Nestled in the mountains of central Idaho, the town of Challis bustles every August when it plays host to the Braun Brothers Reunion Festival. Regarded as one of the state’s most beloved gatherings by both attendees and artists alike, the BBR is a family-friendly event that draws thousands of visitors from across the country and the globe, bringing artists together with their fans in a picturesque setting for three unforgettable days. Now in its 14th year in Challis, the festival prides itself on maintaining its focus on music and a familial atmosphere – something that began decades ago, courtesy of its founders, Muzzie and JoAnn Braun, and their family, who have a deep musical history with the state that goes back decades.
In the 1950’s, Muzzie’s father Eustacious “Musty” Braun, a musician himself, moved his family (wife Becky and three sons Gary, Billy, and Muzzie) to Twin Falls, Idaho. It was there he made a living playing the Nevada lounges, eventually landing a steady gig in Jackpot where he and his B-3 played six nights a week. Their three sons became musicians themselves, forming a band in high school and playing teen dances and the rodeo circuit. Eventually, Muzzie met Joann and together had four boys – Cody, Willy, Gary, and Micky – raising them in a rural home in Idaho with no electricity, running water, or neighbors. However, the homeschooled foursome had access to a variety of musical instruments, which, not surprisingly, they showed an innate ability to play.
While the boys were young, Muzzie still gigged with his brothers, and JoAnn and the kids would often accompany him. During their shows, a seven-year-old Cody would come out for a fiddle solo, and young Willy would play the drums. After the arrival of Gary and Micky, Muzzie and the Little Braun Brothers, later known as Muzzie Braun and the Boys, were born. The father and sons spent years making music together, touring, releasing albums, and even performing on The Tonight Show (twice), until eventually, the older sons, Cody and Willy, left home. They first moved to Oregon then settled in Austin where, remaining true to their musical sound, they forged a path to become a crowd-pleasing and well-respected staple in the music community – Reckless Kelly, a band who celebrated twenty years together last September. A few years after Willy and Cody made the move, Micky and Gary followed and have carved out a place for themselves, and a devoted following, as Micky and the Motorcars. While the foursome have become adopted Texas sons, they still call Idaho home, returning to their houses in the Gem State throughout the year, including those busy days in August for the BBR. But before they take the stage – the Motorcars close out Thursday night while Reckless shut down the festival on Saturday – there is much work to be done and preparations to be made.
First held in 1979 in Stanley, Idaho by Muzzie and his three brothers Billy and Gary, the reunion started out as a record release party, but soon became an annual gathering, growing in size from a one-day event to a three-day event, drawing large crowds and artists from outside the region. By 2003, the festival outgrew Stanley itself and was moved to Challis. A flatbed truck initially served as the center of activities until the Braun family themselves built the stage (now known as the community stage) specifically for the festival – giving back to the community they have been a part of for so long. “The town has been really, really receptive to the event….and we do it [here in Idaho] because it’s where the boys grew up,” Muzzie has said.
Planning for the BBR starts even before the current year’s festival concludes and is truly a family and community affair spearheaded by JoAnn and Muzzie, who handle everything from finalizing the lineup, ticketing, securing volunteers, and anything in between – JoAnn even makes a blanket from the participating bands’ t-shirts that are raffled off on Saturday. Festivalgoers see and experience first-hand the town’s incredible hospitality and community. The local sorority handles the food stand, serving up burgers, nachos, and friendly smiles – and a ring of the cowbell whenever anyone drops a tip in the jar; locals volunteer to staff the beer tent, drive the shuttle buses to and from the campgrounds and motels, and participate in the nightly clean-up. There’s a sense of pride as well as a welcoming spirit from everyone who participates that translates into an experience that singer-songwriter Jamie Lin Wilson describes as, “a big, happy field of people.” As JoAnn and Muzzie have lovingly curated the festival for decades, they have been slowly passing the reigns to the boys, with each of them learning the ropes, preparing to ultimately take responsibility for the festival and keep it focused on music, family, and community as their parents have done for so long.
As preparations for the BBR are underway, the charming town of Challis, situated near the spectacular Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River, becomes a flurry of activity. With a population hovering around 1000, the town’s grocery stores, three bars, and handful of restaurants prepare for the influx of approximately 3000 music fans over the long weekend. An extremely varied group united in their love for the music, attendees have come from all fifty states and places as far away as Germany and Australia, making their way by RV, car, or motorcycle, experiencing the natural beauty that is Idaho. The Sawtooth Mountains, the Salmon River, and the state’s pristine lakes, parks, and beautiful vistas – all of which are at your feet to experience further during the day before the festivities begin – guide the way to the center of town.
As the festival is in full swing and you walk through the crowds, you’ll notice people of all ages. From little ones in strollers and children dancing with their parents to members of the older generation sitting in their folding chairs and college kids raising a glass in the air, everyone is having fun. The BBR has always placed music as the centerpiece of time spent enjoying friends, family, and the outdoors, and that is something the attentive, respectful audience appreciates.
Cody Canada, who has played the BBR for ten years with Ragweed and the Departed has noted, “The crowd there pays attention. At a lot of these outdoor festivals, they just want people to show up, spend money and get drunk. And that’s not the Brauns. They want people to come and experience something. And on that last day, they want people to start planning for next year. They want you to come back and discover new music.”
Except for the one food and two beverage booths, the festival grounds are free from the usual areas peddling arts, crafts, or varied knick-knacks. In fact, only the artists performing have small merch booths on the side in the back keeping the focus on the stage – and everyone involved wouldn’t have it any other way.
While the yearly lineup has featured such musical powerhouses as Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider, Rodney Crowell, Alejandro Escovedo, Jerry Jeff Walker, Suzy Bogguss, Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson, Guy Clark, and more, the Braun family too finds themselves on that stage during the Braun Family Jam. A highly anticipated part of the BBR, the entire Braun family – Muzzie, the boys, Billy, Gary, and others – takes the stage on Saturday to sing originals and standards. As a wave of nostalgia washes over those who have attended for years, others stand in awe at the talent on stage and the amount of joy they have performing together, a joy that spreads as wide as the mountains themselves.
The Braun Brothers Reunion is a leading example of a festival that, despite having grown, has maintained its standard of quality and a welcoming, inclusive feel like no other. It’s a festival that’s family.