July 8, 2020

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Country fans sing the blues

Loss of festival a blow to audience, community

The first notes of music would have been strummed at Dauphin’s Countryfest Thursday.

Alberta singer-songwriter Corb Lund was supposed to be the first night's headliner, with a new album, Agricultural Tragic, which came out June 26, in tow.

"I love that festival because they honour underground country," Lund says. "The main stage is mostly radio stuff, but they have the upstairs saloon where us weirdos play.

"One of the main things I gained from Dauphin is that’s where I met my buddy (Texas singer-songwriter) Hayes Carll. I met him at a late-night card game after the festival. And we went on to tour together and now we’re best friends. That’s one of the beneficial things that came out of Dauphin for me."

“I love that festival because they honour underground country,” Corb Lund says.

“I love that festival because they honour underground country,” Corb Lund says.

Like all the other 2020 Countryfest artists, Lund has been sidelined by the pandemic, as have the festival’s organizers, who now find themselves at loose ends on what was their busiest week of the year.

Rob Waloschuk, Countryfest’s general manager, would have already co-ordinated gate openings, helped set up audio at its three stages, arranged signage with sponsors and welcomed vendors and volunteers to the Selo Ukraina concert site south of the western Manitoba city.

"Now that I think about it, it’s kinda surreal. You forget about all the stuff you’d be doing... It feels so weird not to be there. You’re almost waiting for it start happening. Maybe it’s next week, I don’t know," he says with a chuckle.

For the first time in two decades, he’s not doing any on-site organization this week. Instead, he’s busy setting up the lineup for next year’s Countryfest, which is scheduled for July 1-4, 2021.

"It is different, very different. We haven’t stopped. We haven’t slowed down with what we’re planning and stuff, but it’s definitely a different mode, that’s for sure," he says.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>The Selo Ukrainia site in Dauphin offers a panoramic view from the top of the grandstand at the mainstage.</p></p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

The Selo Ukrainia site in Dauphin offers a panoramic view from the top of the grandstand at the mainstage.

"Right now it’s just pandemonium. Phone calls are coming in and bands are talking about their sets and their riders."

No Countryfest in 2020 means more than just a ruined weekend for thousands of music fans who descend upon the concert site and the city of 9,000 people just north of Riding Mountain National Park. The most recent economic impact study found the festival brings in $10 million to Dauphin and the region’s economy.

But the financial pain doesn’t stop there, Waloschuk says.

"In a year of blows, this is going to be a big blow," he says. "All the volunteer groups (who are from local community groups that receive money for their time contributions)... this is their income for the entire year, for all their functions and events — service groups like the Rotary clubs and the band clubs. This is the one weekend where they raise enough money for the entire year. And that’s all gone.

"We’ll really feel the effects after the weekend is over."

The most recent economic impact study found the festival brings in $10 million to Dauphin and the region’s economy.

BRUCE BUMSTEAD / BRANDON SUN FILES

The most recent economic impact study found the festival brings in $10 million to Dauphin and the region’s economy.

The coronavirus did quite a number on Dauphin in 2020. Besides Countryfest, Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival, an annual event at the same Selo Ukraina site and planned for the August long weekend, was postponed to 2021. Dauphin was to host the Manitoba Summer Games in mid-August; that too has been set aside to next summer, owing to COVID-19 and restrictions on public gatherings.

Instead, the busy summer at the garden capital of Manitoba will have to wait.

"I was really looking forward to seeing John Fogerty," Dauphin Mayor Allen Dowhan says of the 2020 Countryfest’s Sunday night headliner.

"We always expect about 10,000 visitors and a new village being set up," he says, describing life in and around Dauphin on Countryfest weekend. "We certainly get an influx of visitors in the early morning and afternoon when folks restock themselves."

Dowhan says Dauphin will expect a bit of a surge of visitors this summer as more Manitobans choose to vacation within the province, but it won’t compare to what it would have been.

“I was really looking forward to seeing John Fogerty,” Dauphin Mayor Allen Dowhan says of Countryfest’s Sunday night headliner.

AMY HARRIS / INVISION FILES

“I was really looking forward to seeing John Fogerty,” Dauphin Mayor Allen Dowhan says of Countryfest’s Sunday night headliner.

"They say the campgrounds (at Riding Mountain) are fully booked," he says. "All those who have a cottage at Clear Lake, we could expect a few more visitors on a rainy day."

Dauphin’s radio station, 730 CKDM, is letting listeners imagine what might have been. It will play music of Countryfest performers when they were supposed to hit the stage, in a program called Countryfest Lives On. Expect Dallas Smith chart-toppers such as Wastin’ Gas and Sky Stays This Blue Friday at 10 p.m., and Fogerty’s Center Field and Creedence Clearwater Revival hits Sunday at 9 p.m.

Waloschuk will even look back at past Countryfests in between phone calls for the 2021 edition, he says.

"Some of the real magic moments are not planned. Last year, for example, we had Clay Walker playing the main stage and Doc Walker playing the upper stage that night," he says of the Texas country star and the award-winning Portage la Prairie group.

"Well, Clay Walker stuck around and played with Doc Walker for an hour. Now that doesn’t always happen.

"Those are some of the things I’m going to miss this year."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.

Read full biography

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