'It's a homecoming': Organizer says Country Thunder ready for return to Craven after pandemic hiatus
Main stage performances begin Friday night
Kim Blevins rips around the dusty Country Thunder grounds on her golf cart, pausing often to answer her phone or a question on her CB radio.
The general manager for the long-running country festival in Saskatchewan's Craven Valley is excited to be home after a two-year hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival runs this week from Thursday to Sunday.
While it's now organized out of Nashville, Tenn., the festival's roots run back to Regina, as do those of the owner and much of the management team.
"It's a homecoming, right? … I mean, it's where it started," Blevins said. "It's hard to put into words how you feel when you walk out here."
Country Thunder cancelled its Canadian festivals in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic and the more stringent border and quarantine restrictions in Canada, but it was able to host five successful shows in the U.S. last year.
The management team is still keeping the pandemic in mind, though fans may not notice.
"There's still some restrictions backstage when it comes to meet and greets and how many people can be back there," Blevins said, adding that it all depends on the comfort level of the artists. "We're here to facilitate that for them, plus make sure that the fans have a good time as well."
All of that is assuming the artists arrive on time for their sets. Blevins admitted the mess around cancelled flights and wait times in Canadian airports right now has them nervous, but she insists everyone will make it, even if an artist has to fly within the U.S. to as close the Canadian border as possible and drive across.
"There are some concerns with people getting across the border," she said. "Some guys, if they've got the cash, they're going to do a private jet anyway.… It's just, you know, our heart palpitations for the next couple of days. But they'll get here."
Main stage performers include Lee Brice, Morgan Wallen, Hardy, Lindsay Ell, Meghan Patrick, The Washboard Union, Tanya Tucker and Blake Shelton.
Blevins says there is a chance Shelton's superstar wife, Gwen Stefani, may show up as well. Stefani was backstage with Shelton when he played the festival back in 2017.
"She likes to travel with them and she's been here before."
Band amped up to be back on stage
"There's this real vibrant energy out there when the artist hits the stage for both the audience and for the artist," said Aaron Grain.
Grain, Chris Duncombe and David Roberts are the trio that make up Vancouver-based country band The Washboard Union.
No stranger to Craven, The Washboard Union will return to Country Thunder and perform their gold song Country Thunder during a set on the main stage late Sunday afternoon before Shelton.
"Saskatchewan has always been such an important place for us," said Duncombe. "It was kind of one of the first provinces where the crowds got really big for us very early on in our career and Saskatchewan."
The JUNO and Canadian Country Music Award winning band released an album during the pandemic. Grain said it puts them in a unique position — playing songs live for the first time to an audience that already knows the words. He said that audience isn't something they're taking for granted.
"The very first show when we were back, it felt like being on stage for the first time. It had been so long," Grain said. "Except you're not playing to the bartender and his buddy. You're playing to many people who actually know the words. But the feeling is still the same. So it's this weird sort of dichotomy."
As a result, Roberts said they have to calm themselves down before a set.
"We have a little joke that you have to be careful that we don't leaf blower everybody when we get on the stage," he said with a laugh, adding that they don't want to blow people's faces off. "We've got to pace ourselves."
Vendors ready to serve hungry crowd
Also pacing himself is Max Morin, who is readying his churro food truck on Main Street so he and his team can feed hungry festival-goers this weekend.
The vendor has been working in the food and entertainment industry for more than 40 years and was once the owner of Maxwell's Amusements in Regina.
After running the popular amusement park for more than 20 years, Morin's family moved to Calgary. He said the park became too much to manage from a distance.
Now, he travels all over North America with different mobile food vending units.
Morin said the people keep him going.
"The smiles and faces — you know, happiness. It is great when they are pleased with the product you produce," he said.
Morin has been a mainstay at Country Thunder since the beginning in 1983, when it was known as Big Valley Jamboree.
He isn't willing to pick a favourite year or act.
"They're all good, a lot of fun because when we're working, you just catch parts of the shows," he said. "But the people here are great."