Every year, for four days at the end of June, Dauphin, Manitoba becomes a disgusting mess of mud, blood, beer, and world-class country music. Branded as a family friendly affair, there is an unseemly underbelly that pushes up against the wholesome finely starched pearl-snaps of "Canada's longest running country music festival." However, the duality of a God-fearing, family friendly image and a hard-scrabble, raucous reality are as ingrained in country music as the high and lonesome singing of Hank Williams himself.
Located 200 miles to the northwest of Winnipeg—Canada's reigning Murder Capital—Dauphin Countryfest annually brings in big name headliners like Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, and Reba. The festival attracts 14,000 paying customers, along with thousands of artists, crewmembers, volunteers, merchants, media types, and other hangers-on. The overwhelming majority of whom are white, drunk, and sunburnt as hell.
The festival grounds are nestled just north of the pristine wilds of Riding Mountain National Park. The grounds boast an impressive hillside amphitheatre, along with two side stages, multiple food, trinket, and booze vendors, and an expansive campground that houses everything from pup tents to massive 34-foot RV monstrosities.
"We've got two bunches of people coming here, the tent kids, and the big campers," Eric Irwin, president of Countryfest and mayor of Dauphin, explained to me over a beer on the first day. "So fitting them all in is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, but we've got people working on that in the campground."
That jigsaw puzzle includes plenty of portable shitters, pay showers, and over a dozen confused or outright racist campers flying Confederate flags. Some of these were flown alongside the Canadian standard, while others were flying loud and proud, lone wolf style.
"I'm from south of the Mason-Dixon line and I wouldn't pull that shit," said Sean Multan, harp player for a few bands over the weekend and my drinking companion Sunday night, when the subject was raised. "What the fuck are those people thinking?"
The campground itself is divided in two, with quiet camping for the old folks up at the top of the hill, and the muddy, rowdier camping (where all the Confederate flags were sighted) below on low lying ground that smells strongly of manure. It is at the far reaches of lower camping that you find the "Back 40," where a heavily intoxicated and horny mass of 16 to 24 year olds completely lose their shit from Thursday through Monday morning.
"This is my fourth year coming," Kylie Parker, 22, told me, while standing knee deep in a nearby muddy creek where hundreds of people were drinking, recklessly throwing their empty cans and naked bodies into the rushing water. Parker was camping in the Back 40. "It's all about the music, but the party too, man."
"How would you tell someone who's never been to Countryfest to prepare?" I asked him.
"For the worst," he replied, laughing into his Solo cup of "Rocket Fuel"—a potent but not unpleasant mixture of Budweiser, Bacardi, and Sour Puss.
The Back 40 is the wildest scene on the festival grounds, where people are partying incredibly hard on a constant basis. One patron, Ryan Krause, broke his ankle Thursday, but refused to leave the party, somehow locating a wheelchair for $40 nearby. By Saturday night, however, he was taken away by ambulance as the condition of his leg had deteriorated rapidly. His bros were seriously bummed.
One particularly wild campsite, known as the Honey Badger, loudly proclaimed to passersby and a local film crew that they were the undisputed "wildest partiers" at Countryfest.
"We don't give a fuck," one guy proclaimed after chugging his booze and hurling his empty mason at the side of the Honey Badger itself—a fifth-wheel camper. By Monday morning, the Honey Badger had been completely demolished, flipped on its roof, stomped to bits, and abandoned beneath a mountain of beer cans.
With thousands of impaired guests running wild, it comes as no surprise that onsite security and the RCMP ran ragged over the course of the weekend. Despite the dozens of charges laid at Countryfest—everything from drunk driving to possession of narcotics to assault—Irwin and the Countryfest organization are quick to downplay any negative reports to the public.
"Some of our stats get a little exaggerated because police reports seem to suggest that anything that happens on one of Manitoba's major highways that runs by the site is somehow related to Countryfest," Irwin said in an official Countryfest release following the festival, under the subtitle "Uneventful Event."
You can't blame the Countryfest folks, though.
In the past, the festival has been mired by routine violence, death, and widespread but unconfirmed rumors of sexual assault. When one of Thursday's female performers who was having trouble locating her campsite late in the evening told an unhelpful member of the security staff that she was "not surprised women are afraid of getting raped here," she found herself heavily reprimanded by event organizers the next day.
"That does not happen here," she and her bandmates were stringently assured.
The festival is run primarily by volunteers—with only three full-time staff operating behind the scenes each year. Proceeds from the festival and attendant economic development bring millions into the community of 8,500. Local organizations like minor hockey, Air Cadets, and the school band depend on that money to maintain programming through the year. As such, a safe, wholesome image is crucial to Countryfest.
But country music itself is constantly struggling to bury its very real problems beneath the veneer of a rosy, family-values based aesthetic. From Hank Williams to George Jones, Steve Earle to Randy Travis, the mainstream country music establishment will ignore almost any problems on an artists' homefront, so long as it moves units or puts butts in the seats. Until it's too late.
And so country music continues to struggle with itself, caught between the wholesome, family-first ideal and the wild livin' honky reality. Somewhere between lies Dauphin Countryfest, a tawdry affair where the whitest, drunkest people in western Canada congregate annually to blow off a little steam, watch some country music, and attempt not to succumb to alcohol poisoning, violent misadventure, or death. It really is a great time… if you're into that sort of thing.
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