- The festival has never been so appealingly eclectic. While it was once billed as “& Country Music Festival” and as such included some very questionable lineup choices (look no further than Trick Ryder and Dirt Road Angels), Blueberry is now decidedly and positively heterogeneous in its ‘big tent’ approach to bluegrass and acoustic roots music. See Front Country, a Nashville band with bluegrass origins who has evolved from that foundation and had folks dancing and grooving during their Saturday main stage set. The atmosphere was close to that of a folk fest, but maintained Blueberry’s small-town charm.
- Bill & the Belles.
- Hanne Kah Band.
- John Reischman & the Jaybirds.
- Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.
The four above named groups couldn’t be more diverse given their acoustic underpinnings. But they represent the kaleidoscope that Blueberry has become, a combination of fresh and new, unexpected, challenging, high-profile, experienced, musically elaborate and masterful. All delivered consistently high-quality music across the weekend, except Hanne Kah who were limited to a single, incredible and extended (thanks to an aware MC<g>) first-day set.
6. The festival site is ideal. Despite a downpour forcing acts inside Friday night, mud was rarely encountered. The graveled main stage site, well-maintained footpaths, and an incredible pavilion and indoor stages work together to provide a festival experience unlike any other experienced in Canada.
7. Jamming remains essential. From formal jams led by internationally-recognized masters as well as well-regarded area and local talent, to the RV and campsite gatherings, no matter an individual’s interest, jams (!) at Blueberry are easy to find. Not my thing, but an important component. Similarly, the Master Sessions and Instrumental and Vocal workshops remain popular, drawing large numbers of keen observers and participants. The evening ‘old-time’ dances have quickly become important, expected elements of the fest.
8. The organizers have a distinct vision for the continuing health of the festival. They are not upsetting the apple cart by bringing in artists that do not fit the Blueberry acoustic aesthetic, but recognize that their audience isn’t necessarily as conservative as some believe: grey hair doesn’t mean you aren’t open to new or ‘outside the bluegrass box’ sounds. When Tim O’Brien Band, Bill & the Belles, Nu-Blu, and The Western Flyers get called back for successive and equally enthusiastically demanded encores during an afternoon of music, one realizes the incredible listening diversity of Blueberry’s patrons. Combine this with a volunteer infrastructure that balances the experienced with new blood, as well as new patrons making their first foray to the festival, and the future looks darned bright.
9. High Fidelity and Barefoot Movement are the future of the festival. Incredible bands with very different approaches to the music. Blueberry must continue to embrace both ends of the bluegrass spectrum.
10. The Town of Stony Plain has been brought back to the festival, enthusiastically embraced by the organizers not only for the festival’s benefit but for the advantage of the greater community. A town of less than 20 000 cannot singularly support a bluegrass festival with substantial bills to cover. Similarly, a still-growing bluegrass festival with significant talent fees to accommodate cannot afford to ignore its host community. Blueberry Bluegrass understands this, and has worked hard to rebuild strained relationships with this host community.
The positive vibe is apparent, from the youthful volunteers heading the children’s activities to the local vendors, sponsors, and patrons supporting the fest. Everyone has come together to support Blueberry Bluegrass, including Northern Circle Bluegrass — once unwisely, for whatever reasons — held at arms length. Additionally, CKUA—Alberta’s donor-supported broadcaster—has committed to the festival, broadcasting its weekly Bluegrass Hour (hosted by the amiable Darcy Whiteside) from the site the last two years.
With their first nomination as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Event of the Year secured, and a photo gallery featured at leading website Bluegrass Today, the profile of Blueberry Bluegrass Festival has never been greater, nor as well-deserved. The festival has evolved since I first attended in 1997, and with its 35th edition approaching in 2020, Blueberry Bluegrass is worthy of positive regard and patron support.