It's 30-some degrees on a Friday afternoon and I'm slowly easing my way down a gravel road that cuts through an endless sea of white camper trailers. The place is teeming with young, loud festivalgoers who waste little time shedding themselves of nuisances like sobriety and clothing. Today's the first 'big day' here with a full slate of bands and already the condition of the general campground looks like the first 'big day' of a new landfill. A girl in the bed of a parked and very crowded half-ton truck hops down and runs up to my vehicle, squirting a water gun directly into my open window. It's definitely not water because she aims the next yellowish stream into her mouth. "Want some?" she aims the gun at my face. "No, thanks," as I try to veer away. "Fine," she says, and squirts me in the face anyways. Welcome to the Craven "Country Thunder" Jamboree.
If you're from the Prairies, like I am, chances are you have a perception of Craven Jamboree. That perception (more or less) is that it's 25,000 farmer bros emerging from their barns for their yearly social outing to consume their body weight in beer and processed meat to the soundtrack of a Toby Keith honky-tonk jam. You'll necessarily return from Craven with an STI or/and liver failure. This perception is untrue, but not for lack of trying.
The grubby reputation of Canada's longest-running country festival has been well-earned. It rarely receives media coverage that isn't negative, and stories in recent years of Confederate flags, a burned kitten, seagull killing, apocalyptic levels of garbage, as well as the oceans of alcohol consumed (a kid named Jordan told me he and four friends brought $1,500 worth of beer), are the sort of stuff that cling to Craven's image.
"Its reputation precedes itself," Gerry Krochak, Country Thunder's general manager tells me a few days before the festival. "Some people think it's just a big drunken mess, which it's not."
But this reputation likely explains the muted look of apprehension Krochak and nearly all of the Country Thunder staff flash when I show up explaining I'm here to get acquainted with the folks in the "big drunken mess" of general camping. I mean, the only reasonable approach to this firestorm of lunacy is to become one with the Craven kids and report back.
After your first few hours at Craven, slugging back Bud Lights with barely-dressed true and pseudo-cowboys alike, being told, no, demanded, that upon downing your can you must "bounce that sucker" off the nearest white-trailer wall and "she lands where she lands," you begin to understand why Craven has the reputation it does. Its infamy as a big, garish party has not been oversold. It's unapologetically a party. Almost as soon as I arrive I see a homemade roadside sign that reads "SLOW ADULT DRINKING AREA" and am unsure if this is driving instructions, irony, or a very compelling example of self-assessment. After three days there, and even being invited into said drinking area, I'm still not certain.
But this crowd is very eager to show VICE some real Craven grit. After a couple days, I'm presented with the following acts, as if some impromptu trailer park variety-show, which is all very unsolicited and performed by young men of vastly different levels of fine-motor development: handstand in a dirty kiddie pool, opening beer by smashing it on forehead, jumping off a trailer into a small garbage can, tackling a jumbo Jenga block tower, orally injecting beer through a very large syringe [which I'm told is used for paint and was rinsed out], crushing/wrestling a small tent, and posing for an intimate photo with "last night's condom, ha ha!"
Despite being very much an outsider, (I keep my shirt on and lack a cowboy hat and the ability to open beers with my skull) collar bones and livers will apparently be sacrificed in order to provide a proper introduction.
Granted, it isn't only a party. Countless families and country music lovers I speak with tell me they are there for an innocuous weekend of music, camping, and interrupted sweating, many of whom stayed in a designated family campground which was clean and quiet. "We're here for the music. And maybe to watch 'the Exhibits'," says Dan Petrowsky of Regina, who shared me his six dollar fries.
"It's crazy here but everyone is so friendly," adds his wife, Leanne. "The Exhibits" is what they refer to as partiers in general camping, and it sort of becomes clear over the weekend that they're just as much a spectacle as talent on stage.
General camping is not without its warts. Catcalling is very much in, as is sitting in a dirty kiddie pool and passing out wherever you damn well please. Proper waste disposal and accurate aim when using the porta-potties is not. Garbage is scattered in every direction, and as if some dick-swinging competition, many groups seem to take pride in accumulating a heaping pile of trash in their site, even to the point where I'm regularly asked to photograph festival goers pridefully with their waste. I can chuckle off most of the debauchery, it's hard not to get irked at actual pleasure taken in being grossly environmentally destructive.
