By Stephanie Brooks
Ontario is home to one of Canada’s largest outdoor music festivals – Ottawa’s annual Bluesfest – and this year, on its 20th anniversary, country music felt at home.
The 10-day-long outdoor music festival is held at Lebreton Flats, where fans of all kinds can sneak evening views of the light shining from Parliament Hill and feel refreshing, cool breezes blowing off the nearby Ottawa River.
For a festival that prides itself on being about more than just blues, it certainly delivered on that promise this year – with a diverse range of music and people who came out to enjoy it. Sure, it brought rhythm. It brought the blues. And it also brought country.
Lots of it.
Set in the nation’s capital, the talent that lights up the festival’s six main stages is world-class. Its past roster boasts acts like Sting, Bob Dylan, KISS, James Brown, The Dixie Chicks and Zac Brown Band.
But country continues to grow deeper roots in our province, and it’s evident by the Nashville-inspired lineup at this year’s Bluesfest. Dean Brody and Blake Shelton performed on opening night – the headliner’s first appearance in Ottawa. Darius Rucker played the following evening, spending his Fourth of July in Ontario. Sam Hunt, David Nail and CMAO Male Artist of the Year winner Tim Hicks opened for Lady Antebellum, closing out the festival’s first weekend. Finally, The Band Perry brought its energy to the stage the following week. It was the trio’s second time performing in the city.
Blake Shelton was seemingly the most popular among the country crowds during the festival, bringing in flocks of fans to see him perform newer and older hits, including Boys ‘Round Here and his first single, Austin. The Voice judge had the show’s contestant Gwen Sebastian on accompanying vocals and quipped one-liners throughout his set.
Ontario’s Tim Hicks gave a shout-out to country radio and festivals like Bluesfest across the province that provide artists an opportunity to pursue what they love and make a career out of it.
Country fans and artists alike came out to see these acts, hoisting their red solo cups up for big hits and waving their phones in the air during ballads. As The Band Perry’s lead singer Kimberly put it, “The most amazing thing we love about country music is it brings people together.”
It brought so many together – Bluesfest recorded a total of more than 300,000 attendees at last year’s festival – that artists seemed surprised by the number of country fans who filled the grounds for a “blues festival.”
“Where did all you rednecks come from?” joked Shelton. “There are a lot of free spirits up in Canada,” proclaimed Kimberly Perry. Lady A’s Hillary Scott also alluded to the genre’s success north of the border during their set, saying, “country music is alive and well here in Canada.”
Country music doesn’t just bring people together, but brings styles together, too. Bands brought with them Nashville’s ever-expanding musical influences, with The Band Perry playing Amazing Grace and Ke$ha’s Timber back-to-back during their set and Shelton doing a country cover of Michael Buble’s Home.
For an event that’s all about the music, these were fitting. While Bluesfest started out as mainly a celebration of blues, it has grown to be one of the continent’s most important music events… and ensuring a strong country music presence is a part of that.