Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rowdy, pardner

Dauphin's Countryfest a good time, no matter how much it rains

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BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Campers fill the fields behind the stage. The festival expanded its camping area to 4,300 spaces this year.

Over its 25 years, Dauphin's Countryfest has earned a reputation for being one of Canada's most rowdy music festivals. Everyone's heard the lore; tales of debauchery and hedonism in one of the most party-hardy campsites around.

Still, the culture of Canada's longest-running country-music festival isn't just one of Party, Sleep, Repeat, to quote someone's relentlessly on-point tank top. It's also a culture rooted in community -- a fact that was underscored during a weekend of never-ending rain. The people who go to Countryfest are among the most committed folks you'll ever meet, dedicated to the good times no matter what. Middle-aged veterans in full Gore-Tex coexist among 18-year-old first-timers in bikinis and flimsy ponchos. Overwhelmingly, people are friendly. They're creative; for example, just about anything can be a beer receptacle, from jerry cans to plastic T-ball bats. And they're resilient, still just given'r even when rain has transformed their campsites into sludgy cesspools of mud, beer and bodily fluids. (Of course, there are always a few loogans in the bunch; as of press time on Sunday, RCMP had responded to 24 calls for service over the past 72 hours, including two assaults. Ten men had been removed for intoxication.)

Countryfest has become one of Manitoba's destination music festivals, bringing out 14,000 fans to the Selo Ukraina site and its unique hillside amphitheatre on the edge of the bucolic Riding Mountain National Park. Since its inception in 1990, the festival has attracted some of the country's biggest names, including Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and this year's headliner, Rascall Flatts.

Not only is Countryfest community-focused, it's also community-driven. It's a non-profit organization, run mostly by volunteers and a full-time staff of three. Any profits go back into the community. Over the past few years, the festival has invested in Dauphin's four-cinema multiplex, a new swimming pool, a new hockey arena, a splash park and a skateboard park. To celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, it gave away $25,000 ($1,000 per week) to community groups.

The festival has also invested $3 million in site improvements over the past 25 years. This year alone saw the addition of a new seating section, 300 more parking spots, 2.4 additional hectares designated for camping, the repainting of concession buildings and re-gravelling roads throughout the site.

Eric Irwin, president of Dauphin's Countryfest and the mayor of Dauphin, says improving the experience with expanded services is crucial in cultivating a culture of respect. After all, for four days, this is people's home. "Regulars trust that we're investing in it to make it better," he says. "And hopefully, they'll respect it."

 

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Make no mistake, those who inhabit the fabled Back 40 campground are 24-hour party people.

By early afternoon, the grid of RVs and tents is humming with activity. Wildly competitive drinking games are in progress. If you walk by, you will be invited to join in; people freely share their beers and whatever else they have to offer. An earnest young woman in tie-dye offered me a straight shot of grape Sourpuss out of the bottle at 1:45 p.m. (I passed.) Advice from veterans is also passed out. "You're going to want to change your shoes," a young Morden woman who has been coming for eight years cautioned me about my sneakers. Most of the campers here are young, many of them from rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The dudebro force is strong in the Back 40.

Surveying the site on Saturday, it was hard not to be struck by the sheer volume of beer cans everywhere, a visual shorthand for the wild night before (no wonder Countryfest has an on-site recycling depot). Between the campground rave and individual pop-up parties, the fun goes straight on till morning.

Jordan Fidler, a 19-year-old University of Manitoba law student, and his buddies are trudging through a particularly thick patch of mud. One of them has lost a flip-flop. "If I were to give any advice, it'd be bring good shoes," Fidler says. "My feet are (expletive)."

It's his first time at the festival and he's been partying every night until 7 a.m. He's shirtless and covered in mud. There's even mud on his chin. "I haven't actually been to any concerts yet," he confesses.

His friend, Tyler Chembell, 20, has been coming for a couple of years. For him, it's about the music and the people. "Everyone's here for the same reason," he says. Indeed, music festivals can be unifying experiences. So can torrential downpours.

A trio of young women -- Ellary Austin, 20, of Boissevain, Maryssa Zajaros, 18, and Kristen Cyr, 20 of Winnipeg -- are wandering the campground in the pouring rain, taking in the sights. Zajaros and Cyr have just met Austin. Fast friendships form here. "I'm coming until I'm old and wrinkly," Zajaros says of the festival. It's her second year. First-timer Cyr has been converted. "It's official," the young roofer says. "I want to start looking at trailers." Wise woman.

 

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The rain started at 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon and didn't let up until country star Blake Shelton took the stage. "It's a challenge but the show goes on," Irwin says. "We still had 500 diehards out there this afternoon for the singer/songwriters. They're here no matter what." Irwin figures it's the worst weather the festival has seen since 1993, when flash floods wiped out roads.

While there are certainly festival-goers such as Fidler who stick to the campsite, they seem to be in the minority. The amphitheatre was packed Saturday night, fans dancing, singing and screaming in the rain.

Shelton's set was a festival highlight, the talk of the beer lines. Dallas Smith, formerly the lead singer of Default, was a surprise Saturday night; country sounds good on him. And he does a pretty decent cover of Lorde's Royals. The vibe was similar Friday night, when Blackjack Billy, Lee Brice and the Band Perry had revellers out dancing in the rain. Juno winner Brett Kissel packed out one of the hilltop stages after the mainstage had wrapped up and the rain turned to mist.

This writer's Countryfest discovery was the Boom Chucka Boys, a blazing country-rock act out of Red Deer, Alta. This was a homecoming for lead guitarist Joel Rathjen; in 1977, he was named the second-cutest baby in Dauphin.

Irwin credits the quality of the musical programming with the festival's longevity. "We've worked hard to create a relationship in terms of customer service and people appreciate that -- but how many bodies does that really bring in? But then you add Blake Shelton. We try to bring in in-demand country acts."

 

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By Sunday morning, the campground looked like a flooded apocalyptic wasteland -- complete with zombies -- littered with beer cans, abandoned flip-flops and dilapidated tents. People surveyed their deluged sites and traded stories about the night before. A trio of rowdies floated on a pool raft, toasting the ever-persistent rain with Jack Daniel's. If the show must go on, so must the party.

 

-- -- --

Nicole Dorge, 56, and her family accidentally found themselves in the notorious Back 40, which she chalks up to lack of experience. "It's entertaining, though," she says, raising a brow. She and the family were hanging out Saturday afternoon, taking shelter from the rain under her trailer's awning.

"I'm surprised at how many kids are here. I had no idea."

The Lorette resident said the kids are mostly well-behaved. "They come and introduce themselves. They say, 'Hi neighbour.' " They don't exactly offer reprieve from the party. "You maybe get a break between 6 and 8 a.m." Still, she's not bothered by it.

"They're having a good time," she says. "We were all kids once."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2014 D1

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