Country at the Creek: Young festival looks to grow

Perry
Perry Bergson
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Jeanette Wicinski-Dunn and a team of volunteers are staging Country At The Creek music festival on Friday and Saturday. The event is held at the Ness Creek site north of Big River.

Jeanette Wicinski-Dunn has been through this before.

This time she hopes it ends a little better.

Wicinski-Dunn, who is the event co-ordinator of the upcoming Country at the Creek festival, also served on the committee of the Timber Ridge Jamboree.

The festival folded after two years in the 1990s at the ski hill at Big River.

“I think we gave up too soon,” she says. “We went in the hole the first year and then we had to some fundraising. Then we went in the hole again in the second year and had to do more fundraising and that scared everybody.

“Everybody said ‘No, that’s it if we can’t make money after two years.’ Now, with 20 years under my belt, I understand this whole industry a little bit more.

“You don’t build the business in two years and you don’t start seeing profit in two years.”

Country On The Creek starts on Friday at 4 p.m. on the site of the 25-year-old Ness Creek Music Festival near Big River. The eight-year-old Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old-Tyme Music Festival is also out there.

The three festivals are hoping to raise enough money to build a four-season facility dubbed the Jack Milliken Centre on the site that would have a dance hall, an area for artists and a research centre that would focus on the boreal forest.

Last year, Country at the Creek drew about 625 people after pulling in about 350 music fans in its first year.

Wicinski-Dunn says the event remains weather dependent, but based on early-bird sales that she is hoping for 600-700 again this year.

“It’s very personal, it’s intimate,” she says of the event. “We try to get entertainers who will mingle in with the crowd and the people in the crowd really feel that.”

The concept of a country festival on the site came from a conversation among friends a few years back. Wicinski-Dunn thought that was a great idea.

She was told that Trick Ryder lead singer Kelly Bourdages of Moose Jaw would be an invaluable resource.

Their first phone call lasted 90 minutes.

“He kind of gave me some direction,” she says, adding he also accepted an invitation to MC and play the beer gardens. “Now he comes up every year. He’s such a great entertainer.”

He also comes up to help with other fundraisers during the year and backs the Star Search singers if they need it.

“He’s kind of been my rock through all this,” Wicinski-Dunn says.

The Ness Creek facility has a big stage, a kitchen, a canteen and accommodations for 50 people in cabins.

There is also a beer garden, lots of room for camping and an interpretive hiking trail where signs indicate what some of the plants are.

“It’s not just ‘OK, what do we do until the music starts,’” she says. “There’s lots to do and lots to look around at.”

It’s a big event for a small operation, she says, noting that she has a committee of six who look after the festival.

For now, the acts are mostly from the Prairies.

Grande Prairie’s Aaron Goodvin, who now works out of Nashville, headilnes on Friday evening. He wrote three songs that appeared on Luke Bryan’s last album.

Hey Romeo, the Saturday headliner, is an Edmonton band that has twice been named Canadian Country Music Association band of the year.

Like many festivals, a talent show for up and coming singers is part of the attraction. Country On The Creek’s has an unusual twist that speaks to its more intimate size.

The festival has an audition in April and 10 singers are chosen for the Star Search competition on Saturday afternoon. The singers then raise money, with the person who raises the most receiving the chance to open for the headliner.

They also spend time with the headlining act during the day.

The winner last year brought in $4,700, which is invaluable to the young event, Wicinski-Dunn says.

“That helps us to pay for some of our production costs,” she says. “And it gives them an opportunity to be out on stage and experience what that’s like.”

The payoff has also come in another way.

Wicinski-Dunn is excited that Star Search grad Stephanie Lloyd of Debden is one of the acts that will play a full set on the main stage this year.

“Now she’s back as an artist on stage,” Wicinski-Dunn says.

It’s a different world from the Craven Country Jamboree and Dauphin’s Countryfest, two of the biggest country music festivals in the country that are within driving distance of Prince Albert.

Craven hosts more than 23,000 people while Countryfest sells out its 14,000 spots months in advance.

“We would never get as big as Dauphin nor could we ever get as big as Craven because if we stay at this site, the maximum capacity at Ness Creek when they sell out is 4,000,” she says. “If we sold 4,000 tickets at $100 a ticket, there’s going to be profit definitely. We’re just saying now that we want to give a percentage of the profit to the Jack Milliken Centre because we believe in the site itself.”

For now she’s hoping that the festival will earn enough to reduce some of the fundraising and hunt for sponsorships.

It’s not an easy job.

“People say to me “Jeannette, why do you do this?’ “I put so much into it. I have a committee of six people,” she says, noting the Bluegrass Festival has been impressed by how much the small committee accomplishes. “When people know who I am, they know that I live, eat, breathe Country In The Creek. It’s my passion. It’s something that I believe in.

“Music has always been my thing.”

Wicinski-Dunn, who owns Mind Body And Spirit Salon/Spa in Big River, has found that the smaller feel of her festival has been one of its best selling points.

With attentive crowds and lots of TLC from the organizers, the young festival has built up an excellent reputation among artists.

“This year I didn’t have to contact any entertainers,” she says. “I had a waiting list.”

In fact Wicinski-Dunn had 45 entertainers looking to fill her 12 spots.

Now all she needs is some decent weather and a big crowd.

On Wednesday evening, the forecast for the weekend had a significant chance of rain both days.

You get the feeling it won’t get her down too much.

“It’s a tough go and you have to keep believing in it,” Wicinski-Dunn says.  “It’s scary when you say ‘Oh we had a deficit, we’re in the hole, we have do something to pay the bills. It does tend to scare people off but because I’ve experienced that already, I think we didn’t go with it long enough.

“Imagine now what Timber Ridge Jamboree could have been.”

Country at the Creek tickets are $100 for the weekend or one day passes are $50 for Friday and $70 for Saturday. You can purchase them on their website -- http://www.countryatthecreek.ca -- or at the gate.

Organizations: Jack Milliken Centre, Canadian Country Music Association, Craven Country Jamboree Prince Albert

Geographic location: Big River, Moose Jaw, Grande Prairie Nashville Edmonton Debden

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