Music festivals are a great way to enjoy the special gift that is the Canadian summer. Get outside and stay there ALL DAY!
Music festivals are no longer the domain of those who came of age in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Festivals have evolved. The range of music is broad and the talent and level of musicianship varies, which makes for a rich and engaging experience.
I attended the Trout Forest Music Festival last weekend. It’s held each summer in early August in Ear Falls in northwestern Ontario. This was only my third time going, so I am very much a newbie despite being in the same demographic as festival veterans, many of whom will count on one hand, invariably with misty eyes, the few years they missed.
The highlight of the 2023 Trout Forest festival for me was a young fella from Saskatchewan, Jake Vaadeland, and his group, the Sturgeon River Boys, all superb bluegrass musicians. Coming on stage on the last day, they redeemed what had been up to that point for me a middling event, interesting enough but lacking a certain Je ne sait quoi. (It didn’t hurt either that the sun finally came out and things started to dry out.)
Vaadeland is what you might call a “high concept” artist. He and his group play a very traditional style of finger picking with the kind of perfection that makes you think of Bill Munroe, his successor Marty Stewart, and other foundational players of the Grand Ole Opry. Vaadeland dresses the part too, sporting suit and string tie, hair slicked back, and with a sonorous voice that brings it all together and makes the act entirely convincing.
Vaadeland writes his own material and it’s classic country in style, but with often strikingly contemporary lyrics. His “Town of the Blues” talks about conformity that suppresses difference, isolating and alienating:
“’cause in this lonesome town, you don’t get around, ’cause we all do just what we’re told. Where they greet you with a frown, and judge you up and down. Welcome to the town of the blues.”
I call Vaadeland “high concept” not just because of the get up and retro/traditional musical styling. He’s very aware of who he is and what he’s doing. In fact, he wrote a song about it called Retro Man. One feels that he is trying to sort out what it means to be not just different but his particular kind of different, to belong to a particular genre and a different era.
At one point Vaadeland even did a radio-type commercial, the kind that was part and parcel of early broadcasts of country music. Introducing the spot ironically as “a message from some folks from whom I have yet to see a dime,” Vaadeland crooned the virtues of Diet Pepsi into a vintage looking stage mic. It was a wonderful piece of spoken word/appropriation/performance art.
There is a sincerity to Vaadeland that transcends parody. His friendly-funny stage patter rounds out the act but underlying the faux goofiness there seems to be a genuine desire to get back to the simple values and musical craft of another era.
They say country music is “three chords and the truth.” That seems to fit Vaadeland who is honest about who he is, the vintage cloth he’s somewhat inexplicably cut from, and his dream to be as good a person and player as he can be to the end of his days.
Vaadeland mentioned that the group would be heading down to Nashville this September, where, he said, We’ll be sure to let them know exactly what we think of them.” (He has song that is as critical a take on Nashville as you’re be likely to hear from any of the neo-traditionalists, as they were called in the 80s-90s). I’m not sure Nashville is where Vaadeland needs to be but we wish him all the best on his journey, with a prayer that he can stick to his vintage guns.
Vaadeland reminds me of the early days of another Canadian who was determined to carve her own path, K.D. Lang, who emerged in the 80s with blend of cowgirl boots and punk. Once her talent got recognized, Lang gravitated toward her idols of more traditional country, Patsy Cline in particular. It seems like she followed her heart down the path of traditional country but then got caught up in country’s search for broader pop-rock audiences. One can’t help wondering what pressures might have been put on her to make a more “commercially viable” product and whether Vaadeland will face the same pressures.
If Vaadeland is something of a unicorn, it’s not as if he’s alone, there’s a whole herd of them out there, a generation of traditionalists taking the stage now. An interesting assortment of them can be found here: https://theboot.com/neo-traditional-country-music-new-artists-to-hear/
I think this new generation deserves their own name because it isn’t just country’s 30-year descent into pop and stadium rock they are bucking. They are infusing country music’s bedrock with their own sense of contemporary values and concerns. I’m calling it “Nouveau Country.” You heard it here first.
An excellent primer on the origins and evolution of country decade by decade through the 20th C, check out Ken Burns’ 16 hour, 8 part documentary Country Music.
The highlight of the previous year’s 2022 Trout Forest festival for me was another ‘high concept’ act, the Winnipeg metal group Trampoline. Their inclusion spoke to the diversity that now characterizes music festivals. Gone are the days of acoustic folk or hippie rock. The group really stood out for their blend of intense, imaginative dystopian lyrics (referencing Doris Lessing), sterling guitar playing that evoked the brilliant eccentricity of Frank Zappa, and relentlessly pounding percussion and bass.