Photo: Anthony Pavkovich
“I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds—achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists. I believe in the promise of better days through better ways, even if the better ways we now enjoy have come to us through the struggles of former years. I believe that to live and work on a good farm…”
Singer-songwriter Brent Cobb pauses like a preacher taking a breath and gives me a smirk. “That’s the FFA Creed.”
We both start to laugh in the middle of a cow pasture on a 141-year-old ranch in the Blackfoot Valley of Helmville, Montana. From where we stand, we can see rows of canvas cowboy tents, a mosaic of lupine and arnica wildflowers on the hillside, and woodfire smoke lazily kissing the sky. Cobb is a Grammy-nominated Georgia-based country artist who came to remote Montana (tour bus in tow) to headline the first Old Salt Festival, after spending the summer opening for Luke Combs on a massive stadium tour.
Old Salt was a welcomed deviation from Cobb’s impressive schedule. Hosted by the Mannix Family Ranch and created by Cole Mannix and Andrew Mace, two of the co-founders of Old Salt Co-Op (a meat company that prioritizes land stewardship and low-stress stockmanship methods), the festival was designed to celebrate music, ranching, and wild landscapes. Utilizing cattle to mimic keystone ruminants like bison that graze on large grasslands, the Mannix family provides a compelling example of responsible land management. A key component of the Old Salt Co-Op is connecting local food systems by fostering community relationships. With music, speakers, vendors, and a daily chef-created “grand meal,” the festival provides this opportunity.
“Anytime you put hickory smoke, and you say it’s a festival that’s about smoking local meats, I’m sold,” Cobb says with a grin. Growing up near Macon, Georgia, Cobb and his family would butcher and roast hogs his grandfather raised. As a teenager, he participated in FFA (explaining his recitation of the creed, though he admittedly “mostly chewed tobacco” during his tenure), attempted to get a high school rodeo program started in his hometown, and admired his musical influences that participated in ranching and agriculture–most notably, Cobb’s favorite artist, Otis Redding. “Otis was a damn country boy riding horses in Macon, Georgia. When he wasn’t on the road, he was farming. He is my favorite singer-songwriter of all time.”
The intersection of art and agriculture is extensive, especially in country music. This genre is unsurprisingly synonymous with rural living, with some of its biggest stars splitting their time between the road and the land. There are many easy examples of artists who live in both worlds. George Strait, the “King of Country,” is a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association member. Shania Twain, Tanya Tucker, and Reba McEntire are all renowned horsewomen. In addition to his Luck Ranch in Texas, Willie Nelson (alongside Neil Young and John Mellencamp) created FarmAid in 1985 to support family farms. Those who don’t participate in ranching or agriculture often still have reverence; a fine example is Waylon Jennings’ My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys documentary.
Younger artists in the country realm are also embracing agrarian lifestyles—Colter Wall spends the majority of his time on his ranch in rural Saskatchewan, like Tyler Childers in the Appalachian Mountains with his gardens and mules. Cole Mannix is aptly aware of the overlap and its importance. When he chose artists for Old Salt, it wasn’t dictated solely by popularity but by a deep sense of place.
“I wanted the music to be Western-oriented, but that can be pretty broadly defined. But what I really wanted was music that sounded like it has a sense of place–because that’s what we’ve lost in our food systems is our connection to place. I wanted it to feel like it had something to do about landscapes, something to do with local communities. It comes out in their music. Like Eli West trio, which makes me think of the Pacific Northwest, or with Brent Cobb, you can hear he’s from Georgia. [With these artists] there’s a sense of purpose, of groundedness, an orientation to the world, and a mission.”
Each artist invited to play the Old Salt Festival is a portrait of their home. Summer Dean’s honky tonk swagger, paired with whispers of ranchera music, clad in squash blossoms and a tall crowned hat, is all Texas. Riddy Arman, with lyrics of the natural world and hard work and an unassuming demeanor but commanding voice, is as striking as the Montana she now calls home. California crooner Kimmi Bitter’s harmony-heavy ballads and crying pedal-steel perfectly blend coastal character and a bygone Nashville sound.
Many of the artists not only have a strong tie to the land, but their livelihoods depend on it. Singer-songwriter Zara Alexandra and her partner—poet and agriculturalist Will Frost—live and work on Frost’s multi-generational ranch in Fountain Valley, Colorado. For Alexandra, the community emphasis of Old Salt Festival justified the overnight road trip with her sheepdog, Sticks. “I guess you can say we don’t get out much,” Zara says with a laugh. We talked after a group ecology walk to Eagle’s Point, a vista on the Mannix Family Ranch with panoramic views of the Blackfoot Valley where Alexandra performed. “On the ranch, it’s family or the same group of folks day-to-day. So we always welcome new perspectives. It’s great to be around a shared community of farmers and ranchers who have big and honest ideas.”
A standout song of Alexandra’s set was “Yelling at the Sky.” A meditation on the realities of marriage, with the added complexities of a ranching or agricultural family and the dualities of rural life as a whole. “It can be easy to marry the ranch or farm and have your family and spouse be second. I think we were trying to be cognizant of how the work can be all-encompassing.” These lessons don’t stem from pessimism but instead from pragmatism.
