‘It’s a homecoming’: Promoter says Country Thunder ready to return to Craven after pandemic break

Kim Blevins speeds across Country Thunder’s dusty grounds in her golf cart, often pausing to answer her phone or answer a question on her CB radio.

The general manager of the long-running country festival in Saskatchewan’s Craven Valley is delighted to be back home after a two-year hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival takes place from Thursday to Sunday this week.

Although now organized out of Nashville, Tennessee, the festival’s roots trace back to Regina, as do the owner and much of the management team.

“It’s a homecoming, right? … I mean, that’s where it started,” Blevins said. “It’s hard to put into words how you feel walking out here.”

Country Thunder general manager Kim Blevins says the country music festival is excited to return to Saskatchewan after a hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. (GordWest/CBC)

Country Thunder canceled its 2020 and 2021 Canadian festivals due to the pandemic and tighter border and quarantine restrictions in Canada, but was able to stage five successful shows in the United States last year.

The management team is still keeping a close eye on the pandemic, although fans may not notice.

“There are still some restrictions backstage when it comes to meet and greet and how many people can be there,” Blevins said, adding that it all depends on the comfort level of the performers. “We’re here to make that easier for them and to make sure the fans have a good time too.”

All of this assumes that the artists show up to their sets on time. Blevins admitted the mess of canceled flights and waits at Canadian airports makes her nervous at the moment, but she insists everyone will make it, even if an artist has to fly within the US to get as close to Canada as possible being and crossing the border.

“There are some concerns when people come across the border,” she said. “Some people, if they have the money, they’re going to do a private jet anyway. … It’s just, you know, our palpitations for the next few days. But they will get here.”

Main Stage performers include Lee Brice, Morgan Wallen, Hardy, Lindsay Ell, Meghan Patrick, The Washboard Union, Tanya Tucker and Blake Shelton.

Recording artists Blake Shelton (left) and Gwen Stefani perform onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Kevin Winters/Getty Images)

Blevins says there’s a chance Shelton’s superstar wife, Gwen Stefani, will also show up. Stefani was backstage with Shelton when he played at the festival in 2017.

“She enjoys traveling with them and has been here before.”

The band was ready to get back on stage

“There’s this really vibrant energy out there when the artist takes the stage, for both the audience and the artist,” Aaron Grain said.

Grain, Chris Duncombe and David Roberts form the trio of Vancouver-based country band The Washboard Union.

The Washboard Union, no strangers to Craven, will return to Country Thunder and perform their golden song country thunder during a set on the main stage late Sunday afternoon in front of Shelton.

“Saskatchewan has always been such an important place for us,” said Duncombe. “It was one of the first provinces where crowds got really big very early in our careers and for Saskatchewan.”

Vancouver-based country band The Washboard Union are excited to return to the Craven Valley to take the main stage at Country Thunder ahead of Blake Shelton. (CBC)

The JUNO and Canadian Country Music Award-winning band released one album during the pandemic. Grain said it puts her in a unique position — to be able to perform songs live for the first time to an audience who already know the words. He said the audience isn’t something they take for granted.

“The very first show when we got back felt like being on stage for the first time. It’s been so long,” Grain said. “But you don’t play for the bartender and his buddy. You play for a lot of people who actually know the words. But the feeling is still the same. So it’s this weird kind of dichotomy.”

As a result, Roberts said they need to calm down before a set.

“We have a little joke about being careful not to spray everyone with leaves when we come on stage,” he said, laughing, adding that they didn’t want to blow people’s faces off. “We have to slow down.”

Vendors ready to serve hungry crowds

Also up to speed is Max Morin, who is preparing his churro food truck on Main Street so he and his team can feed hungry festival-goers this weekend.

The seller has been in the food and entertainment industry for more than 40 years and was once the owner of Maxwell’s Amusements in Regina.

Longtime food vendors manager Max Morin is excited to return to Country Thunder Saskatchewan this weekend in Craven. (GordWest/CBC)

After running the popular amusement park for more than 20 years, Morin’s family moved to Calgary. He said the park had become too much to manage remotely.

Now he travels all over North America with various mobile vending machines.

Morin said people keep him going.

“The smiles and the faces – you know, happiness. It’s great when they’re happy with the product you’re producing,” he said.

Main Street attractions at the Craven Big Valley Jamboree have changed over the years. In the early stages, there was a Ferris wheel between the stands of local vendors. (Submitted by Mike Dacey)

Morin has been a mainstay of Country Thunder since its early days in 1983 when it was known as the Big Valley Jamboree.

He’s not ready to pick a favorite year or actor.

“They’re all good, a lot of fun because when we work you only see parts of the shows,” he said. “But the people here are great.”

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