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Blueberry (& Other) Alberta/Saskatchewan Bluegrass Festivals

Donald Teplyske  |  June 19, 2016

Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Festival, Canada's largest bluegrass fester-and one of its longest running-goes the August long weekend, which in atypically contrary Canadian fashion falls on July 29-31 this year.

Blueberry occurs in Stony Plain, Alberta one of many charming small towns and cities (population 15 000, give or take) surrounding the province's capital city, Edmonton. Blueberry started in 1985, had the requisite growing pains, and bloomed into maturity in 1995 hosting Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys. The festival experienced a spurt in growth-and budget-around 2005 and has continued, during the last decade, to bring to Alberta some of the finest bluegrass bands performing. The festival grounds underwent a complete upgrade a few years ago, and it is difficult to imagine a better small town festival location.

The sustainability of the festival is a tribute to the efforts of the volunteer-based organization.

(I started showing up in 1997, attending regularly until I became so overly involved in my own bluegrass-promotion efforts-through my association with a Red Deer-based club-that the last thing I wanted to do during the summer was spend time surrounded by people far more interested in talking through sets than they were in listening...fortunately, that rude behaviour appears to be less prevalent today. Also, I got tired of the shameless self-promotion and other irritants I felt had become rampant at the fest. I'm not sure that has stopped, but I have become much better at worrying about only things I can control. I've returned the last couple years, and have enjoyed myself quite thoroughly.)

I heartily recommend that Americans looking for something a little different take advantage of the excellent exchange rate and visit Stony Plain and Blueberry this summer. As far as line-ups go, you can't help but be impressed: The Earls of Leicester, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition, Bluegrass, Etc., and The Po' Ramblin' Boys will provide a range of bluegrass interpretations throughout the weekend. Unlike some other festivals, artists usually play sets on two or three of the days of the event. (The schedule for this year isn't yet posted.) I also understand that they are switching from 45-minute sets to sixty and ninety minutes sets, resulting in fewer transitions. A band competition is also featured, as are free workshops in the mornings.

As Blueberry includes-for some damn reason-the words "& Country Music Festival" in its name, there is almost always a couple acts that play some form of the music. Some years it is a well-regarded, welcome name-Suzy Bogguss, Marty Stuart, Michael Martin Murphey-and other years it is a local or area 'noisy boy' who plays some semblance of rock 'n' roll-inspired country. This year, the country element of the bill will be represented by a set of well-known area country music veterans collectively billed as 'Canadian Country Music Legends.' Depending on what they perform, Young Medicine, a First Nations duo, may end up being of most interest.

The management group of the festival work hard to present a family-friendly environment. The local economy is supported via several food trucks and concessionaires on site, as well as a small market of area crafts and other offerings. There are a lot of (unserviced) sites for RVs and the like, and there are many area campgrounds that offer additional amenities.

If there is a criticism of the festival, I would suggest that they have not done enough in recent years to support Canadian bluegrass bands (I well know that Chris Jones has long lived in Canada.) Non-local Canadian bluegrass bands have become a rarity at the fest, and that may be a reflection of the dearth of quality groups across the country-although other fests seem to be able to feature some. Alberta bluegrass bands often get 'less-than-prime' performance slots. Why precious financial resources were/are earmarked for less than impressive outfits-musically amateurish (I still haven't recovered from Trick Ryder a couple years ago) or awkward electric-guitar focused schedule fillers-over the last couple years while ignoring the potential of (reasonably priced) Alberta roots acts-I'm thinking Matt Patershuk, John Wort Hannam, Laura Vinson, or Maria Dunn-to further expand their aural texture, or Canadian bluegrass bands is puzzling. Most likely, these are 'inside baseball' factors that will not concern most patrons: if uninterested in the stage performance, most will simply break for lunch or go back to the camper for a nap. Me, I fret and think about what I 'could' be listening to if only someone had greater (or at least, more flexible) vision. Okay, so I haven't completely succeeded in worrying about only that which I can control.

See, for me, anyone can book the top three bands for a bluegrass festival-as long as the group is touring and you have the budget, those deals are easy. Where the skill comes in is in booking the rest of the fest-Who is the under-known band that will be the fan favourite? Which act, a little left (or right) of center, is going to surprise everyone with something different? What veteran can be brought in to connect to the roots of the music? Who can be hired to expand your audience beyond the essential seniors? Which band will be hitting the charts in a year or two? (The bands that would have pushed the fest even further this year might be the likes of The Hillbenders, Della Mae, Sister Sadie, The O'Connor Band, Irene Kelly...still, this year's Blueberry lineup is very strong.)

No one goes to Blueberry Bluegrass for anything but bluegrass, and with a line-up of stellar American acts playing this year (and a Canadian dollar that is very favourable to south-of-the-border visitors) there is no better time to discover this Alberta festival.

If you are looking for more Canadian content in your bluegrass, there are other festivals from which to choose.

A few weeks after Blueberry, a smaller bluegrass festival goes further south in the province. Near Nanton, the Shady Grove Bluegrass Festival occurs August 19-21. Housed on the Broadway Farm, for a few years a decade ago, Shady Grove gave Blueberry a run for its money. Currently, the festival appears content to be the less flamboyant cousin, quietly going about its business presenting an emerging American act (this year, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado) as well as several Alberta and Canadian bluegrass groups-the very capable Canyon Mountain, 5 on a String, Misery Mountain Boys, All Day Breakfast Stringband, Steve Fisher, Prairie's Edge, and the Spitzee Post Band.

Again, unserviced camping, a family atmosphere, and plenty of jamming will be present.

In north-central Saskatchewan, near Prince Albert Provincial Park and Big River, is the Northern Lights Bluegrass & Old-Tyme Music Festival, August 12-14. I've never attended this fest, but it has been going for more than a decade to good word-of-mouth reviews. The Po' Ramblin' Boys are the featured Americans, with a variety of Canadian acts rounding out the bill- The Fitzgeralds, from the Ottawa Valley, The Annie Lou Band-an act I have great regard for-Quebec vets Notre Dame de Grass, All Day Breakfast String Band, Rugged Little Thing, Andrew Sneddon and Matthew Hornell, and others appear. A music camp is held the week following.

The Steep Canyon Rangers and The Kruger Brothers are about all the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is offering this time out for bluegrass, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of great roots music-starting with John Wort Hannam, Mike Farris, Dar Williams, and Colin Linden amongst the usual assortment of bigger names-on offer. The fest goes August 4-7 in the province's capital city.

July 21-24, the Calgary Folk Music Festival is on in the tranquil environs of Princess Island Park. No hardcore bluegrass, but The Steel Wheels appear, as do Robbie Fulks, Eilen Jewell, Ian Tyson, and Elizabeth Cook, as well as a huge slate of roots, folk, and world acts. Always a good time.

Consider coming north this summer:there is a great deal of bluegrass and roots music occurring in Alberta's prairie provinces. I would suggest you are not only assured excellent music, but the company of some friendly folks who share your passion for bluegrass music.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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