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Western Canada's Bluegrass Summer 2023 Taking Shape

Donald Teplyske  |  March 30, 2023

While not all the western Canadian bluegrass festivals have released their lineups for 2023, several have. I'll update information as details are received. (Because I can't figure out how to make live links here, you'll just have to Google the specific fests for additional information.)

Western Canada has had an active bluegrass scene for many years. The first Blueberry Bluegrass went in 1985, and since then the activity—both localized jamming and performance as well as larger summer fests—has only grown in intensity.

Canada's largest and many would suggest finest bluegrass festival is Blueberry Bluegrass held annually on the August long weekend in Stony Plain, Alberta. This year, August 4-6 will see another great lineup for the festival as the two-time International Bluegrass Music Association Event of the Year (2019, 2021) presents the finest in local, regional, and international bluegrass and acoustic music.

Headlining the festival are multiple IBMA Award-winning bandleader Becky Buller who brings her group to Blueberry for the first time. Also headlining are the well-respected and popular Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, California's AJ Lee & Blue Summit, and the most popular band to play Blueberry in recent years, The Po' Ramblin' Boys. Additionally, Johnson City's Bill and the Belles return to Blueberry for the first time since 2019, as do Jessie & the Gents, a bluegrass-country group from Switzerland.

Blueberry has long mixed in some country and folk with their brand of bluegrass and this year is no exception. The Gift: The Words and Music of Ian Tyson is a long-running tribute to the Canadian folk, country, and cowboy culture legend headed by his long-time collaborator Stewart MacDougall and featuring Tyson sidemen including Thom Moon, Gord Matthews, Myran Szott, and Julian Kerr as well as Ian Oscar and John Wort Hannam, an award-winning Canadian folksinger held in high regard by all who are familiar with him. Wort Hannam and MacDougall will do additional sets featuring their own music.

Rounding out the three-day bill are area bands The River City Playboys, featuring four high profile Alberta bluegrassers in Byron Mhyre, Marc Ladouceur, Matt Hotte, and Curtis Appleton with Zach Daniel keeping these master players between the ditches with powerful bass playing, as well as Passin' Through and The Lost Prospectors.

With multiple stages running concurrently as well as terrific facilities and sound production, Blueberry Bluegrass has become a destination festival for people looking for a festival that is more intimate than some of the large, multi-day American bluegrass festivals, as well as the area folk festivals.

Further west out on Vancouver Island is the Cowichan Bluegrass Festival, June 16-18 at Lake Cowichan, British Columbia. Headlining this three-day fest are the award-winning Po' Ramblin' Boys, as well as AJ Lee and Blue Summit. John Reischman & Old Acoustic also appear, as do Quebec's Veranda. The duo of Jacob Jolliff and Michael Daves travel from New York, while additional B.C. artists appearing include On the Rocks, The Doggone Brothers, and Golden Shoals.

Cowichan Bluegrass is a 'camping' festival but hotels are available locally and in nearby Duncan. Plan ahead then for a festival that everyone who attends raves about.

Haines Junction, Yukon Territory has for two decades hosted the Kluane Bluegrass Festival. While a bit of a jaunt, all reports are that the festival, scenery, and hospitality make Kluane Bluegrass a 'bucket list' adventure.

This year's festival is June 9-11 and features Canadian headliners The Slocan Ramblers and the Amanda Cook Band from Tennessee and parts further, Australia. Ontario's terrific Barrel Boys also appear, as do The Small Glories (Cara Luft and JD Edwards) and Liam Purcell and Cane Mill Band.

Plan ahead, do your research, and travel with care, but don't worry—the Yukon isn't that far away, and the roads north are in fine repair. Be adventurous!

Nimble Fingers Bluegrass and Old-Time Workshop and Festival is another long-running event, this time in British Columbia's Shuswap. Two weeks of workshops straddle a weekend festival featuring some of the finest acoustic musicians available.

Running August 20- September 1 (most attendees choose a week of lessons and workshops along with the festival) and with more instructors and performers to be announced, this year Missy Raines & Allegheny, John Reischman, and the Lonesome Ace Stringband are some of the notable names committed to instructing and performing.

Also listed are Kayla and Matt Hotte, an Alberta brother-sister duet who have performed together and separately for years, and who never fail to deliver, Never Come Down, Erynn Marshall & Carl Jones, Eli West, Copper Island Bluegrass Collective, and Ashlee Watkins and Andrew Small.

Sorrento, BC is one of the most beautiful spots in Western Canada, and your holiday will only be brightened by spending some time with the folks at Nimble Fingers.

Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old-Time is another event that combines a few days of workshops along with a festival. Held near Big River, Saskatchewan, the workshops are August 14-18 with the festival August 18-20. I had 'first-time' bluegrass festival goer friends attend last year, and they still haven't stopped raving about the event.

Another 'camping' event, Northern Lights has been going for over a decade now. The Well Drinkers and Martha Spencer & the Wonderland Band headline a week of music instruction, jamming, and performance. Also on the bill are Happy Trails, Prospector, Edmonton's Bix Mix Boys and roots/folk artist Steph Cameron also appearing. The Barrelmen, Hummingbird Crossing, and JJ Guy & Cathy Sproule are also announced, with more to be added.

Back in Alberta, Shady Grove Bluegrass goes June 14-16. Now comfortably adjusted to its new home in Sundre (northwest of Calgary), and presented by the Foothills Bluegrass Society, the performers for 2023 are all Canadian. The Slocan Ramblers, The Barrel Boys, and John Reischman & Old Acoustic headline with other acts appearing including Jake Vaadeland & the Sturgeon River Boys, Under the Rocks, Over the Moon, the Lonesome Town Painters, The Lost Prospectors, and Morningside. Sundre is a mid-sized community in Alberta's west country, the foothills I suppose, and there are local hotels and such available. The festival is dry camping only.

I haven't attended Shady Grove in too many years, and not since they moved to Sundre. May have to head south this June.

Much further east, but I want to get a plug in for the PEI Bluegrass & Old Time Music Festival (which I attended once in 2003 at Souris-—a great time was had!) is held in Dundas, PEI July 7-9 and this year features the incredible High Fidelity Band and Tommy Webb. That's all that is up on their website, but I imagine they will be updating things in short order.

That's a start of the summer 2023 (mostly) western Canadian Bluegrass festival lineups. I will update as able, and remember the folk festivals in Edmonton, Calgary, on Vancouver Island, and elsewhere typically feature a 'name' bluegrass act or two.

I've been asked what makes a Canadian bluegrass festival different from an American one. As I've only attended large American fests like Wintergrass and IBMA week a couple times, I am not likely the best person to ask. Maybe one day I can travel south and do some comparisons. I do know that in Canada you can expect high-calibre bands as listed, friendly and well-organized presenters and audiences, and great tasting food and beer. Oh, and your dollar is going to go a lot further.

I would suggest, Come north and find out for yourself!

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