It isn’t often you get to reinvent yourself after 31 years, but that is what Blueberry Bluegrass needed and was able to achieve during their 2017 event, August 4-6.
Held in Stony Plain, Alberta, the Society celebrated their 32nd edition by pulling out all the stops to even hold the event. The current organizing committee didn’t take the reins of the fest until late February, and with no advance work having been done for the 2017 event, many feared for the future of the festival. But thanks to the efforts of area bluegrass stalwarts, many associated with but separate from the Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Society, it happened. And thank goodness it did.
Blueberry has long been one of Canada’s premier bluegrass events, having been referred to (accurately or not) as the largest and oldest bluegrass festival in the country, going through periods of growth (and stints of fallow) over the course of its three decades. It has battled August snow storms, near tornado-like winds and rain, sound system failures, no-shows, and performance disappointments while also embracing warm, azure Alberta skies, life-altering shows from legends, facilitating friendships and an intermittently strong provincial bluegrass scene.
Prior to this year’s event, Blueberry had gone through the management of essentially three different teams of leadership, each featuring individual strengths, foci, perspective, and vision during their years of control. Respect for all who previously headed the fest. While no event can satisfy each and every bluegrass fan—and I stayed away out of dissatisfaction for much of the decade from 2004-2014—Blueberry has done a pretty good job of meeting the needs of most. Quibbles aside, the Alberta bluegrass community has been well-served by Blueberry, and many of the most important names and bands have played the fest, Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, and J. D. Crowe on through to today’s hottest bands including The Earls of Leicester, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and the Del McCoury Band. Local heroes have developed at Blueberry, among them Jerusalem Ridge and Down To The Wood.
Without getting into gossip and ‘inside baseball’ territory—the details of which I am not privy—or criticizing prior practices, Blueberry Bluegrass dived into their next era this year, and the effect was immediately apparent.
While getting into the festival site was a bit of a mess on Saturday morning (the only day I was able to attend this year—I don’t believe I have the stamina to take in a three-day fest), the twenty minutes spent in line awaiting admittance was the only negative I experienced all day. Well, the weather wasn’t great but that is well-beyond anyone’s control. So many positive adjustments were apparent, some of them very significant.
Most notable, the use of the available facilities was taken to positive advantage. Blueberry has long been fortunate to have a gravelled stage site, access to flushables, and a covered pavilion for venders and additional conveniences. A new building had been built on the site, and the new board grabbed it to allow a second stage, this one indoor. As we all know, any fest is at the mercy of the weather, and by taking advantage of the new building, the organizers advanced the festival to its next level.
Not only does the second stage provide an indoor respite for those looking for such (and additional washrooms) it also allowed the festival programmers the advantage of broadening their artistic vision. Providing listeners choice (something admittedly not all welcomed when competing stage times caused undesirable conflicts) the festival allows guests their preference: inside/outside, Band A/Band B, wet/dry. According to one of the performers, the ballroom is not particularly ‘sound-friendly,’ but no one would have discerned that. Why? The festival invested in excellent equipment and sound talent, going as far as bringing in Miles Wilkinson to head up the interior sound team. Amazing. As well, the second floor of the new hall allowed for a private green room for the performers, a separate area for volunteer meals and such, and an intimate workshop space. No complaints heard. A third stage was available for the workshops and jams as well as additional performances.
The organizing committee went extra lengths to provide opportunities for attendees to participate in a variety of activities, some related to bluegrass, some not. While the music is what matters to me, I am glad that the committee recognizes that ‘value added’ elements will help grow the festival. Among the many activities organized for younger guests were a petting zoo, an arcade, and colouring contest, as well as bluegrass-related films, instrumental and singing workshops throughout the days, and facilitated jamming tents. Additionally, the venders market was vastly expanded and improved, and this was only possible by re-establishing relationships with area venders and artisans. The concourse area was filled with tables featuring commercial products, handcrafted items, and instruments, providing additional energy and vitality.
Building relationships is part of all good festival experiences, and the Blueberry board recognizes this. To secure talent, they were able to draw on the personal relationships built with professional musicians through years of involvement within the bluegrass community. The time they committed to working with the local government, communities, and service groups was apparent. Also obvious was the liaising that had been done between Blueberry and other area music presenters, the folk clubs and other western roots music fests, many of which had information tables. Gary Glewinski provided ukulele workshops.