Also in are Confederate flags. I saw three in total, which seems like a lot when you've never physically seen a Confederate flag before. I'm able to track down two of their owners, both of whom are young, friendly, and with little idea about what the flag actually represents—a symbol of slavery and oppression to many.
"It's just a conversation piece," says Jay from Edmonton, who in addition to flying a Confederate flag from his trailer is also flying a TRUMP flag and rocking a "Show Me Your Tits" T-shirt.
"They'll be like 'why the fuck do you have that flag up?' I say, 'easy, it's a joke.' And they usually calm right down." He's a bit nervy when we talk, like he's not sure if he's doing something wrong. I get him to clarify which flag we're talking about. "Nobody has said a word about the Confederate flag because there's so many of them out here […] It's only the Trump flag." I ask him why he flies the C-flag and what is represents.
"I actually don't have an answer for that. It's not a political meaning."
Confederate boy #2 has a frighteningly more kindred rational behind his Confederate flag: "We got it for Christmas from my parents, for Craven," Cody tells me. "It's about giving a dirty look and getting attention. We don't stand by anything like that." I ask him what it represents to him. "A symbol to get home. It could be a girl flashing her tits, it could be a guy eating a banana, it could be anything. It's a flag to get home." It's unclear if they're conscious of the values they're attaching themselves to—I get the impression they simply find it humorously inappropriate in a let's-poop-in-the-urinal kind of way. But it is clear that they know the flag is offensive and have no interest in finding out why or having any empathy.
VICE does have a job for me—talk to people about what they like about country music in 2017, hopefully revealing something about the conservative-minded culture the music seems to attract, or at least some good new tunes. I have most of my conversations Sunday when it's 34 degrees and everyone just sort of sits in the heat and seethes, waiting for their hangovers to start burning off. The answers, I find, are very consistent;
"It's about relaxing with a beer and having a good time," says Lindsay, from Kindersley.
"When you have a cold beer in your hand, the sun is shining, and Blake Shelton is singing. That's what it's about," Nicole of Estevan tells VICE.
"It's about nothin' but good times," Cory from Regina says.
A few more dozen of these and you get the picture—it's about good times. It also seems to be about sharing beer. And dirt roads. Girls. There's something more to it, although I'm not sure I could articulate any better why I like the music I like, particularly if I was asked to do so immediately after cannonballing off my trailer into garbage.
You get the impression that the music is rooted in experience of the familiar and the traditional, a type of culture which includes a puzzling degree of inclusion. It's the thing I find most admirable about these people—there's madness in every direction but there's a fantastic, universal sense that this is some sort of community, not some claustrophobic mash of drunken garbage freaks.
"No one actually likes country music!" Matty, 24, tells me with his painfully bad breath. He says he's only here for the "party" and the female companionship, and most of his buddies agree. They're ironically wearing cowboy boots/hats, inhabiting a "country culture" that which they openly claim to dislike.
He's wrong about the music, though. The festival is grounded in country music. The three headliners, Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, and Keith Urban, are about as big as they get in country music, and play to rapturous crowds. But the mass gatherings feel oddly like a sunburnt and sauced Tory rally—Toby Keith in particular, with his unabashedly conservative, and nearly jingoistic, bellowing between many of his songs. "All I care about is supporting the military!" he yells to great applause. He even brings a shirtless member of the Canadian troops on stage to kind of bounce around while Keith performs a few songs. On the surface, most country music has no overt political ideology, but there's ostensibly some sort of emotional connection between someone with conservative values and Toby's honky hit, "Red Solo Cup." It makes no logical sense, but it's there. After he finishes his last song, Keith ends his set by yelling into the mic: "Never apologize for loving your country! Fuck 'em!" which produced one of the loudest applauses of the weekend. It's a confused and confusing sentiment, but the crowd loves this piss-and-vinegar approach to patriotism, even if it's not directed to their own country. They seemed less-so cheering for him and moreso for how good it feels to embrace this sort of thinking.
During his set, Keith Urban, Craven's final headliner, spots an older woman holding some sort of "Keith Urban Bucket List" sign, has security hoist her over the barrier, and helps her up on stage for a moment of mutual human genuineness. That minute of vulnerability between Urban and the woman makes it impossible to imagine the sort of redneck brawls I anticipated before coming here. No matter how much you hate his music (I don't) or his hair highlights (I do) it's hard not be charmed by Urban, and by extension, by some parts of country music and country culture. Despite how depraved they are or confused their ideologies may be, there's love here in the cheap beer-flavoured air.