By Mira Brody
On June 13, 2022, the Yellowstone River, fueled by a mixture of late-season snowpack, warming temperatures and heavy rain, crested its banks in Paradise Valley, reached historic levels. While evacuations upended communities along the river, Southwest Montana artist Wes Urbaniak was packing up his own home along the river, particularly a handmade guitar he was completing in time for the arrival of Grammy-winning artist, Brandi Carlile.
When he got to his shop that day, the guitar was untouched. The wall it was hanging from had watermarks just underneath. By some unexplained force, the unique piece was saved.
“The guitar has some surface warp on the back from the moisture increase, but somehow survived surrounded by flowers and water,” said Urbaniak. “With my car stuffed full and nowhere to go with this guitar, I’m slightly stunned that it made it.”
Indeed, the guitar made it, in fact, it made it all the way to the hands of its rightful owner, Brandi Carlile, exactly two months later on Aug. 13 just before she took the stage for the Wildlands Festival in Big Sky, Montana, where she enthusiastically accepted the gift backstage.
While the festival itself was a celebration of open spaces—raising $145,000 for local conservation partners—Big Sky Community Organization, Gallatin River Task Force and Gallatin Valley Land Trust—the guitar’s components are not stranger to weathering storms. Its wood is salvaged from the benches of Colorado’s infamous Red Rocks Amphitheater installed back in the late 1930s. The guitar is seat 17, to be exact, where for decades music lovers from all over the country sat to enjoy the power of live music.
Urbaniak has been building handcrafted instruments for two decades. Much like when he first opened Brandi Carlile’s book “Broken Horses,” Urbaniak wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at when he received the row of retired benches a friend passed along to him years ago. Despite initial misgivings, he dug into both projects and they turned into something beautiful.
From the benches there was enough material to build his own band, Wes Urbaniak and the Mountain Folk, new instruments: Two guitars, a Ukulolo (8-string ukulele), and an upright bass, plus, enough to build around 10 extra guitars, one of which is now Carlile’s.
“When you see the guitars I build, they don’t feel like a guitar in a store in any way except being able to play them,” Urbaniak said. “It takes a different kind of energy to build them. It’s really giving a piece of the self to create that.”
That self he felt compelled him to give the guitar to Carlile as he finished her book and felt his bond to the fellow musician grow. You see, as he was building those instruments, Red Rocks seemed to seep into his life—sometimes a casual mention, a bumper sticker on a golf cart—then there, right in “Broken Horses,” Carlile writes about touring and one of her stops was at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. Urbaniak felt a calling to create a guitar for this person he felt a deep artistic connection with.
“There’s this really good attitude about not giving up or not diving into the bullshit of how things are supposed to be, and I really live in that sphere,” Urbaniak said. “I’m not very moved by very many people and the connection for me was an interesting calling. I’m not sure why I felt called to do that, but … It is meant for her; it is built with her in mind.”
The guitar Urbaniak has built for Carlile is made from old-growth, clear heart Redwood. Urbaniak crafts these instruments on the Yellowstone River where he lives and works, surrounded by the undulating and powerful river that almost destroyed the instrument.
“This is one of the most beautiful guitars I’ve seen in my life,” Carlile told Outlaw Partners, producer of Wildlands Festival, in a thank you video to Urbaniak on Aug. 13. “I think my favorite parts are like, all this detail … and the significance to Red Rocks. Since you read my book you know how important that venue is to me.”
The friend who gifted Urbaniak seat 17 unfortunately lost a majority of his collection of salvaged Red Rocks bench wood. Urbaniak has about five rows left, with which he plans to craft 10 more guitars. Thinking back to the flood, when he walked into his shop to see the guitar surrounded by six inches of water, yet unscathed, Urbaniak says it’s a reminder of what’s good.
“These instruments can never happen again,” Urbaniak said. “And there will be very few of them when they occur.”
Wildlands Festival: More than just music
With 11,166-foot Lone Mountain as a backdrop, the landscape that surrounds the Big Sky Events Arena is hard to ignore. It’s a stark reminder that Wildlands Festival is more than just a music festival—it’s a celebration of our open spaces in Southwest Montana. This year, through ticket sales, a raffle and donations, Outlaw Partners raised over $145,000 for three important partner nonprofits: Big Sky Community Organization, Gallatin Valley Land Trust and Gallatin River Task Force. These three nonprofits work tirelessly to preserve our open lands, build trail systems, negotiate property easements, manage land trusts, advocating for our waterways, and much more. It’s why life here is so special.
Wildlands Festival continues this legacy at the Big Sky Events Arena this summer on Aug. 5-6, 2023. Stay tuned for the full lineup at wildlandsfestival.com.