10th annual Country Fest brings in big names and big crowds

The crowd was huge Saturday night for Blackjack Billy, followed by The Road Hammers, pictured above. photos by Robin Burridge

LITTLE CURRENT—‘Big’ was the theme of the 10th annual Manitoulin Country Fest this past weekend. From big names, big crowds and big fireworks—it was a celebration worthy of the festival’s 10th anniversary.

The weekend kicked off early, last Wednesday night, with a fundraiser dinner and cruise aboard North Channel Cruise Line’s Le Grand Huron with an intimate concert from Juno award winner Brett Kissel. The event, sponsored by North Channel Cruise Line, Country 103 and Sudbury Hyundai, raised $5,100 for the Manitoulin Centennial Manor, with an additional $1,000 being donated by Brett Kissel himself. In addition, North Channel Cruise Line will be taking the Manor residents on a boat tour later this summer.

Thursday and Friday afternoon offered singer/songwriter showcases aboard Le Grand Huron, while Thursday’s main stage lineup included Madeline Merlo, Yoan and Brett Kissel.

A fan had a special experience, with Brett Kissel inviting her and her friends back stage.

Mr. Kissel learned of 17-year-old Cassandra Cristo of Green Bay, who in currently in the middle of chemotherapy for cancer and reached out to her to meet him back stage and dedicated a song to her during his performance.

Cassandra Cristo of Green Bay, who is battling cancer, was invited back stage by her favourite performer Brett Kissel, who also dedicated a song to the Island youth during his Thursday night show. photo provided
Cassandra Cristo of Green Bay, who is battling cancer, was invited back stage by her favourite performer Brett Kissel, who also dedicated a song to the Island youth during his Thursday night show.
photo provided

“My aunt was on the fundraiser cruise on Wednesday night and got a CD signed for Cassandra,” said Cassandra’s mom Sherry. “She told him about what Cassandra was going through and what a big fan she was and he said he wanted to meet her. His mom battled ovarian cancer.”

“He invited her and a few friends backstage before his Thursday night performance and they were able to ask him questions and take some pictures with him. He also gave her earrings that are from a company that donates a portion of their proceeds to a cancer charity. Cassandra is a huge fan and she was both nervous and excited. He also dedicated a song he wrote for his mom when she was undergoing chemotherapy to her, ‘I Didn’t Fall in Love With Your Hair.’

On Friday, Jessica Mitchell hit the stage, along with Tim Chaisson, Instant Rivalry, Jess Moskaluke and the world famous Grammy award winners the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band of ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ fame. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band noted on stage that not only did this year mark their 50th band anniversary, but Country Fest was their only Canadian appearance this year.

Saturday’s artists included Alessia Cohle, Danielle Marie, Small Town Pistols, Tristan Horncastle, Jason Benoit, Blackjack Billy and The Road Hammers.

“It’s my second time on Manitoulin,” said Danielle Marie. “I was here doing a radio tour last year and played a few songs at the Country Fest volunteer appreciation event. KT (Timmermans) invited me back this year to play the festival. It was really awesome—such a great crowd. When I got off-stage someone had to direct me over to the autograph area—I didn’t even realize the big lineup was for me.”

Danielle Marie belts it out during her performance. She commented after getting off stage how amazing the crowd was and how excited she was that she had been invited to be part of this year’s lineup.
Danielle Marie belts it out during her performance. She commented after getting off stage how amazing the crowd was and how excited she was that she had been invited to be part of this year’s lineup.

“Manitoulin feels like home,” added Danielle. “Last time I was here I visited Kagawong and the Bridal Veil Falls and it was beautiful.” Danielle and her band were planning on visiting Low Island Park in Little Current and going for a swim between their show and the other Saturday acts.

“Manitoulin and Country Fest is awesome,” commented Blackjack Billy bass player/singer Ian Munsick. “Manitoulin is beautiful and the weather has really cooperated. The crowd was awesome. We saw them sitting and weren’t sure what they were going to be like, but when we got out there they got out of their chairs and really brought the energy—it was great.”

Ken and Jennie Saarela of Worthington were this year’s winners of the CCMA Fan Experience. The pair won a car rental, gas money, $600 in spending money, a three-night stay at a hotel and tickets to all the CCMA 2016 events being held in London, Ontario.

“This is awesome,” said Mr. Saarela. “I can’t believe we won. I’ve never been to the CCMA’s before. We are very excited.”

Saturday night concluded with a big fireworks display.

Sunday’s lineup saw Islander Robbie Shawana followed by Sean Hogan take to the stage. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was among the crowd on Sunday as part of her Northern Ontario tour.

The Small Town Pistols brought country swagger to the stage for their Saturday night performance. photo by Michael Erskine
The Small Town Pistols brought country swagger to the stage for their Saturday night performance.
photo by Michael Erskine

“It was a really busy year,” said Kelly Timmermans, who organizes the festival with her husband Craig. “Camping was sold out and we haven’t got the final numbers for tickets, but there were a lot of people. It was a great weekend.”

“All accounts from attendees, the performers and volunteers were positive,” added Ms. Timmermans. “Everyone seemed to have a great weekend. 

The performers were amazing and the crowds were really excited. I always say we might not be huge in numbers, but our crowds are mighty in spirit—they are true country music fans.

Clayton Bellamy of The Road Hammers commented that artists don’t play long (they played past their slotted time) “unless they are having a great time.”

Ms. Timmermans wanted to give a big shout out to all the volunteers, “without whom Country Fest wouldn’t be possible.”

Tickets are on sale for the 2017 Manitoulin Country Fest with several acts booked including The Washboard Union, The Western Swing Authority, Michelle Wright and the Chris Buck Band. Camping and limited VIP are also on sale. Call 1-866-755-7425 for more information.