While Cheyenne explodes in late July with Cheyenne Frontier Days, the massive festival that attracts more than 150,000 visitors to watch the rodeo and hear country acts such as Garth Brooks, George Strait and Blake Shelton — and occasionally pop stars like Taylor Swift and even headliner Post Malone in 2019 — for the rest of the year the town has traditionally offered little more than small bar gigs and house concerts. Until two years ago, when the nearly ninety-year-old Lincoln Theater was converted from a movie theater into a mid-sized venue akin to Denver's Bluebird Theater, Cheyenne didn’t have a place other than the Cheyenne Civic Center that could support larger touring acts.
For southern Wyoming indie-rock fans, hip-hop heads and punks hoping to see their heroes, trekking south to Red Rocks, Ball Arena or the Ogden Theatre was the best option, recalls promoter Mike Morris, who sits on the board of Arts Cheyenne, a nonprofit boosting that city's cultural scene. “I’ve been down at Red Rocks shows, and people are astonished I drove so far to get there,” he says. “It’s not that far. For us, we joke that we have dual citizenship. ... Everyone comes down for Broncos games, Rockies games; we hit the Ogden. There is this bridge.”
Denver bands often returned the favor by playing Cheyenne shows. Morris, who's been throwing free community-based concerts since 2016, has brought in such Mile High acts as The Reminders, Flobots, YaSi and more than thirty others, many of which returned multiple times. “These free community music and arts series have been pretty instrumental in the larger-scale development of our music scene and our community as a whole,” he explains.
Still, most Denver residents largely ignored Wyoming’s musical offerings. With the concert scene here booming from competition between AEG Presents: Rocky Mountains, Live Nation and a few bold independents, residents could catch any number of touring bands on any given night in the Mile High City. There just was no reason to slog north across the border for a bar show or house concert.
But during the pandemic, as Colorado’s scene shut down for more than a year, that began to change. With fewer COVID restrictions, Wyoming became the only game in the region, and the Terry Bison Ranch, just across the Colorado border, came to life as a venue with the help of promoter Hamilton Byrd.
Byrd got his start at fourteen, booking metal shows in a community park in Cheyenne and charging $5 a head. But after a decade in the business, by 2016 he was burned out and quit promoting. “Small markets are hard in general,” he explains. “I felt pretty dejected and gave up.”
When he saw that the Lincoln Theater was being transformed into a venue and noticed the uptick in free community concerts around town, however, he decided to get back in the game and started Blue Pig Presents. “Not to toot my own horn, but we’ve been able to do some badass shows,” Byrd says. “'Momentum' is the word I’d use to describe Cheyenne’s music scene. There’s more momentum than in most towns.”
Even as COVID-19 spread, Byrd wasn’t ready to see music and entertainment come to a standstill. “When the pandemic hit in March," he recalls, "I talked with the owner of the Terry Bison Ranch: 'Why don’t we do a movie night?'”
So they built a screen, bought a projector and showed a few movies, giving bands a chance to play before the screenings. Seeing the dearth of live music to the south, Byrd started throwing bigger shows at the ranch: Yonder Mountain String Band, Robert Randolph and a jam-band supergroup with Devon Allman, Dwayne Betts and two members of Lettuce. That show attracted the attention of Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom owner and AEG talent buyer Scott Morrill.
In July 2020, Morrill took AEG’s Scott Campbell and Don Strasburg up to tour the venue. With 26,000 acres, there was ample room for a pandemic-safe concert experience. Soon AEG started throwing its own shows at the Terry Bison Ranch, inspiring Denver fans to head north.
Trev Rich and the rock band Patti Fiasco, with additional performances by the Grand Alliance, TheyCallHimAP, Bud Bronson & the Good Timers and many more.
For Morris, the event displays the cultural transformation and fresh energy rippling across the Mountain West. “It’s a very palpable shift,” he explains. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s like a cultural zeitgeist here, but if you grew up in Cheyenne, like I did, it kind of feels that way. There’s so much stuff going on that didn’t exist ten years ago.
“I lived down in Denver and came back in 2014,” he continues. “In the time I’ve come back, it’s astonishing to see culturally, and from a downtown-business perspective, how things have changed.”
Breweries and cocktail lounges have arrived in Cheyenne, where street art and murals are also appearing. There’s a sense that the city, long known for its cowboy culture, is becoming cool.
“I think a lot of that is influenced by the rest of the Front Range,” Morris says. “There’s a migratory trend of folks moving to Cheyenne.”
And more Denver artists playing Cheyenne. Morris hopes that inspires some reciprocal movement as his hometown’s musicians start touring Colorado more. “There are a lot of great musicians up here,” he points out. “It’s cross-genre. There are a lot of good singer-songwriters out here who have blues vibes, folks vibes...and rock bands.” He mentions vintage pop-punk outfit Sunnydale High, country act the Sean Curtis Band and the reggae rockers in the Josh Gonzales Band.
“What’s popping off now is a hip-hop scene,” he adds, pointing to rappers Onwuka, Trey Wrks and 2une Godi. “That’s never a scene that was really here.”
He hopes Denver music lovers come up to check out the free festival and discover his city's cultural rebirth.
“It’s a city finding its identity,” he explains. “By nature, we have to diversify our economy. Most people recognize that. Everyone’s embracing anything that’s popping up. We want to continue opening more opportunities for our local artists.
"Sometimes our local bands are like, 'We want to play this stuff, too,'” he continues. “That’s coming. We have to have some big acts that get people to come out. We want to keep on supporting local bands, too. They’ve never been able to play in Denver. Very few have. We’re like, 'Oh, we can get on their radar with having these bands up here.'”
He does offer one warning for Coloradans making the trek to Wyoming.
“Marijuana is not legal,” he notes. “If you’re coming up from Colorado, be aware of that. The last thing we want is people to come up and not be aware.”
The Cheyenne Arts Celebration runs from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday, August 21, at Lions Park Amphitheatre. For more information about the free event, visit artscheyenne.com.