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Spring Thaw, a bluegrass band from Missoula, performed at the Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association’s annual festival and fundraiser, also at Lone Rock.

LONE ROCK - How many bands would be willing to load up their gear and travel up to a few hundred miles, just to play a 30-minute set, for no pay?

At least 17, answers Mike Conroy who, with his wife Tari, organizes the Oldtime Bluegrass Festival and Fundraiser, coming up on Saturday, April 13, at Lone Rock School, from noon until 10 p.m.

There were 18 bands, but one had to cancel, says Conroy. He put out the call for bands ‘way back in January, and had all the performance slots filled within 24 hours.

The bands come from throughout western Montana and Idaho. In the “oldtime” tradition, the instrumental lineup is usually limited to the banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and stand-up bass. Dobros are tolerated. Singing styles tend to the tight harmonies for which bluegrass is famous, and the groups will be playing a mix of traditional and original tunes.

The festival, in its 14th year, is a fundraiser for the Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association (MRBA) but, in truth, it won’t even be raising that much money. Admission is just $5 at the door for non-members, $3 for members, and kids under 12 get in free.

“We make plenty of money on it,” Conroy insisted, which suggests that “plenty” has a different meaning in the bluegrass world. Performers get in for free, he said, but most of them pay anyway, just to support the association.

The money goes to support other events, such as the Hardtimes Bluegrass Festival, another Mike & Tari Conroy project, coming up the last weekend in July. The MRBA also sponsors monthly “jams” at Ruby’s Inn, in Missoula, and nurtures young musicians, “from the cradle to the stage.”

The group is dedicated to “performing, promoting, and preserving bluegrass music.” Participating bands get a recording of their performance, and are invited to contribute one track to a MRBA compilation disk.

The Lone Rock School setting works out great for the festival, according to Conroy. He figures that bluegrass just goes naturally with the oldest school in Montana. In addition to the bands playing onstage, classrooms play host to groups tuning up, and to informal jams. If the weather is nice, the jams will spill out onto the grounds, as the musicians pop up everywhere, like dandelions in spring.

Conroy guesses that 700 people showed up last year, surprising nearly everyone, and he expects a similar number this year. He credits Lone Rock Superintendent Dave Cluff with helping to make sure things run smoothly, and that includes parking for that many vehicles. Carpooling would help.

As the festival takes place on school property, no alcohol and no tobacco will be permitted.

“Dry” camping in RV’s will be available both Friday and Saturday nights, for the one-day event, at no cost.

The music kicks off with the “Kids in Bluegrass” at noon, and bands will follow like clockwork from then until 10 p.m., with the well-rehearsed set changes going as fast as a finger-style banjo lick. “We don’t get behind,” Conroy promised.

Food will be available for purchase at the festival. As in years past, Verna Molenda is in charge of the fixin’s. “She’s already baked about a hundred pounds of turkey,” Conroy claimed, and will have pots of soup and piles of sandwiches for sale, along with fresh homemade rolls. Volunteers also bring desserts for sale at the festival, insuring a balance between nutrition and indulgence.

The Lone Rock School is located at 1112 Three Mile Creek road; 5.5 miles north of Stevensville on the Eastside Highway, then 3 miles east on Three Mile Road. Roll your windows down, and follow the sound of the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass. They won’t lead you astray.