The Calgary Stampede may have come and gone, but fans of mainstream country music got to keep their cowboy boots out of the closet a little longer thanks to Country Thunder, the annual three-day music festival that kicked off on August 16, 2019, at Prairie Winds Park in Calgary. After stoically enduring one of the coldest evenings we’ve had this summer for the festival’s opening night (featuring the Calgary festival’s first-ever all-female lineup) folks were definitely ready to soak up the sun as they came through the gates on Saturday morning, staking out prime spots in front of the Main Stage or up on the hill overlooking the festival grounds.
The first act of the day was Greg Albright & The Not So Brites, a local Calgary band who secured their place on the Main Stage by winning this year’s Country 105 Rising Star contest. It’s never easy to start things off in the early afternoon when the crowd’s still slowly trickling in, but Albright proved he was ready for the big stage with an energetic set of originals and well-chosen cover tunes that showed off his husky baritone. Too bad for all the latecomers—you missed one of the best shows of the day!
Next up on the Main Stage was Vancouver country singer Shawn Austin, whose self-titled EP is currently getting lots of airplay on Canadian country radio. I’d never heard of him, but the dozens of young girls who began lining the stage as his time slot neared, cell phones waving frantically overhead, certainly had. Austin made full use of the runway that extended out from the centre of the stage, cruising up and down as he sang and occasionally kneeling to sign autographs mid-song without ever missing a beat. The sound was fairly typical pop country, but just as I had decided to head over to the other stage the band took a sharp detour with an unexpected cover of pop star Ed Sheeran’s new single, BLOW. It’s true that this single features country music giant Chris Stapleton, but make no mistake, this song’s not country—it’s a rock song—and I was forced to double back to listen as Austin gave by far his most powerful vocal performance of the entire set. I’m not sure what the young girls by the stage would say, but I think he might want to consider rocking out a lot more often.
On the other side of the hill sat the smaller Country 105 Stage, featuring all Canadian artists, many of them local up-and-comers that are just starting to make a name for themselves in the Alberta country music scene. Before one of his songs, Airdrie country singer Brandon Lorenzo cheerfully announced that he had just won a radio station’s “Star Search”-style talent competition in Didsbury, AB. He was all smiles as he played through his set, belting out the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic “Fishing in the Dark” as a small crowd line danced on a portable wooden dancefloor in front of the stage. The folksy charm of the Country 105 Stage was a nice change of pace from the giant screens and light shows of the Main Stage, providing much more of an opportunity for honest intimacy with the artists.
Meanwhile, over by the Mainstage, the crowds were getting thicker and the red Solo cups more abundant. This crowd was ready to party, and The Hunter Brothers were ready to bring it. These boys—five brothers from small-town Saskatchewan—were energetic and polished, with matching big white smiles, a whole bunch of guitars, and choreographed in-unison kicks and lunges for every chorus. They were having a rollicking good time and they wanted to make sure that everybody else was too. They sang about trucks and talked about hockey and got everyone singing along with them, setting the tone for the big stars who were due to hit the stage as the night wore on. The party was just getting started, and there was no slowing down now!
This is Country Thunder’s fourth year in Calgary, and every time they’ve succeeded in bringing in some of the biggest names in country music. That’s always going to be the main draw, but it would be a shame to overlook the excellent opportunity this festival provides to see local, Canadian talent. And who knows? In a few years, one of those little local acts on the side stage may just be headlining with the superstars.
By Kelci Leigh