For a few years in the mid-part of the last decade, Alberta seemed-at least to those of us in the middle of it-to be on the edge of turning the corner to become one of the bluegrass hotbeds of North America. While things have cooled a bit in the past five or seven years, there is still plenty of bluegrass action to attract and satisfy discriminating listeners and jammers.
One of Alberta's, and for that matter North America's, longest running and most successful bluegrass festivals takes place annually the first weekend of August near Edmonton in the vital burgh of Stony Plain. Located less than a thirty minute drive west of Alberta's capital city-recently highlighted alongside Singapore, Athens, and Philadelphia as one of National Geographic Travel's Best Summer Trips 2015, largely on the strength of its sunny weather, world-class arts festivals, and incredible diversity of dining options-Stony Plain's Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Festival celebrates its 30th edition this coming July 31-August 2.
If one has never considered a trip to Alberta for bluegrass, this might be the summer to adjust plans and make the journey: we're not as far away as some may think.
The talent lineup is impressive, and the organization of this festival is consistently of a high quality. According to the volunteer board's treasurer Sheila Hallett, Blueberry Bluegrass' positive standing is well deserved. "The festival gets great acts year after year, and has earned a stellar reputation. We treat the entertainers well and they in turn speak positively about the festival to other entertainers, helping us secure talent to come up and play."
The organizers have done a great job of booking this upcoming edition of the festival. Returning headliners include The Seldom Scene, The Del McCoury Band, and Rhonda Vincent & the Rage. Hot Rize will be making their festival debut, as will Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. The headliners usually appear three times over two of the festival days. Calvin Vollrath is an Alberta fiddling legend, having recorded and released sixty (!) albums, and has played Blueberry Bluegrass a number of times, while other local acts-including the Steve Fisher Bluegrass Band, Kayla Hotte & Her Rodeo Pals, and Hallett's own Prairie Sky- also get their opportunity to take the stage.
Commonly referenced as simply Blueberry, the festival started in 1985 as a small gathering at an area community hall featuring local bands, and slowly grew until it was attracting the biggest names in bluegrass including Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys in 1995. A lot has changed in the intervening years, including various generations of organizers.
"Depending on who is on the board and who is serving as Entertainment Director, you get different musical preferences. I believe we've always honoured senior bluegrass performers, and have had most of the big names here at one time or another. We try to mix traditional with contemporary bands, and we're always keeping our ears to the ground for local bands and bluegrass bands from across Canada," Hallett shared.
Del McCoury continues to draw well wherever he appears, but as the legend cuts back his appearances, landing him for the 2015 Blueberry show was a significant achievement. Ditto, The Seldom Scene. Hot Rize, a band that doesn't too often appear in Canada, was initially announced for the lineup, and then backed out when a European tour was proposed. Fortunately for those attending Blueberry, when that fell through, they were able to slip back into the talent pool for this year's event.
And then there is beloved Blueberry performer, Rhonda Vincent. Says Hallett, "She always goes above and beyond to put on great shows here-it's one of her favourite festivals to play and our patrons continue to ask for her return."
Few of us in attendance fail to recall the legendary, spirited set she and the Rage performed in near- freezing temperatures in 2002; relax, tender souls-it hardly ever snows in August!
Hallett has been on the Blueberry board for five years, and is especially interested in seeing the event continue to be vibrant and successful.
"We try to keep it a family event-we don't compete with a (thinly disguised bacchanal...writer's licence) country music festival that occurs the same weekend," Hallett observes. Jamming has always been a part of Blueberry, and we are working to try to encourage its return to prominence." A significant, impressive upgrade to the site of the festival curtailed some of the free-flowing jamming that is part of any festival worth its name, and the organizers understand its importance to the culture of the festival. "We encourage the artists to mingle with the audience, and patrons appreciate getting to know the performers. We continue to host workshops with the professionals providing tips to all those who bring their instruments to participate."
Blueberry is also doing their part to attract younger musicians to bluegrass. "Last year we set up a two-hour workshop for kids aged eleven through seventeen; they were able to come to Blueberry with their families for free on the Saturday and learn from the very talented Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Society (the area's long-established and year-round bluegrass promoter) musicians, including Marc Ladouceur, Curtis Appleton, Kayla Hotte, and Anna Somerville. It was a rewarding experience, and we are partnering with NBCMS this year to do that again; we have high hopes of drawing younger folks to bluegrass and Blueberry."
Billing itself as "Canada's Largest Bluegrass Festival," Blueberry has consistently booked high calibre line-ups that have balanced the bluegrass and country elements of its name (about 90/10, traditionally) featuring regional acts as well as up-and-coming groups, veteran bands with drawing power, musician's musicians, and 'top tier' bluegrass acts. Few is the high-profile bluegrass act that hasn't appeared at Blueberry over the past three decades.
Of the things that have changed in the last decade, the site itself is most notable. Several years ago, the exhibition grounds that house the festival had a complete makeover, and from logistical and amenities perspectives this is by far and away a most impressive site for an outdoor bluegrass festival.
Vehicle and trailer parking has been greatly improved, and the concert seating area is now graveled. The pavilion was greatly expanded-perhaps even rebuilt-and the surrounding grounds have been completely redeveloped. The stage, which was once little more than a shed, is now a study, freestanding building with ample room for instrument storage and staff movement.
When considering how to attract potential festival attendees from outside the province and even the United States, Hallett is encouraging. "Do come-you won't regret it for one minute. The music will be great, the people are friendly. Blueberry is like one big, happy bluegrass family-you share your love of the music, you bring your instrument, and you get in on the jamming after the stage shuts down at night... and you take instructional workshops in the morning. At Blueberry, you will meet some nice folks, and get up close and personal with some of the hottest pickers in the world!"
For ticket information, festival information including camping, and complete schedule, visit www.BlueberryBluegrass.com.