The city of Merritt British Columbia has been officially designated as Canada’s Country Music Capital. Yet it has taken a nine-year commitment by music star Kenny Hess to re-establish a key country music festival back into this scenic interior B.C locale at the confluence of the Nicola and Coldwater rivers.
Now titled Rockin River Music Fest, Hess is set to stage the fourth annual festival at this site after spending five years `in exile’ at the Mission B.C Raceway. A move that was forced on him after the original promoters of the Merritt Mountain Music festival finally pulled the plug in 2011 due to declining attendances.
Considering that the 2005 event attracted a staggering 148,000 country music fans, (37,000 for Tim McGraw’s performance) the festival’s rapid decline was surprising and puzzling but Hess, who had been a regular performer at this site saw it coming.
“I knew the Merritt Mountain Festival was going down, having played the main stage 18 times, I knew exactly what was going to happen and it didn’t surprise me when the event organizers pulled the plug,” explained Hess, an established recording artist/songwriter who still actively tours and records. “When I decided to revive the festival I said let’s leave Merritt for a couple of years, let’s let things settle down before we bring it back.”
Hess settled on a site at the Mission B.C Raceway and although he struggled successfully for five years to keep his festival alive, the venue was too small to turn a profit and Vancouver’s close proximity meant that any major country music event staged there could adversely affect his event’s attendance.
“It was like sitting at a blackjack table and always betting a dollar,” Hess joked of his spell in Mission. “The people in Mission supported the festival but it was evident that financially, the festival there wouldn’t work.”
Electing to move back to Merritt in 2015, the Outlook Saskatchewan native soon realized that there would be challenges re-establishing his major country music festival as a replacement for the previously established Mountain Music event.
“It’s been a huge challenge coming back from Mission,” Hess explained. “There was a lot of skeletons and when you jump into somebody else’s grave you’ve got to be prepared to bump into the odd bone – and we did! The hardest part was to establish Rockin River as a friendly, family event. We have tried to cover off the issues that plagued the original festival – we have tried to make sure those problems don’t take root again.”
It didn’t help Hess’s cause that in 2014, Vancouver’s Ray Sasseville tried to emulate the successful U.S Sturgis Bike Festival with a similar four-day biker festival (Sturgis North) in Merritt. Problem was no bikers showed up, few regulars showed up and the likes of Burton Cummings, Jefferson Starship, Nick Gilder, Coney Hatch and a reunited Alias ended up performing to an empty field.
“That festival did us no favours,” allowed Hess. “It’s not surprising that the local community questioned our credibility but I think going into our fourth year we are about to turn the corner,” Hess predicted. “We haven’t reaped the benefits of moving back from Mission yet but this year I think the attendance will be there. The numbers are already looking promising.”
Being a performer himself helps Hess to understand what fellow musicians are looking for in a festival and he is committed to maintaining his event’s credibility. “Even though I’ve suffered some major financial losses in the past, everyone has always gotten paid and every artist that has played here is always raving about the festival. Generating a positive experience is always important. You want musicians to spread positive comments about your event.”
With the likes of Eric Church set to headline this year’s event, Hess is aware that Canada’s country music festival landscape is healthy, that domestic talent like Dallas Smith, Brett Kissel and Meghan Patrick are enjoying great success which makes life easier for him to lure big names to his Rockin River festival.
The full four-day lineup from August 2nd to August 5th, announced Monday includes a complete talent fest of established international and domestic stars balanced by a contingent of local stars and up and coming artists along with the winner of the festival’s `Road To Rockin River’ competition.
August 2nd features Joe Nichols, Kenny Hess (yes, that guy!), Jaydee Bixby, Jess Allan Harris, and concludes with a midnight dj set by Merle Swagger’d.
Eric Church headlines August 3rd which also includes Luke Combs, Meghan Patrick, George Canyon, The Abrams, Britches And Boots, Brandon Dame and the Donnie Grubb Band.
Hot newcomers The James Barker Band appears August 4th along with Brett Elderidge, Midland, Chris Buck Band, Nice Horse, Karen Lee Batten and Rollin Trainwreck.
Concluding the festival August 5th is Dallas Smith, Chris Janson, Leaving Thomas, Blake Reid Band, Dustin Lynch, Danielle Marie and Jackson Hollow.
“We may have taken a beating in the past but when I took this festival on, I knew it would take me about nine or 10 years to get this event off the ground,” allowed Hess. “I made a commitment to be involved in the long haul and there is no reason to think that we can’t make this event work.”
For a complete lineup and ticket information please link to rockinriverfest.com.