None of this would matter if the quality of the stage presentations was lacking. Despite challenges, this year’s Blueberry line-up was more than satisfying. Of the seven full sets I witnessed, not a single one disappointed and the diversity was appreciated. Each performer seemed to match and exceed those that came before: who was my favourite? Who played last?
Blue Highway, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and David Peterson & 1946 (two sets) displayed different shades of ‘grass, and showed that this music has room for the traditional and original, for the progressive and that which emulates a previous time. (However, I still don’t need yodelling in my bluegrass.) While I didn’t catch their sets, reports were that the Spinney Brothers and Feller and Hill were also well received, while Fervor Coulee faves In With the Old, Russell DeCarle, and Nomad Jones performed on days when I wasn’t present.
Old Man Luedecke provided a bridge to the folk world, while Foghorn Stringband brought in the country/old-time element. Both received extended ovations. Local and area bluegrass talent was also given additional prominence this year, something that had been less respected in recent years. The Bix Mix Boys, whose energetic set I did catch, and Kayla and Matt Hotte were appreciated by their audiences.
While some criticized the lack of BIG NAMES (whomever that is supposed to be- you don’t get bigger than Blue Highway) this year’s festival has to be considered an artistic and entertainment success. Notable was the inclusion of eastern Canadian acts this year—The Spinney Brothers, The Foggy Hogtown Boys, and Old Man Luedecke—when it was previously asserted that it “wasn’t worth the money” to bring talent west. A Canadian festival must support developing and established Canadian bluegrass.
I was familiar with all the performers I witnessed on Saturday, but there were still surprises. David Peterson brought Mike Bub along, the bassist making his Blueberry debut twenty years after missing due to illness his scheduled appearance with the Del McCoury Band. Also with Peterson was his tenor foil Mickey Boles, a terrific mandolinist and vocalist, and the team of Corrina Rose Logston (fiddle) and Jeremy Stephens (banjo). What a band, and as a bonus Corrina and Jeremy gifted me a pair of albums, including their highly impressive High Fidelity band release. I had forgotten how powerful a singer Peterson is, and as he was singing “In The Mountaintops to Roams,” he just kept twisting emotion from the song. I’ve already filled a couple holes in my DP&1946 collection purchasing two downloads this week.
Adding to the enjoyment and in another essential progression, a rotating cast of personable MCs worked the stages, keeping the focus where it belongs—on the festival and the talent.
Of all the developments apparent at the 2017 edition of Blueberry, none seemed to be better received than the ‘late night’ old-time country dances. Featuring ever-popular local legends Calvin Vollrath & Alfie Myhres Friday and The Caleb Klauder Country Band on Saturday, reportedly the audience filled the hall and dance floor for high-spirited, communal celebration. These dances were a risk for the Blueberry folks, and it appears to have paid off in full.
The festival would be nothing without its volunteers, and while I understand some long-serving volunteers were not brought into the fold this past year, those who were working the festival were unfailingly polite and helpful. Hopefully those who were overlooked this time out, perhaps due to the lack of transition support received by the new organizers, will be encouraged back into the event.
During the course of the weekend—and as a result of meticulous planning and effort—Blueberry Bluegrass was completely revitalized!
The Board of Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Society Festival must grow their event, attracting additional paying guests and sponsorship. Keeping the focus on bluegrass will be a must, but incorporating the folk, old-time, traditional (but high-quality) country, Americana, and broader acoustic roots worlds will be an important part of the festival’s long-term health and vitality. Similarly, continuing to network with the local communities and governments will be vital, as will ensuring the festival offers its attendees more than just the music—opportunities for families to experience the music together being paramount.
My relationship with Stony Plain, Alberta goes back well before I discovered bluegrass or attended my first Blueberry in 1997. Stony Plain was where I had my first milkshake (at the long gone Gulf station restaurant out on the highway), attended my first pancake breakfast, and saw my first parade. Stony Plain was where Dr. Patterson was, where I went for speech therapy, and where once—as a four-or five-year old—I got onto the floor of the high school gym during a basketball game. It was the town of significance nearest our farm, and I thought I would always live near. Turns out, I haven’t—but for a weekend (or part of one) each year, I return. A dozen times I have driven into town for the festival, and I immediately feel at home. This past Blueberry Bluegrass was that much more significant for its improvements, and I have seldom felt so welcomed.
Way to go, Blueberry organizers: here’s to the next 32 years! See you August 3-5, 2018.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald