One week prior to the concert, construction begins, with nearly 400 volunteers’ help required during the festival. While attendees from the area greet each other, many hail from all over the region and beyond, creating what could be called an “instant city … just add water.”
“Instant city … just add beer!” said Renee Forsberg, University of Idaho Extension Program assistant. She explained that she volunteered to help with garbage collection through her local 4-H.
“It’s not glamorous,” said coordinator Cook. “Heat and dust are an issue.”
The festival requires an array of resources: power, bathrooms, camping, food, water, law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical service and traffic control, to name a few. However, with upwards of $3 million in additional economic revenue generated by the event, outlying towns Mountain Home, Glenns Ferry, Pine, Featherville, and Sun Valley, consider the effort worthwhile. “It’s a fantastic plus, funding community events we might not have, otherwise,” said Forsberg.
“It’s the fundraiser for us; it doubles our annual budget,” said Fairfield Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Stewart. “We bought a pumper truck for structure fires the first year.”
For those used to small-town living, there’s some culture shock. “But you get to meet so many different folks. The majority are happy to be there, happy to help out,” said Stewart.
Unlike the 4-H, local high school, and Mountain Home Air Force Base volunteers, Stewart and crew are on-duty full-time. “Not much play for the core crew,” he said. “Thursday noon to Monday noon, up till 1 or 2 a.m., chasing reports of burners going. Then up at 4:30 to cook breakfast.”
Stewart’s crew of 10 recruited additional family and friends to host their $8 all-you-can-eat festival breakfasts. “We make $10,000 to $12,000 per year,” Stewart said. “And all proceeds go to the department.”
Gathering massive amounts of refuse into pickups, 4-H volunteers take all of it to giant commercial bins during four-hour shifts, constantly circling the valley. “We meet different kinds, some drunk. It’s hard work, we get covered in alcohol, ” Cook laughed, “but amazingly, most have fun. You don’t have to be in 4-H to volunteer,” Cook said. “We recruit whoever we can get.”
For the instant community of 20,000, common courtesy is paramount. The festival website sums it up with this piece of advice: “Basically, don’t be a jerk.”
There is zero tolerance for random desert dwelling or open flames. “None whatsoever,” Fire Chief Stewart said. “So far, it’s been good. But if it’s burning, it’s going to get wet. Cook with something that can be shut off.”
If rules are bent, firefighters have the authority to cut festival tickets in two. “If anyone wants to play nasty, we get rid of them,” Stewart warned.
In 2017, Keith Urban’s performance was cancelled due to thunder and lightning. While fans were disappointed, others enjoyed a silver lining. “Watching the storm roll through was amazing. I love storms and was great with it,” said Cook.
“I was nervous last year,” Chief Stewart said. “But we’ve got a good plan if things were to go south.”
Over the course of three days, friendships are made. Forsberg recalls 4-H kids befriending a Las Vegas family with an elaborate custom UNLV “cornhole” game. When the game went missing, the kids, upset, found it tucked under an RV on the opposite side of the park, which led to its recovery and an unlikely friendship.
“We meet lots of really neat people when they’re out having breakfast, from Nevada, Oregon, all over,” Forsberg said, sharing their typical after-shift schedule of enjoying inner tubes and lawn chairs at a nearby reservoir.
John Clark, Mountain Home High School’s Activity Director, told of students volunteering to help with ice distribution, will call, and security gate checks, adding that parents and students from the band to basketball team often work together. “They’re dead tired when done, but it’s something they talk about all year,” Clark said. “Sometimes I’ll tell them to watch the gate for Alan Jackson.”
For those behind the scenes for the duration, the payoffs are those magical moments of singing and dancing together under the stars. “It’s definitely something to behold,” Clark said.
On Tap for July 27-29, 2018:
Eric Church, Alan Jackson, Dierks Bentley, Adam Doleac, Ashley McBryde, Clare Dunn, Parker McCollum, Morgan Evans, Brown & Gray, Temecula Road, Amy Clawson, Brothers Osborne.