All photos by Stephen Simons
This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.
The largest music festival in Saskatchewan—Canada's geographically flattest province—is Craven Country Jamboree. The annual festival is held in the Qu'Appelle Valley, adjacent to the village of Craven, which has a population of 234 according to a 2011 census. During this year's four-day jamboree, starting on July 9, festival organizers said they hosted up to 25,000 attendees per day. The festival has two sides to its reputation: Many believe it is the pinnacle of country music experiences, with this year's lineup including Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton. But others decry the festival as an event where predominantly young white people gather to have wild orgies, consume mind-altering substances, and commit assault. Naturally, we went to the jamboree to see what Craven had to offer.
Preceding our arrival, controversy had swelled around some festival goers displaying Confederate flags. Sure enough, the Bars and Stars greeted us at a campsite near the entrance gates. In reaction to the June murders of nine people during a racially motivated shooting spree in Charleston, officials in South Carolina removed the flag from the State House grounds on July 10. There it was flying at a music festival in Canada the next day. Prior to the event, Craven spokesperson Kim Blevins issued statements to local media asking campers to not bring the flags. When asked for comment about participants' disregard of that request, Blevins said, "If that's how they want to be reflected, it's their choice… It's not illegal. We can't ask them to leave."
One camper with the tallest pole on site bearing the divisive symbol above of a tattered Canadian flag said it is about "Southern pride and being a country boy." Milestone resident Devin, who declined to publish his last name (as many Craven goers did), said, "As soon as we put it up, people over here," he gestured to a nearby site, "came over and called me an asshole, and I agreed with them." Devin clarified he doesn't really think he is an asshole though. He also declared he's not racist and brought up Darian Durant—quarterback of the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders. Devin stated, "Darian Durant could come and sit with us and have a fuckin' beer, and I'd happily give him one." Incidentally, Darian Durant was born in South Carolina.
We saw maybe five Confederate flags at Craven Country Jamboree, although we weren't taking an official count. Many people we spoke to dismissed the flag bearers as the oblivious minority. Hayley Schnell has attended Craven for six years and said people should have left the flags at home. She said, "Because of the recent situation, people should respect that and what [the organizers] asked us to do. It's not Craven's symbol."
RCMP Staff Sgt. Brad Lazicki, lead officer at Craven, told reporters a patrol tasered a 21-year-old man the day before we arrived. Lazicki said two officials observed a truck "aggressively" driving on the camp grounds, which led to an on-foot chase and officers zapping and arresting the suspect. That Friday, RCMP arrested 14 people. Offenses included an assault, three roadside suspensions for alcohol offences, and three separate drug charges for cocaine, marijuana, and magic mushrooms. When asked if crime numbers at the festival seem lower than previous years, Lazicki agreed. He said, "[At a] festival like this, I don't think anything is out of the ordinary." There were 63 arrests total this year and 96 last year. For comparison, Coachella 2015 had 226 arrests with about 100,000 tickets sold.
Security was higher than ever at Craven this year. RCMP vehicles and staff regularly patrolled. They stopped attendees to chat and updated them on an incoming thunderstorm that flooded the grounds at around 4 PM.
Last year, one sexual assault was reported at Craven with two reported in 2013. Reported, of course, being a keyword. Some girls we spoke with said they felt uncomfortable being alone at the festival. Kay, 16, said, "As long as you stay in groups of three or more and don't walk by yourself, you're safe."
CBC reporter Tory Gillis fought off an unwanted kiss during an on-camera standup at Craven this year. A man tried to kiss her as a camera rolled and she struggled to get away to continue doing her job. A screenshot of Gillis and the man spread on social media, prompting discussions about the threat posed by hordes of drunks.
Montana, 17, said, "I don't really feel totally safe. Not really. There are creepy dudes. They invite you to their trailers and give you alcohol." Her friend Emily, 16, stated, "I feel safe at Craven. I'm an independent woman." Both Montana and Emily then showed off bead necklaces they had earned by showing their breasts for a group of men. Shortly after, we encountered a campsite booth that read "Tits fer Fireball," the idea being women show their breasts for a shot of whiskey. A dozen men jeered at passing women to expose themselves. When asked if their catcalls crossed any moral lines, Matt, a mouthpiece for the booth, said, "Everybody is in good spirits about this… It's a thing that happens here."
"No one with any type of intelligence comes to Craven with a girlfriend," said attendee Shane while playing the drinking game beersbee, "I'm two for two in two nights."
There's a joke in Saskatchewan about Craven babies—babies conceived during the festival. And there are jokes about the accompanying flood of sexually transmitted infections. That one might have some truth to it, according to education coordinator Cecilia Rands with Planned Parenthood Regina. Rands said, "While we don't have hard numbers to prove that STI testing or other services see an increase after Craven, we know anecdotally that people might not be taking all the necessary precautions during a fun party weekend like Craven."
Last year, we conducted an unscientific online survey of 100 people regarding sexual activity at Craven Country Jamboree. Of the 40 respondents that said they attended, 15 hooked up, with two people saying they both hooked up and broke up with someone during the course of festival. 94 percent of respondents said they believe "it is probably easier to hook up with someone at Craven Country Jamboree." Wow. People have sex at music festivals.
There's a lot happening at Craven – there was even a bull riding competition in the morning. But for all that other stuff, Craven is basically Redneck Woodstock.
Canadian artist Brett Kissel, 25, said he was excited to perform on the same stage as Blake Shelton this year. He told us backstage, "I'm honored." Kissel's 55-minute set was delayed due to rain, but he sang in the sunshine with hits like "Canadian Kid" and "Tough People Do." Craven offers rush seating, which means there's an opportunity for people to get close to the stage. Security was also cycling fans down the aisles in certain areas to take photos near their favourite artists and of the corporate sponsors framing the stage. Kissel gave away a signed guitar during his set, making sure to clearly announce the brand name. With the headlining acts earning around $1 million each and over $3 million spent on the total talent budget, Craven has to pay the bills somehow.
Craig Morgan followed with one-hour set, opening with International Harvester and Little Bit of Life. By then, around 20,000 people were taking in Morgan's traditional country sound. During his rendition of "This Ole Boy," we saw a guy pass out face down in the mud—his friend assured us he was only "taking a nap"—while people two-stepped nearby. Security roused the napping fellow a short while later.
And then, like a country music miracle, Blake Shelton took the stage. That dude has star power. Almost everyone was standing when he kicked off his 95-minute performance with Neon Light. Shelton then said to the screaming crowd, "It's Saturday night—y'all start acting like it!" Obviously, he didn't witness the party in the general camping area. He talked about being a host on The Voice and sang "My Eyes" with former contestant Gwen Sebastian. By the time he got into "Honey Bee," the flags and insanity faded away long enough to remember Craven is about country music.
Devin Pacholik is a good ol' boy who writes in Canada - @DevinPatches