By Stephanie Brooks
At the second annual Boots and Hearts country music festival – the largest of its genre in Canada – held August 1-4 this year at Bowmanville’s Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, there was truly something for everyone.
The festival featured carnival rides, games, mechanical bull riding, a family area, three stages, dance tutorials, charity tents, camping, food, drinks, lounges, merchandise shopping, meet-and-greets, a sports zone, motocross show, contests, radio station tents… the list goes on. With so much on-the-go, it was tough to know which activity to partake in next, but it was clear there was one thing everyone came for and stayed for: the music.
With such a phenomenal lineup reminiscent of one reserved solely for Nashville, none of the other experiences came close to the music.
And Ontario was at the heart of it all.
With 20 of the 26 Canadian bands (including those in the Emerging Artist Showcase) – and the bulk of the almost 100,000 fans that poured in over the course of the weekend – hailing from Ontario, the province had fantastic representation that put it on a North American stage for country music excellence.
For many of these acts, it was an opportunity to play a hometown-area show on a much larger scale.
“Being from Toronto, Boots and Hearts is a huge deal because we are able to see friends and family and also play with acts like The Band Perry and Dean Brody,” says Autumn Hill’s Mike Robins. “It means a lot to play here.”
Fans watching Autumn Hill’s Friday show at the festival’s Front Porch Stage were able to hear some songs from their soon-to-be-released album, Favourite Mistake.
“Having a strong fan base in the region is so important,” he says. “Fans in Ontario have been phenomenal. Country fans in general, I’ve found, are so warm and so appreciative.”
Fans were certainly warm to Cambridge’s sibling duo, The Reklaws, who won the festival’s Emerging Artist Showcase and gained the opportunity to open for Dierks Bentley on Sunday’s portion of the show.
One of six acts from Ontario competing to win the highly coveted contest, The Reklaws also earned a follow-up single release by Big Machine Label Group, a video release and an opportunity to play on the main stage at next year’s Boots and Hearts.
“This is really the next big step for us,” says the duo’s Stuart Walker. “It’s crazy – just how unexpected it is. We’re so thankful,” adds older sister and lead vocalist, Jenna.
Other Ontario acts included Tim Hicks, Lindsay Broughton, Kira Isabella, The Stellas, Tebey and Jason Blaine – all who had fans on their feet, clapping and singing along.
“The performances were absolutely amazing,” says fan Karley Beach from Grimsby, Ontario. “There was a perfect amount of variety and entertainment the whole weekend!”
She says with most other events of its size and scope being in the States, it’s great to have Canada’s largest country music festival in Ontario as it’s close to home.
“It allows for local people to go to an amazing weekend full of huge country names without the huge amount of travel,” adds Beach.
Sticking to the festival’s tagline, Work hard; Play harder, the talent sure played. And so did the crowd, but to the pleasant surprise of many, not quite as hard as anticipated. Multiple people commented on the overall lack of rowdiness that is commonplace at most large outdoor festivals, but noted the good fun, great music, friends and laughter that was shared among fans of all ages.
Even in the rain, which came down hard for a good portion of the Friday event. While damp and cold, some made the best of the situation that Mother Nature dealt them by dancing in the puddles – err, mud – and others came prepared with their rubber boots and tents to watch the shows in the downpour.
“The rain was a slight glitch in an awesome weekend,” says Beach, who camped out for four nights with friends. “It didn’t really bother us at all! We were prepared and we just laughed it off and knew there was not much we could do about it, so we just continued to enjoy every part of it!”
Some festival-goers weren’t as jovial with the onset of the rainfall though, when they were refused entry to the grounds after the general campsite had flooding and the parking area was drenched. The music was also temporarily stopped for safety reasons.
Each of the performers that day commented on what a dedicated, tough crowd was there, many pointing to the resilient nature of Canadians.
One being Dean Brody, whose patriotism was front-and-centre in his performance that included the national anthem, a moving testament to the Canadian Forces and, of course, his hit song Canadian Girls.
Other headlining acts included Chad Brownlee, Dierks Bentley, Colt Ford, Joe Diffie, Jason Aldean, Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert and The Band Perry – the latter of which lit up the space with their high level of contagious energy, sheer enthusiasm for performing, and emphatic attitudes.
The sibling trio from Tennessee showcased a unique spark, which really drove home the meaning in their songs and got everyone in the audience fired up. Playing songs from their recent hit record Pioneer, older sister Kimberly and brothers Reid and Neil Perry brought a personality to The Band Perry’s live show that was a combination of country and rock n’ roll.
On the final evening of the event, country superstar Blake Shelton announced himself as a headlining act for next year’s festival – his first performance in Ontario since 2011.
He must have heard Ontario puts on a good show.