For Frost, a thoughtful poet rancher who gives Willie Nelson energy with less cannabis and more cattle, Old Salt Festival is a physical manifestation of a personal aspiration. With a diversified management model at his own family’s ranch—including grass-fed beef and lamb, vegetable and hay production, events, and a hunting lodge—Frost understands that building a robust community is critical to long-term viability. Art plays an unexpected but powerful role in fostering these relationships.
As Frost elaborates, “Art bridges a gap that is not so scientific. It’s more relatable than the base science that can get spewed at people to convince them of the value of ranching and farming. Music, in particular, is a strong tool for conveying the same message in a way that is creative and accessible. This event is breaking all barriers of traditionality in agriculture. It is redesigning how you approach agriculture in the sense of inclusiveness, open sharing, and honest talks. From the music to the panels, questions are being asked that are not usually asked, and it’s a platform that can reach a lot of people.”
Though music is a large draw for the festival, it isn’t the only appeal. Old Salt gathers some of the West’s most brilliant minds, like authors David James Duncan and Debra Magpie Earling, and gifted speakers like Ed Roberson of the Mountain and Prairie Podcast. Also present were renowned live fire and wild game chefs like Eduardo Garcia and Jeremy Charles. This intentionality permeates even to the festival’s vendors. Many of these makers are considered some of the region’s best, with only their curiosity and charisma matching their craft. A few dynamic women include silversmith Jillian Lukiwski of The Noisey Plume, Christy Sing Robertson of Sing Hat Company, and Cate Havstad of the leather company Range Revolution.
Like many of the makers, Havstad has a long list of accolades. She is a farmer, designer, and hatter. A great music supporter, she earned her stripes making custom hats for artists including Nikki Lane, Colter Wall, Gillian Welch, Kacey Musgraves, Riddy Arman, and Shania Twain. Her latest business venture, Range Revolution, creates luggage from traceable leather hides sourced from regenerative lands. “Old Salt represents everything Range Revolution is about. Range Revolution is about the celebration of the art of land stewardship. I’ve approached trying to connect consumers to place through food for a decade. And this project, Range Revolution, is about connecting the consumer to place via fashion and textiles, specifically leather.”
Where festival-goers were attracted to the thoughtful curation of Old Salt, many of the artists were too. For Riddy Arman, the emphasis on regenerative agriculture, West-centric speakers, and local food was a welcomed first gig after her maternity leave. As Arman good-naturedly shared during her evening set, “This is the first time my pre-show ritual has been nursing a baby.” The agricultural community is familial and an encouraging respite for parents old and new, something I also appreciated as a new mother with my 9-month-old baby strapped to me during many of my interviews.
Arman handled the multi-tasking with grace, straddling a hay bale across from me when we chatted, baby in her lap while simultaneously eating a Mannix hamburger. Wearing a charcoal cowboy hat, and a crisp white pearl snap, Arman has an easy star quality about her. She radiates competence—no surprise for a woman who, in addition to a career as an artist, has worked as a farmer and ranch hand.
Ranching was the original impetus for her move to Montana in 2019. “I was my boss’s right-hand woman. I calved with him, hayed, irrigated, branded, the full works.” Her experiences in ranching and agriculture have not only given her an education on responsibility but also provided a deep well of inspiration and insight. One of her newest songs, “Casino King,” is a fictional (but probable) story about a desperate widower who loses his cows and hitchhikes to a casino.
Though Old Salt Festival is undeniably a celebration of the culture, food, and art of the West, it isn’t exclusive to those who were raised to the left of the 100th meridian. A common sentiment throughout the weekend was, “It’s not where you’re from, but why you’re here.” An observation first shared by neotraditional country singer Sterling Drake, I asked him to expand on this feeling. Sitting in his backstage “green room,” a canvas cowboy tent with a red Persian rug, and makeshift beds for road-weary musicians, he elaborated.
“I’ve noticed a lot of people, myself included, are not from Montana or even the West. There are a lot of people that want to contribute and have a passion for it, and are doing a lot of good work. If you’re helping elevate the culture and the way of life here versus propagating or appropriating it, there’s a difference. I think, if you’re an outsider, you’re almost at risk of doing the latter. Everybody has a romanticism for this lifestyle. Otherwise, you wouldn’t wake up and choose to do it, whether you’re a fifth-generation rancher or a newbie like myself.”
I ask about his evolution, as a Florida-born singer, with a past as a rock drummer who now manages an equestrian facility in Greenough. “Oh, pretty rough, pretty bumpy,” he responds with a knowing smile. The paths to our passions aren’t always linear.
That evening we lounge in the big grassy pasture. The sky is a brilliant blue, and the warm sun settles on our backs. Our bellies are full of beef and borracho beans tenderly prepared over an open fire. Sterling Drake and his band start to play Stonewall Jackson’s “I Wash My Hands in Muddy Water.” I grab the hand of an old Colorado wrangler friend to two-step on the prairie dance floor. We join the old and the young, the ranchers and the authors, the singers and the artists.
We all feel the pull. The pull of the West. A place forever associated with self-discovery and possibilities.
Or, as Cole Mannix likes to say, a place where, on its best day, man and land are kin.