Calgary country artist Bobby Wills is performing at this year's Country Thunder. JASON STANG / COURTESY
The arrival of Country Thunder to Calgary was seen as something of a no-brainer and a correction of sorts.
The idea being that of course the city needs a C& W music festival and oh, by the way, what took so long?
Sure, many people credit the Stampede with feeding part of the hunger for fans, but an entire, concentrated local event dedicated to the contemporary sounds of the music is long overdue because Calgary is, among other things, seen as a tried-and-true country town.
As such, it should also come as no surprise that for the very first local version of the event, which runs Friday through Sunday at Prairie Winds Park in the city’s northeast, there’s a whole lotta homegrown or southern Alberta-based content gracing its two stages, including Sydney Mae, TwoShine County, Lyndsay Butler, Trinity Bradshaw and Foxx Worthee.
And far from being token spot fillers to flesh out the three days, the talent with local ties are deserving of their spots on the inaugural Calgary Country Thunder. Just look at Mainstage performers Bobby Wills, Lindsay Ell and Tareya Green from the duo Autumn Hill — all products of the city’s scene and all enjoying incredible success in the nation’s country music industry
In fact, all three are nominees in the upcoming Canadian Country Music Association Awards, which will take place in London, Ont. on Sept. 11.
But first is a showcasing on the big stage in their hometown, something all three are noticeably excited about.
“It’s truly an honour to come back and play for Calgary fans and to be included in this festival — I’m really looking forward to it,” says Green, whose act Autumn Hill gets a spot of the Mainstage on Sunday afternoon.
Tareya Green, one half of Autumn Hill, will perform at Country Thunder. CALGARY HERALD
“To be honest, this is the one festival all summer that I’ve been looking forward to the most …
“I moved away about five years ago and to finally come back and play a show and just celebrate with family and friends and everyone in Calgary, it’s going to be a blast.”
So much so that she admits she’ll be showing up a few days early to hang out and catch up with those she left behind when she relocated out east to Toronto to make a go of it with musical partner Mike Robins.
After a pair of releases, they’re certainly doing that, making their mark on music in this country. Their latest album, 2015’s Anchor, earned them that aforementioned CCMA nod for Group or Duo of the Year and, more importantly, a nomination for Country Album of the Year at this past April’s Juno Awards, which also happened to be taking place in Green’s hometown.
“Oh, my goodness,” she says. “That was a dream come true … It’s as good as it gets in Canada and it was a really special moment for me — especially being in Calgary. That was the icing on the cake.”
No doubt it played a role in Autumn Hill being booked for Country Thunder, with the band taking the same stage on the same day as weekend closer Luke Bryan. It’s something they’re getting used to this festival season, rubbing elbows and matching talent with some of music’s bigger names, including big-time American country talent such as Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton.
But while it may be becoming old hat, it’s not something that the vocalist isn’t still blown away by.
“Always that, every single time,” she says. “You dream about it when you’re growing up and you’re in singing lessons and choir, and then to finally step back and take account of what’s really going on and the fact that you get to open for these incredible acts and you have these fans that are singing every song along with you, it feels like a dream.
“Sometimes I wonder if I am dreaming, I have to pinch myself.”
For Calgary-born, now Nashville-based Lindsay Ell it’s no less thrilling.
Her summer, as well, has been one that has seen the guitarist-songwriter travelling around North America and playing some of the continent’s biggest country gatherings.
“I feel like I fly on a plane for a living and just play guitar as a hobby,” Ell says with a laugh, before explaining that hitting each festival is like “going from one little party to the next.”
Calgary-born country artist Lindsay Ell is returning to town for Country Thunder. HANDOUT / CALGARY HERALD
Actually, her life this year, which she describes as having been “a whirlwind,” seems like one hell of a party that doesn’t seem as if it will end any time soon.
She, too, is enjoying incredible success thanks to some acclaimed appearances and the release of well-received and heavily played singles including Pickup Truck, Shut Me Up and By the Way. And, even as she’s in the midst of recording her debut for Stoney Creek Records, she’s also celebrating her own CCMA nomination — one that has special meaning for her.
“I remember watching the CCMAs when I was a little girl just praying for that moment where I could be a part of them,” the 27-year-old says.
“You know, just watching Shania (Twain) go up and accept the Female Artist of the Year countless times, and now to be a part of the awards show, let alone be nominated for Female Artist of the Year, and be nominated with a bunch of friends of mine, it’s going to be a really, really cool night.”
The same, she thinks, can be said for Saturday at Country Thunder, when she’ll kick things off on the Mainstage leading into Tim McGraw’s evening closing set.
“I am so excited,” Ell says. “Talk about an incredible lineup … I’m so happy that we’re a part of it.”
And while she wouldn’t say it herself, she’s certainly deserving of it and has shown that she can hold her own with, if not overshadow, music’s best, touring with such acts as The Band Perry, Keith Urban and Luke Bryan, and appearing at those little summer parties with similar company. Like Green, Ell isn’t quite ready to become blasé about being in such company — or ever for that matter.
“I’m definitely very grateful for it and I don’t think there will ever be a day where I am not grateful for it,” she says.
“Any time when we can be doing sound check and I look at that roster for the day and you see Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney or Luke Bryan playing later throughout the day it’s just a little bit surreal sometimes. It’s just like, ‘Wow, this is incredible and this is amazing and I am so grateful to be in the spot I am.’ ”
And, as a native Calgarian, she’s also happy to see something like Country Thunder come to her hometown finally.
“Good things come to those who wait,” she says. “So we will accept it gladly.”
Bobby Wills, who plays a little later on during Saturday’s Mainstage sets, echoes that sentiment.
“You know it is so cool. We’ve got the Stampede, we’re so blessed to always have great music in July here in Calgary …,” the locally based artist says. “But to have a full-on, three-day country music event is something that I think the city has needed.
“So getting a chance to be on the very first one is pretty darn cool for a Calgary kid.”
Again, it’s certainly not homerism and definitely deserved.
Wills, on the strength of his six-song EP Tougher Than Love, is heading to London next month with three CCMA nominations in his back pocket, including Single of the Year and Songwriter of the Year, for his track Won’t You Be Mine, as well as for Album of the Year.
“We were hoping for one, so to end up with three is pretty cool,” he says, noting Album of the Year is the one he’s most proud of and, frankly, surprised by.
That, itself, is surprising, considering that Wills showed he can compete on a national and international level, with singles Never Didn’t Love You and Crazy Enough, the title cut from his last full length, both charting in the States.
He thinks that speaks to the health and talent that’s currently being nurtured in this nation’s country music scene, and thinks that extends to the number of acts and artists you’re seeing on the lineups of festivals this summer.
“I think that the music in Canada right now is so strong,” he says.
“That’s why the nominations were so surprising, because you go down the list and it’s hit after hit and there are some real stars developing. We struggle on and off with that in Canada, so it’s certainly a nice place to be.
“I don’t know how much the dollar has impacted things, but I can tell you that the spots for Canadians (on festivals) have been really great this year. Not only for me, but for a lot of my contemporaries as well. Canadians are getting a lot of love this year.”
Wills hopes that continues this weekend, hopes that there might be a little extra love from the hometown fans for a hometown country artists at a Calgary country music festival that’s embracing lots of homegrown talent.
“I sure hope so,” he says. “I’m counting on them.”
Country Thunder takes place Friday through Sunday at Prairie Winds Park. For passes and tickets and the complete schedule go to countrythunder.com/festivals/country-thunder-alberta.